I’ve spent so much time watching our children play sports that sitting down to watch the youngest do theatre took some acclimatizing. How many quarters are there? How long is halftime? How do you know who wins?
There is much in common between acting and athletics: coaching, practicing, running scripts, staking out positions. But in sports, you’re allowed to make mistakes. In theatre’s alchemy of precision and creativity, a single error can destroy the magic. When the curtain rises, the actors wear zero protective equipment and desperately hope they don’t fall on their faces. Acting is an extreme sport.
I think of watching my son shooting a three in one of his basketball games. This is his shot, and it amazes me that he can do it, but in the pressure of the game, when James lets one go, there’s reasonable probability that it’s not going in. Between the ball leaving his hands and landing (hopefully) in the basket, my whole body tenses, I stop breathing, as I will it to hit the mark, not just so his team scores but so my child doesn’t feel the crushing disappointment of failure.
Watching Abby in Anne of Green Gables last week was like watching one long three-point shot.
It was perfectly natural for Abby’s school director to consider her for the part of Anne: she’s 12, she has red hair, freckles and scads of personality. A natch. Outside of small parts in her Grade 6 play and last summer’s local production of Annie, though, her acting experience was limited. The role of Anne, that’s a lot of stage time, a ton of lines. It’s the lead. Anne carries the play.
Age, hair, freckles, personality? Check, check, check, check. Memorizing? Oh…
The humorist Calvin Trillin once wrote that people who publicly criticize their children should have their parenting licences revoked. I’m inclined to agree. At the same time, I don’t think parents should boast about their children or fool themselves that they’re flawless. In fact, I’m certain such attitude will only lead to said child being forever dependent on said parent and, more important, said parent’s bank account.
All that memorizing, then, was a concern. Memory is not Abby’s strength. I wasn’t convinced she could sink that three.
“Are you going over your lines? You should go over your lines? Have you run through your lines?” I asked over the last few months. “You’re supposed to have the whole thing memorized by now. Do you?”
“Yes, Dad,” Abby would say and roll her eyes. “Mostly.”
It was the “mostly” that had me worried.
There were times, even, when she complained about it, said she didn’t want to go to rehearsal. This led to speeches about “commitment” and “letting down the team,” which, it turns out, are essentially the same speeches you give for sports. In the final week, though, the cast stepped up with some intensive long rehearsals. The actors missed some fun activities at school because they were so full-on committed.
Their first performance was for the local elementary school kids. “How’d it go?” I asked Abby afterwards. “It was good,” she said but made it sound like “It was just okay.”
“What went wrong?”
“I don’t want to talk about it. I’m too tired.”
The next night was the public performance. The curtain opened; the ball left the actors’ hands. Abby came on in the second scene and I watched the remainder of the play (metaphorically) through my fingers. Holding my breath as the ball arced up, up, up. And to my surprise and wonder and delight, it was sailing beautifully through the air. Abby, the older actors, her fellow Grade 7 classmates, they were nailing it. The audience was laughing and applauding, I was breathing. Abby was more than just another freckled face. She was good. She knew her lines. She had presence. She was affecting and disarming. She was loveable. She was Anne. The ball was dropping beautifully. Nothing but net.
In the final scene, Anne recites a poem, a poem I knew Abby had been having trouble remembering. On this night, she stumbled. There was a moment of panic as the ball swirled around the edge of the rim, teetering, teetering, until Abby gathered herself, finished the poem, closed the scene and returned for the sincere, possibly surprised applause of the audience.
I’ve rarely been so proud to have underestimated my child.
More proud papa photos on Flickr.