We’re all seated in the school gymnasium screaming for some reason. The teacher says this is called the Theatre of the Oppressed, and that’s why we are yelling and learning how to assert ourselves. We are stamping in place, and the guy next to me gets down on all fours and has to pretend to be my dog, while I pretend to walk him. Which is fun, I’ve never had a dog before. He looks up at me longingly and drools, gives me those big bashful eyes like dogs give, I guess, when they are trying to tell you something. Like they have to go to the bathroom. I don’t know, I’ve never had a pet before. This is all new to me.
I’d come to the evening acting class because the newspaper said it was free, not because I thought it would be run by a bunch of lunatics. Figures it would be run by a bunch of lunatics. Only lunatics give away anything for free. I wanted to practice my monologue from Nuts–which my other acting teacher says is too old for me–on a captive audience. Maybe we’ll have time after the break, Lauren says. After it’s my turn to play the dog. That’s what you think, I’m not playing a dog for anyone.
Lauren doesn’t like backtalk and now she’s addressing the rest of the class, giving me a complete blank. Must have offended her belief that acting is a higher calling, not just something that I can step into like a new pair of shoes and discard when I’m tired of it. Can’t tell her that I take it more seriously than that because she’s already made up her mind about me. To her I’m just this little know-it-all bitch, less than her somehow because I guess I’m pretty and she’s…don’t like to say these things cause I don’t think I’m all that, but some people are and some people aren’t and others would be practically invisible if they didn’t smear lipstick on their mouth. Which she does. Lipstick. Purple with shiny specks in it. Got a nick of it on her teeth when she was down on the ground showing us how to pretend to be a dog.
“The first lesson in acting. You have to submit yourselves. To something you might not be comfortable with. You’ve got to accept that you don’t know everything.” She talks slowly as if we’re all idiots or maybe she’s hard of hearing, and it takes a while for her to hear her own voice reverberating in her head. “Look,” she says, pointing to my dog, “that’s good acting. He’s so good he’s only short of peeing.”
Then she falls to the floor and rolls over and begins growling at my feet. Is this her weird way of putting me in my place? Am about to pat her on the head when my partner nudges me to follow cue. I guess she wants us all to drag our asses along the ground.
The rest of the group swallow her words as if they were divine. They are older, though, so I thought they’d be more immune to bullshit, but maybe they’re just desperate. It’s hard to watch them all crawling around on their knees as though this were some quick route to fame. De Niro––that’s my dog. She seemed surprised when I started calling him De Niro, but for me it’s a mark of respect. He’s so good lying on his back, indicating with his paws that I should rub his belly. My partner’s really into it, his tongue is out and he’s panting hard. I think it’s all he wants to be, and I look down at him: free or not free, it’s still humiliating.
When I tell Lauren that I can’t play dog (I pretend I’ve hurt my back), she says, “One day you’ll wish you had. You don’t know what you’re missing.”
How do I tell her that I already spend most of my time crawling around on the ground? The point of coming here was to find a way to crawl my way out of it, but you cannot tell this to people whose only experience of reality is through books and the plays they see. And sipping wine on the terrace during intermission talking about what it all meant.
Crawling on the floor with a fake dog collar around my neck is a form of middle class degradation that one day I hope my children will be ironic and fortunate enough to be able to endure, but is not my cup of tea.
Because I don’t want to play a dog, she says I can imagine I’m a chimpanzee behind bars, which is better by me. In fact, the zoo situation is preferable, at least they look after you. Funny cause when I was twelve and having “trouble adjusting”, I was sent to the principal. He told me there was a baby gorilla in a cage inside my belly and it was up to me to keep it under control. Now I move around my cage on all fours, imagining I’m a blue-butted baboon like I saw that last time my parents took me to the zoo, flashing everyone in the room. Get an eyeful of this purple haze.
“What are you doing?” Lauren asks me.
“I’m a baboon.”
“No, you are not. You’re a chimpanzee. This is not an improv class.” She walks off, and I hear her mutter something about respect and boundaries.
So I do as she says, trying to assume the pose of a chimpanzee, but in my mind I’m still thinking baboon.
This goes on for two hours, and it’s exhausting pretending to be an animal, not being able to talk, but only point and laugh and breathe with our mouths open. Our gym/rehearsal space smells of basketballs. By day it belongs to an elementary school, but in the evening it doubles as a community center offering afterschool care, classes in cooking, yoga and bizarre Brazilian acting techniques.
When the exercise is over, she asks us what we noticed when we were down there scrambling around the ground like our animal brethren. And several people shout things out, I think mainly because they’re happy to be able to talk again. They talk about getting in deep touch with their Feelings, Primal Emotions, and their Realization that we’re only animals after all. That kind of stuff. And I ask when we’ll get a chance to do our monologues, and Lauren, who has been trying to ignore me, finally can’t anymore. She says I can do mine if the rest of the class wants to hear it, which they say they do, and I can tell––despite her being such a good actress––she is really pissed.
I don’t know why I’m drawn to any scene that takes place in a courtroom, but Mrs. Drake didn’t want me to do it––and after I’d spent so long rehearsing in private, learning how to fall. There is a right way, and there is a wrong. Drake pounded that into my head. There is a right way and a wrong. To fall. Do it wrong and you’ll break something. I practiced for two weeks until I got it right.
And when I finally learned how to fall the right way, I was so proud and showed Drake, saying I wanted to perform it for the school talent show. But she said I couldn’t, that it just wasn’t a good idea, and I didn’t understand why she wasn’t allowing me. I knew my lines by heart. “Ellen,” she says gently, because she’s actually one of the nicer teachers, “don’t you understand, that character…she’s a prostitute.”
And I don’t know why I didn’t understand until then. I’d found the scene in a book of monologues that didn’t explain the whole story. I just liked the words––put me on the goddam stand, don’t whip me with your goddam rules. While you’re playing with your rules, the meter is running out on my goddamn life.
But now Lauren says I have five minutes, and I’m so happy that I’m finally getting a chance to play my part, but my voice is low so I’m kind of crap. I’m not sure, I just know I don’t do it as well as I thought I could. Can see their attention drifting, so instead of playing it as I usually do, dry-eyed, I decide to cry. Make a big production of it and they start paying attention again––
Can’t you get that I understand you want to help, and I don’t want your help? I know the price of your help. These words catch me right in the throat, they’re what start me crying: I know I’m supposed to be a good little girl for my mother and father. Like I wrote them myself, and it’s like I’m not even acting anymore, just a girl, alone onstage, talking: So don’t judge me…I knew what I was doing every goddam minute. And I am responsible…I go down on my knees, I’m responsible. If I play the part you want me to play, if I play sick for you, I won’t be responsible…I won’t play that part…I won’t be nuts for you.
I don’t even have to think about the fall, when the line comes my ankle slips and I give way. At the end everyone claps, but I’m not sure if it’s for me or because I’m the youngest one there, the only one in high school. Can they tell this? Can they see my age? Most men can’t tell, they say, they had no idea. I look twenty or twenty two, they say. Because I speak well, in complete sentences? Or is it the shadows already under my eyes?
For some reason the class ends with everyone falling asleep on the floor in a circle, like a yoga session. I wake up, and the guy who’s been my dog partner does too. Lauren’s not let us talk this whole time, and it’s weird to see him as a person again and not a dog. He’s kind of cute, I think, older, but not too much. And I like older because at least they aren’t so full of themselves, trying to put you down as a mode of flirtation cause it makes them feel like men.
I want so much to be a woman, I think. Now. If I could just do it now, get it out of the way while they’re all sleeping around us. The older actress next to me with long grey hair to her waist and Lauren, on my left, lying in a corpse pose. I get up quietly and, as though we had the same mind, he follows me to the hallway just behind the gymnasium. There’s a drinking fountain set into the wall which has kindergarten drawings on craft paper taped at eye-level. Crayon suns and cars and badly drawn children with hands like spiders and heads too big for their bodies.
He comes up behind and asks me what I’m thinking and I say that, “I think once I must have made drawings like that, but none of them survive.”
And he says I’m lucky, that his mother still keeps all that stuff and it’s embarrassing.
I tell him my family moved around a lot, which is what I always say even though it’s not exactly true. And he asks where my mother is, and I say that my mother is picking me up after class and I realize that he’s very close to me now and although I had not thought of him that way when I was walking him around the block and letting him pee on my pretend fire hydrant, now his face is handsomer than I saw before when it had just seemed cute. He has little curls, the kind I used to wish I had, but have since grown out of wanting. Dad would have called him girly. That’s okay, I like girly-looking. Makes a change from manly jerks pretending they don’t give a shit about anything. He has large eyes, watchful ones and they are roaming all over me. I turn away from him, back to the children’s drawings which all look so gross and adorable.
“Look at that one,” I say, pointing to what I think is the most imaginative one of all, of a giant blue monster swallowing a house.
“Wonder what his home life was like,” he says. “I liked your monologue.”
I’m not good at taking compliments. It all sounds like criticism.
“Oh,” I say, “I’ll get better.” Trying to get the attention off me, I point at another drawing more real than the others. “You see this one?” It’s of a family in a crayon station wagon who took a turn too fast and ploughed right into the back of an ice cream truck and died.
He says I’m the one with the imagination. “You see all that in that? All I see is two cars.”
“Well, it’s there…if you look closely.” Can’t remember anything else about that day, except us kids were in the back screaming and Mom turned around for just a second and…I go quiet and he takes my hand.
All the other classrooms have been locked, but one is left open, and we find a place on the floor of Room 103, beneath Mrs. Chandler’s blackboard. Must be third or fourth grade because the class is learning cursive. Letters are large and spaced out and so carefully drawn. A long time since I thought about that, how long it took to learn the alphabet. I’m hoping what he is going to teach me I can learn much quicker.
And he is kissing and touching me, and I am over him like before, but without a leash, and his tongue is back in his head and his eyes are opened, looking at me confused and moist like he wants to tell me something.
I think I know what he wants to tell me, his eyes studying me now. But it’s not what I think. He pushes me back off him and sees that I’m much younger than I told him and can’t do this, he says, even as he is kissing me. Even as I am pushing my breasts into his open palms and the pleasure of this touching, pink against white like petals and the waves of movement we are caught up in until it breaks and recedes like a flood.
And I tell him he doesn’t have to worry. That no one is coming to pick me up. That I have no mother and no father. That I will be walking home alone where I sleep in the basement of my school.
And he looks at me like he doesn’t believe me, but he does because if I was acting I would be crying and I’m not. It’s just a fact of life and I’m getting on with mine, alone. Stop your whining, my last foster mother said and so I did, walked right out of there.
That would be an interesting backstory if I was an actress who needed to find some reason to make me cry. But it never makes me cry. When I want that I don’t think of all the things I have, I think of the things I never had. That does it. The tears, they call that acting. Other people, it’s just their life. I remember the first time I thought––maybe this is something I could do. I hide my feelings all the time, that’s a given. I mean you’d want to be stupid to share them with everyone, but acting, up there, you’re trying so hard to remember the words that you forget, you know, just for a second to hide all those things you’re supposed to keep hidden. It comes out, when you’re searching for a word, your face betrays you. It’s like a trance state, I feel, when you’re doing it right. First time I came up to the front of class and all these things I kept to myself in a few minutes unravelled, and it had nothing to do with the role I was playing, I was being Cordelia, a queen, all these things I always wanted to be, but my words, my face, gave it away, that underneath I was this sham thing holding onto to my dignity, and at the end of my little soliloquy I thought I’d messed up, missed lines, but I hadn’t cause when I came out of it they were all clapping like for the first time I’d done something good. What in real life they turn away from, pretend not to notice, on stage earns you applause.
He doesn’t know what to say to this, and I see that thing in his face that is the worst thing to see in another person’s eyes, that look that they are feeling sorry for you. And I can see he can hardly fathom how I live, the idea of going through life without a mother, and what he says next he means I guess. Or I don’t know.
He says, one day I’ll be a great actress. The rest of them back there, they’re just faking it, but to me it means everything.
Cover image: Original artwork by Mia Funk