The drama department at my school likes to cast faculty and staff as adults in their productions from time to time. Two years ago, I was Lord Montague in Romeo and Juliet. I got to wear a cool costume and a sword. I had three or four lines. I got to know some great kids, and I had a great time.
This fall, the drama guys wanted to do The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s poke at the HUAC and hypocrisy in general. They asked another English teacher to play Reverend Hathorne and me to be Deputy Governor Danforth. It has been five years, I think, since I last taught the piece, so I agreed to play what I thought was a smallish part in a courtroom scene. That should have been the first hint that my memory was not what I wanted it to be.
Only the character of John Proctor has more lines than Danforth. Danforth has more than 200 lines, including seven longer speeches. Six weeks was not enough time to prepare, it turns out.
I approached memorization slowly and with no sense of urgency. I had been in plays in high school and had had no trouble learning my lines. I had floating loose in my head chunks of Macbeth and Hamlet and other things I had taught repeatedly over the years. I got Danforth’s longer speeches pretty quickly. I knew all of my cues pretty soon. Then there were the actual lines themselves.
Danforth speaks in non sequiturs, over the speeches of others, and whenever he feels like it. He has lines that look on the page like conversation but aren’t (unless one assumes he is talking aloud to himself). Proctor offers a deposition, and Danforth talks about seeing marvels in the court. Hale goes on about how bad things are in Salem, and Danforth asks if he has been preaching in Andover. Woof.
After enduring my stumbling through my lines–with my script in my hand–the director finally gave up on my memorizing and told me to make a book to use onstage. I printed lots of cues and keys words and pasted them into the book. I felt kind of silly, but the kids felt much more confident that I wouldn’t wreck the show. So, at final dress, I entered with my book, and things went pretty well. I had not practiced my blocking in the courtroom scene so it was bumpy, but the rest went just fine.
We did nine shows, including two matinees for nearby high schools, and I was doing very well with my lines and, therefore, my acting when we entered the second week. The kids, though, were incredible.
The girl who played Mary Warren is a freshman who has never acted before. She has what we euphemistically call “attendance issues” at school and, initially, had some trouble getting to rehearsals on time. The director considered removing her and even, quietly, assigned another girl to learn Mary Warren’s lines. One afternoon, Destinee was an hour late to rehearsal, but she had cleared it first, so no one was upset. She stepped into the scene and mechanically recited her lines. The director told her to actually give some feeling to the words. It was like she had flipped a switch in her head. Suddenly, I was seeing and hearing the agony and desperation of Mary Warren in Salem, not looking at a student from my school. Remarkable.
In Romeo and Juliet, a sophomore named Jay was a street fighter. At rehearsals, he seemed uncertain and nervous. During performances, he was okay but still seemed to lack confidence. He played John Proctor in Crucible and knocked it out of the park every show. His Proctor was strong, opinionated, certain, and confident. His scenes with Elizabeth were moving and powerful. I know that some students grow up and mature from tenth to twelfth grade, but Jay’s transformation onstage was a revelation. His performance was nothing short of incredible.
The student who played the irascible Giles Corey is battling Ewing’s sarcoma. His doctors reduced his chemo for the show, but he often felt weak and wobbly. His Corey, though, was pugnacious and funny and stubborn. He was also a street fighter in Romeo and Juliet and a general pest backstage during that show. I expect his cancer had something to do with his maturity, but his performance was fantastic, and he was lots of fun in rehearsals and backstage.
When I said “yes” to playing Danforth, I suspected I would see one or two encouraging things from the kids. That’s how teenagers are: you think they are self-centered stereotypes and then they turn around and show you something else entirely. Destinee and Jay and Dylan and the rest of the cast were great. Not everyone was a good actor, but again and again they showed sympathy and understanding and insight and a willingness to take risks. They helped each other with lines and blocking onstage and some personal things off. The agony of learning a few lines was worth it for all this.
Teaching is the greatest job in the world.