In the fall of my sophomore year of high school, I decided I wanted to be an actor. Why I suddenly got this idea, I don’t really remember. In my Scandinavian family of introverts, the goal in life was to keep your head down and not call attention to yourself.
Maybe, like a lot of teenagers, I just wanted to be noticed, to be somebody. Or rather, somebody else. Perhaps my reasons weren’t so complicated after all. Whatever the reason, the idea took hold and would not let go.
The first thing I needed to do: find some acting to do.
About that time, Kiss Me, Kate had been announced as the fall Theatre Group production. A musical! Not what I had in mind, but it seemed like now or never.
A few days later, on the last day of try outs, I hovered outside the doorway to the auditorium, where auditions were underway. Students were sitting in the first two rows, waiting their turn, as the person on the stage read with the director for about five minutes, followed by another student going up and reading. No singing as far I could tell. Maybe they wanted to see how you read first, then decide whether you could sing.
I didn’t wait around to find out. I took a small step inside and started down the aisle, then turned around. I could not do it. I didn’t know why. But at least I’d thought about it and I made it that far. “Next time,” I said to myself: “There’ll be other plays.”
I went to see the production, which was energetic and funny. The leads were all very good. The chorus, where I likely would have ended up had I tried out, was large. There was a lot of singing, of course, and some dancing, but the steps were not all that complicated. I could have done that. I could be up there. Damn. I wasn’t going to chicken out the next time.
The winter selection was Plaza Suite, the Neil Simon comedy. No singing, no dancing. Instead of on a stage, the auditions were held in a classroom, sitting around a table. Much less intimidating. This time I did not hesitate. The director, Mr. Frentz, asked me to read the part of the harried father in the third act whose daughter is supposed to be getting married downstairs in a ballroom of the famous hotel but who has locked herself in the bathroom.
I was good. Or at least I was good at reading the lines in a humorous way. But isn’t that what acting really is anyway? Everyone laughed. The girl reading the part of the equally harried wife had a hard time keeping a straight face. I was having the time of my life… acting!
Being a sophomore I knew I had no chance at a lead, but I did get cast as the bellhop in the first act. I wore an old band uniform (the closest thing hanging in the musty costume room to a bellhop outfit), carried empty suitcases, and had exactly 20 lines. I was on stage for less than 10 minutes and I made the most of it. I made new friends, I got invited to cast parties. It was a new world.
True actors, I decided, and certainly those who got bigger parts, worked at their craft, so not long after my triumph in Plaza Suite I enrolled in an acting workshop at the local community college. My assignment was Oscar Madison in a monologue from The Odd Couple, another Neil Simon play. An odd choice, I thought, but I went with it.
In my final performance, my mind went blank trying to remember my lines and throw things (clothes and shoes, from what I recall. I was supposed to be a slob, after all) at the same time. When I finished, I slunk back to my seat to polite applause from the class. The instructor, who I’d found intimidating, then explained why he’d assigned me the part of a messy, macho sportswriter, something that I had wondered about but I was too shy to ask.
“I could see you being somewhat effeminate in the parts you might play, so I wanted to challenge you,” he said matter-of-factly, as if it was nothing more than a minor adjustment I’d need to make. “You could play parts like Puck in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, that sort of thing. But that’d be it.”
“Effeminate.” I had heard that before, in all its variations, both nouns and adjectives. At the swimming pool: “hurry up, fem” as I stood on the diving board hesitating to jump. Or in gym class, missing the ball: “Good one, fem.” Or, “Why are you so femmy?” from one of my regular seventh grade tormentors when I was doing nothing other than putting my books in my locker.
Over time I’d perfected the art form of complete non-responsiveness when that word, in whatever form, came my way. Complete stillness, stare straight ahead, no eye contact. I was, in our more modern way of putting things, quite “chill” about it. Just let it float by, and soon it will be gone. Do not react. But of course that was on the outside, because I knew that I was different and others knew too, and I would have to wait for the knot in my stomach to unclench. The same knot that overcame me when the director gave me his career advice.
So apparently there was no room in the theater either for fems.
But I was not deterred. Among my many roles in high school and summer community theater –
attendee at Ascot in My Fair Lady, townsperson in Annie Get Your Gun, waiter in Hello, Dolly, tap dancing sailor in Anything Goes – crowd scenes, where we silently mouthed “watermelon” over and over to make it look like we were talking, were my specialty.
Years later, I happened to catch the 1935 film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Mickey Rooney as Puck the fairy on Turner Classic Movies. He was not, to my mind, terribly effeminate. He was Mickey Rooney.
What a plum part that would have been, I thought. I might have had a whole acting career just being myself.
Gary Eldon Peter is the author of two works of fiction: Oranges, a linked short story collection, and the young adult novel The Complicated Calculus (and Cows) of Carl Paulsen. His work has appeared in numerous literary journals and has been performed on the public radio program Selected Shorts. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and is a faculty member at the University of Minnesota.