Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Power of Theatre

If that there Blogger search function is correct, I've never told you all my Crucible story.

OK, yes, I did some plays in Junior High and High School.  But the only time, in my life, that I actually felt any sort of Spirit of Theatre happening to me was during a cold-read of The Crucible in my High School English class.  (Might have even been Junior High.  The memories, they play tricks.)

Anyway, you probably remember reading plays aloud in English class.  It takes several days, and each day everyone reads a different part aloud.  There is an art to cold reading -- and it doesn't really get taught in High School English classes -- so it doesn't always go well.  I mean, first, you've always got to look a line or two ahead, to make sure you're not missing your turn.  Then, you've got to actually read the line to yourself and figure out how you're going to say it.  But you should also be listening to the other kids reading the other parts in the scene -- particularly the ones who are giving you your cues.  Because you're responding to them (in character), and it's nice if you can actually sound like it when you read.

I was good at it.

There was only one other kid in class who was as good as I was, and he was the class Neo-Nazi.  (Doesn't everyone have a class Neo-Nazi?)  I always held out a sort of hope for him, seeing as he was, in fact, intelligent.  And I figure that, given time, smarts will eventually trump racism.  But, back in school, we had you might call an uneasy peace.  In that we completely ignored each other.

We were on the last day of The Crucible, and (having peeked ahead) I asked my teacher if I could read the part of John Proctor.  He's the guy at the center of play who is accused of witchcraft, and going to get executed for it if he doesn't confess.  He's in a bit of a moral quandry -- confess (falsely) and live, but damn his soul; or go to his death without a lie on his head.  My Aryan friend at the other end of the room was cast as the Judge who was trying to get Proctor to confess (because Proctor's confession would prove that all of the other accusations of witchcraft were correct).

So, here's me, at one side of the classroom, reading Proctor.  And there's him, at the other side, reading the Judge.  And I'm working hard.  I'm trying to scan ahead to see the next line while I'm still reading my own and for the first time in my life, this isn't easy because the dialogue is flowing out of both of us fast.  I felt like I wasn't reading the play anymore -- it actually seemed like the play itself was just coming out through me.

And I could have sworn, would have sworn, that my inquisitor was standing right over my shoulder.  I knew this was not true.  He was at the other side of the classroom; that's where his desk was.  But I heard him right there over my right shoulder and I felt his breath on my neck.  I almost looked up to make sure he hadn't somehow run across the classroom to actually stage the scene, but I knew that if I took my eyes off of that script, the spell would be broken, so I just kept on looking down and kept letting John Proctor's words roll out of me.  There was no more reading ahead for me (or him, I expect), just looking at the page and reading my lines, with the full force of the strength John Proctor finally finds and didn't know he had.

At the end of the play, I looked up, drained.  Class Neo-Nazi was over there, at his desk.  He'd never moved.  But I knew that, for one scene, the spirit of that play had us both.

Quite a few years later, I learned that the class Neo-Nazi had, in fact (as my teacher put it) "stopped goose-stepping across the front lawn."  Apparently, he'd had quite the break with his father when he started dating an African American woman.  Ha!

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