Friday, October 29, 2010

Halfway Home

The children of The Shakespeare Club ate their lunch on performance day in a record five minutes then hurried back to the auditorium and banged on the door.

Inside said auditorium, I was relishing what I'd hoped would be a half hour of dead quiet. I tried to pretend I was dead. I imagined a world where I could no longer hear or see. An existence of floating in peaceful darkness like an isolation tank—


Oh yeah, I hear you. I blinked open my eyes, took a deep breath and lumbered to the doors.

This was my own damn fault. I had no one to blame. I was the pusher, I got them hooked and now they were all half-crazed theater addicts in love with themselves and what they could do under hot lights in front of a full house.

After they'd gulped their lunches, they lurched across the quad and into the arms of fellow students. The Shakespeare Club actors were rock stars and they LIKED it.

The littlest audience members were the most entranced. The kindergarten kids and the first-graders have not yet developed the kind of cool that sets in at fourth grade, so they outright grabbed on to Macbeth's pant legs and threw themselves at the feet of Macduff. They stared up at Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff with the kind of adoration one might expect for Lady Gaga.

I creaked open the auditorium doors, giving up on any chance of more private time, and let them inside their new favorite place in the world. Their new home, where blood runs fast and heads can spin right off a torso: THE THEATRE.

"Hey, I kinda said 12:30 but I guess 12:15 is okay. But you have to sit quietly in the front row. Quietly, quietly," I said, as if I were holding on to a moving migraine.

I perched in front of them as they gathered in rows facing me.

"This is your time to pause and settle. This is also your time to go to the bathroom because, as you now know, actors don't leave the stage and ask the audience to wait while they take a little pee break."

"Ms. Ryane?"

"Yes, Mark?"

"Are we going to have more notes now?"

"No. Notes come after a performance. Remember we did the ones after the 10:30?"

"Yeah," he nodded, then added, "I hate the notes part."

"But after the notes you got this morning you'll have a better time for the 1:00 and maybe get better notes."

"Yeah." And then added, "But couldn't you give those to me now instead?"

"Nice try, Mark."

Rachel and Rob arrived after their lunch break. The lighting and sound crew reset their boards.

"Okay actors, close your eyes, hands on tummy and big, big breath. Hold it, hold it, hold it...and let it go. We're about to do your first real show. We're about to be halfway home. Big breath."

All my own damn fault, and yet as they sit compliant, ready and excited...I remember. I remember those days when I first stepped onstage, in lights, with big words, and held an audience rapt.

As drugs go, it is the least resistible.

When I wanted love was when I broke my collarbone. Well. I no people loved me but I wanted more. I was really sad.
Faith, 5th grade

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

O, October

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
Sonnet 73

It was ten years ago, in another October, that my dad and I took a driving trip through Virginia.

I was researching Civil War sites for a screenplay I was writing and Dad wanted to come along. We started in Manassas and drove our rental car along the highways and byways of a state in autumnal glory.

We overnighted in small motels or grand bed-and-breakfasts. We stood on hillsides and watched Civil War scenes reenacted by gung-ho hobbyists the likes I'd never encountered.

Dad and I argued about my driving skills and his politics. We ended our days with me drinking wine, him drinking Coke and the boys of summer winding down their season on a hotel television.

We hiked leaf-laden pathways and golden fields where long-lost bullet casings lay buried under fertile ground. I took a midnight walk, sat on a slope in a Manassas field and imagined I could hear the rebel yell as Northern bullets screeched overhead.

And I thought about how this was likely the last car trip, or trip of any kind, I'd be taking with my dad, a man who lived to travel.

O, October, a melancholy time of wood smoke and letting go. O, October, a time when I am filled to the brim with hope and new beginnings and terrified they may be as conjured up as the voices I heard on a Virginia bluff.

O, October, are you a beginning or an end? Or is your purpose to confuse and jumble?

This October is audition month for The Shakespeare Club. As I meet one-on-one with excited, wishing children, it is a time to set aside my angst and wear the wisdom of a Montgomery black willow in Virginia as she drops her leaves and prepares for renewal.

October is simply another time.

Monday, October 25, 2010

What We Show

In my acting training I did a little "mask work." I learned just enough for the basics and more than enough to know that, as a school of expression, it wasn't for me.

There are entire institutions dedicated to the ancient use of masks in the theatre. The mask usually portrays an iconic emotion and it's in the delicate and refined physical work of an actor that subtle nuance is expressed.

I'm afraid that my face, without a mask, delivers enough (perhaps too much) and I could likely use a mask now and again.

Here's what I've learned about children and the adult face. They read us with the acumen of an FBI profiler.

"Are you super-frustrated or what?" I've had a children ask as the hint of a scowl twisted across my face.

I've learned that on first seeing a kid, it is worth gold for me to radiate joy. Kids see delight and immediately believe it's about them and for them, and they register their own well-being as a result. It should be about them and for them. Why not?

The opposite holds true. I may be undone by something my car did, strolling in mid-frown, and look up to see a child's face — and they will think "What'd I do? Why's she mad at me?"

And that's not fair to them.

I've learned kids endow their parents and guardians with godlike abilities of superheroes. I've noticed kids copying the behaviors of those they lift their chins to view.

I watched a father playing with his three-year-old on a grassy field. For "fun" the dad stuck his foot out to trip the little fellow. The boy tumbled and whimpered, and Dad cuddled him. What's Dad going to say the day his son, for "fun," sticks a foot out to trip another?

Not fair.

Every time I step on the pavement of the school campus, I work overtime to check my mask. Dust it up, give it a polish and wear it fairly.

When I fail, I grab a bucket of reassurance and douse the area fast. Perilous, right?



I want a life that could help people and do something for that persone. And I would feel so happy I might cry cous I am so happy. And I would even give that persone food if that persone is a homeless or even a persone that kicked out of there hous. I would even give homeless monny and I would give lost kids food and will even help them find ther parents. And will even let the kids sleep in my house.
Lizzie, 4th grade

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Notes

Once the audience had left the auditorium after the 10:30 dress rehearsal, I gathered the cast and crew together for notes.

"So, listen up for notes. In the theatre, once the actors start to perform for an audience, the show is really turned over to the stage manager and he or she keeps it together. I will have notes for you and so will Ms. Rachel but we'll listen to anything Celia has to say to begin."

I turned to our ten-year-old stage manager. She held her official stage manager's binder on her lap and opened it to a series of carefully penciled thoughts.

Phoebe (Lady Macbeth).

"I think it was pretty good," she started in her soft voice, "but Phoebe [Celia's real-life sister and Lady Macbeth], you need to speak louder. And Chloe didn't kneel to King Macbeth. You need to kneel, Chloe. And good voice, Garth."

"Is that it, Celia?"

She nodded.

"Okay. I would agree with Celia that it was a pretty darn good first show before an audience. In fact, the best first performance we've ever had in Shakespeare Club. So, congratulations on that."

The cast high-fived, cheered and applauded themselves.

"I'm going to stop you there. You still have a ways to go, some more than others. Phoebe, it wasn't just that we couldn't hear you, it felt more like you weren't here at all. Know what I mean?"

Phoebe gave a nod.

"I think you got cold feet and tried to disappear. Did it feel like that?"

She smiled and nodded again.

"Okay, I'm here to tell you this, Phoebe: You are ready. You know this part, you know what to do and now it's time. Go for it."

Bigger smile.

Oliver (Lord Macbeth) and Phoebe (Lady Macbeth).

"Honestly guys, there was exactly one actor here who stepped forward, grabbed the light and bravely played his part."

This comment caused heads to turn and fingers to point as everyone tried to guess.

"Oliver, thank you for leading the way. You're going to have a great day because you'll only go up and up and have more fun with each performance. Do you all agree with me?"

They shouted "yes" because they love to shout. His buddies patted Oliver on the back and he shyly accepted the praise.

Henry shot his arm up.

"Yes, Henry?"

"I would like to make a comment."


"I would like to say, Oliver, you were awesome, man!"

"Okay, thank you for that. Now, you're all released for lunch and we'll meet back here at 12:30 to warm up before our one o'clock performance."

It was 11:45 and I was already pooped, with three more shows to go. I brushed my teeth, fixed my lipstick and sat alone quietly while Rachel went off to grab some lunch.

At 12:15 I went outside for some air and a tiny five-year-old ran toward me, stopped, tilted her chin and looked up.

"I know you!" she cried out.

"Did you see the play," I asked.


They love to shout.

"Did you like it?"


And that's another reason to do it again and again and again.

Because, like Macbeth says, "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow...."

I wanted love when I had a very bad school. I wanted love from my mom. My mom acted like she didn’t care about my needs. So I kept bugging her through out dinner. She got mad at me and told my brother to pin me down. I got so mad that I slaped my brother. I regret slaping my brother. It only made him madder. After, The Big Ordeal my arm hurt. After that I hugged my mom and went to bed.
—Oliver, 4th grade

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Hard News: Keeping It in Perspective

As the nationwide conversation on public education heats up, we're offered a break from the intensity from comedian Lewis Black.

Monday, October 18, 2010

An Interview: Henry

I recorded a series of interviews with actors from the 2010 Shakespeare Club. This is the first, with Henry.

mel: Why don't you tell us what grade you're in.

henry: I'm in fourth grade.

And what parts have you played in the Shakespeare Club?

I have played Malvolio in "Twelfth Night" and I have played King Duncan in "Macbeth."

Why did you think when you were in third grade that you even wanted to be in the club?

When I was in third grade...when I was in second grade and I saw the third-, fourth- and fifth-graders do the play it inspired me to do it myself.

Excellent. And what was your feeling about playing a part, say, like Malvolio?

My feeling was just great. I loved being funny. The yellow garter stockings really warmed my legs. [laughs]

What did you think about playing King Duncan?

Best time ever. I had good lines. I had one speech but it was a good one. And I loved my part, so that's about King Duncan.

And what would you say that you learned about yourself being in Shakespeare Club for two years?

I've learned that being in Shakespeare makes you feel great. It just makes you want to do more and more acting.

So like did you feel scared at first and then got confident, or what happened?

Yeah. Third grade I was so scared to put on the play. But now I'm like, "Hey, fine with me!"

What was your favorite thing about the performance day?

The whole performance day...oooh, that's a tough one. I'd have to say everything about that day. The play, my family coming, the presents I get.

Wow, what presents did you get?

Last year I got Mario Party 8 and a new sweater. This year, since I'm into this new thing called "Warriors" that I'm starting to read, I got two "Warriors" books.

What advice would you give to kids who think, "I'd like to be in Shakespeare Club but I'm not sure." What would you say to them?

Do it [big thumbs up] and you'll have the funnest time in your life. Serious.

Do you have any advice to make Shakespeare Club better?

Um. No, it's always perfect every year.

What did you like best about the story of Macbeth?

Um, well, I think the best part about Macbeth...the best part...was when Macbeth gives the speech...all the speeches are like beautiful speeches.

You mean the writing?


What do you think the audience should learn from seeing a play like "Macbeth"?

Don't be greedy. Don't be selfish. And if you're in England and your wife says to kill the King...don't do it, man, I'm serious! [big smile]


When Malcom's dad dies I wanted to find the person who did to my father. I want to be in the place where my father wanted me in. I wanted to take some one's head off but didn't want to die in Scotland. I wanted revenge when Macduff suspected me as the murderer. I wanted to help Macduff get revenge because Macbeth was evil.
Mark, 4th grade

Friday, October 15, 2010

Invited Dress

Garth as Banquo.

"Thank you all for being here this morning," I addressed half the school's population. "You are a special audience because you are our very first audience. In fact, this performance is called an 'invited dress rehearsal' because this is the first time The Shakespeare Club is going to perform 'Macbeth' with lights and sound, and you."

I sat on risers in front of the stage, holding a microphone and looking over the full house. The tiniest of kids sat close up. Their eyes were not on me. They scanned the "big kids" onstage and confirmed my theory that kids love to watch kids.

"Here's what I'm looking for today," I droned on. "The best audience. I'm wondering if that might be you. The actors are ready and now it's your turn to be ready. It's your job to watch, listen and follow the story of how Macbeth becomes King and his wife becomes Queen. A good audience doesn't talk during the play, or get up and walk around, or call out to the actors onstage. Do you think you can be the best?"


"Not sure I heard that. Do you really think you can be the best audience?"


"Excellent. Here we go. Every Shakespeare Club meeting starts with our mottos. The actors will do that first, then you should listen for the music and the play will start."

I looked up to the ashen-faced cast, raised my hands and they stood. I curled my fingers up and they spoke:

"We are The Shakespeare Club.
We help each other.
We share with each other.
We honor the works of William Shakespeare.
If I can do Shakespeare, I can do anything!"

I flattened my palms face down, they sat and I walked away to join the audience and take notes.

One of the narrator's microphones wasn't working because a certain narrator touched the button when she shouldn't have. Oh well. A certain Lady Macbeth lost all courage and appeared to have taken on the role of Banquo's ghost. Ah, it happens. A certain courtier refused to kneel to the king and would continue her protest for all four performances. A rebel through and through.

And the smallest to the tallest watched in awe. This is what kids can do.

Mary (Ross) & Dominick (Macduff).

The time in my life I wished for revenge is when Macbeth killed me in the play. I was so mad I would like to behead him and see the blude fall out.
—Garth, 4th grade

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Who's That?

The phone rang in our house recently and my husband, William, answered.


"Who's this?" a small demanding voice responded.

"Well, who's this?" he replied.

"It's Wendy!"

To hear William tell it, the child was full of authority.

"Who did you wish to speak with, Wendy?"

"Ms. Ryane!"

"She's not here right now. Would you like to leave a message with your phone number?"

Wendy did leave her number and I called it when I arrived home. There was no answer and no answering machine.

A few days later the phone rang and I answered.


"Hi, Ms. Ryane!" All chipper and sweet.

"Well, hello. Who's this?"

"Wendy," she answered in a meek shy fashion that had me picturing a dropped chin and big eyes.

"Hi, Wendy. How are you?"




"How was your summer, Wendy?"


"How's fourth grade working out?"


"Is your best friend Krystal still at the school or did she move?"

"She's still here."

"Is she still your best friend?"

"Yes. But she might move in November."



"Wendy, was there something you wanted to ask me or tell me?"


"What's that?"

"When's Shakespeare Club starting?" She asked this is in a big, bold voice.

"Well, auditions will be in October, so you have to do that, and then meetings start in January after winter break. How does that sound?"


"Anything else, Wendy?"


"Okay. See ya later, alligator."

"In a while, crocodile."


I'm in this for life.

I dropped in to the school the other day to organize some paperwork and a seven-year-old girl stopped me.

"I'm going to do Shakespeare Club, you know!" she cried. "I have to wait a year but I'm doing it, you know."

For life.


My name is Duncan. I live in a castle as big as the size of 3 football felds. My room is the size of 3 apartments. In the morning I eat bread, chees and drink ale. I have many friends.
Henry, 4th grade

Monday, October 11, 2010


"Okay girls, sit back, watch and learn."

In the front row sat the four girls who missed our technical rehearsals because they chose to take a boating trip with their fifth-grade class. Today, bright as buttons, hair shiny, brushed and decorated with sparkly barrettes and, in Darby's case, curled into ringlets, they looked like four nervous chorus girls.

It was not only time for them to quickly pick up on lighting and sound cues, but it was time for me to GET OVER IT.

We had our first audience arriving at 10:30 to see our Invited Dress Rehearsal. I had to get these kids up to snuff and I had to GET OVER IT.

"Celia, ready to call those first cues?"

"Yes, Ms. Ryane."

Onstage I walked through Bettina's cues, where she would place a crown on King Duncan's head while grand music rumbled through the auditorium. I walked super-slow, milking the moment into a royal extravaganza.

"See that, Bettina? That's how important the moment is. The audience will completely get the mood of 'Macbeth' by how you do this. Got it?"

Bettina nodded.

"Okay, up here. You do it."

She slid up the stairs, took her place, waited for the music cue and DID NOT GET IT.

"Okay, that wasn't exactly right. Let's try again. Faith and Darby, you can take your places at the microphones but don't touch them — they might fall. Once the music stops and King Duncan is crowned you'll start the narration. Got it?"

The twosome took their places.

"Amaya, you can come up as well and be ready to pick up your witch stick."

It's around now that I sum up: We've had a wet-pants disaster, an escalated learning curve for four actors, and Dominick ate Twizzlers, which should not have happened because of his sugar allergy.

It's around now that I figure: What the heck, let's take a chance and all lose our pants.


The double doors spring open and lines of tiny kindergarteners parade into the auditorium with big eyes. Following them, first-, second-, third- and fourth-graders. Following them, I'm told, will be the fifth-grade class....This is what I was told: We have to wait for the fifth graders and their teacher.

We did wait. All of us waited. Forty minutes later they arrived and I thought, GET OVER IT.

Your job is to stop them for doing what they are not supost to do. You are supost to help your friends. I had a best friend and she broke her leg and I went over two her house and had a sleep over and played. We played in the sprickler. I was fun with her as a best friend.
Natalie, 4th grade

Friday, October 8, 2010

A Wet Start

The Shakespeare Club T-shirts were on. A mom had brought water, apples and Twizzlers for a snack. Everyone took a few munches and then we stood in a circle to begin our warm-up.

"Hmmmmm," I started. "Bumblebee in the mouth, let it buzz all around in the nooks and crannies. Chase it with your tongue and hmmmmm."

They joined in buzzing and I noticed a few trying to signal me as they hummed. Heads tipping to the right. What? Hmmmmm. What?

I looked down, and to my left eight-year-old Krystal was doing her best to hum and catch that bumblebee, but her eyes and nose were dripping. I put my hand on her head, she looked up and the flood increased.

"Okay, Krystal," I whispered. "It's okay, we'll fix the problem in a second, just hang on. Hmmmmm."

We were about to attempt four performances of "Macbeth" in one day and right off the bat I had a weeping Murderer One/Witch. How did this happen so fast? What had I already missed?

Krystal's best friend, Wendy, frantically tried to get my attention.

"Her pants, Ms. Ryane...Krystal's pants!"

Oh boy. Krystal had apparently spilled her water bottle and her little blue jeans were soaked right at the spots where it looked like she had an even more humiliating accident.

"Mee mee mee mee...mah mah mah mah...." I caught Rachel's eye and raised my eyebrows, which meant Please take over while I figure this out.

In the school office, where geniuses reign, there is a box of random pieces of clothing for accidents such as these, but Krystal and her mom had chosen special blue jeans for "Macbeth." They were decorated with shiny beads. I knew that Krystal's tears were a combination of embarrassment and the thought of those pants being ruined for the day.

Sitting in the auditorium to help in any way she could was Lizzie's Aunt Sarah, a senior from the local high school.

"Sarah," I called her over. "Could you take Krystal to the office and find her a pair of temporary pants? And then do you think you could take these over to your grandma's house and stick them in the dryer?"

Done. On all counts. Done. Tears dried. Pants dried.

Hmmmmm. Everybody, hmmmmm.

My job is to take care of my friend. If my friend is nuty I would help her come down. If my friend is hurt I would help her.
Page, 3rd grade

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Recess: The Real Stuff

True confession time: I'm an awful theatre audience. After spending most of my adult life working on the boards I've developed a terrible intolerance for the stuff. It pains me to admit this, but I find most theatrical attempts glib.

My stomach clenches at cheap tricks, sloppy writing, out-front direction and acting that lacks specificity.

On the other hand, when smart risks are taken I'm the biggest fan. I can list the experiences that swept me away — and we're going back a few because there aren't many. Cherry Jones in "The Heiress," Annette Bening and Alfred Molina in "The Cherry Orchard," Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's "Caroline or Change" with Tonya Pinkins, and "Big River," directed by Jeff Calhoun with Deaf West.

Yeah. It's sad and it makes me sad, but there it is.

I still attend and look and hope.

A recent outing was a new musical, "Leap of Faith" at the Ahmanson Theatre. This show has its eyes on Broadway and, in fairness, I'm not going to review it here because I saw a preview performance. The show is still in the works and I absolutely appreciate the supreme challenges of mounting a new musical. There are so many components to get right and so many that can go wrong and the damn things can take forever to develop.

That said, I will disclose a most exciting moment on the night I attended.

Some say they love live theatre because it's so real and anything can happen. It's true that the unexpected can happen.

Raul Esparza is the headliner of "Leap of Faith," no two ways about it. I'd seen Mr. Esparza as Bobby in "Company" and perked up at his dazzling skill and charisma.

In "Leap of Faith" he had a number with a young boy on the porch of a farmhouse. The boy started to sing, Esparza had some dialogue then started to sing himself. It went back and forth for a few notes...and then Mr. Esparza said, "I think we better start again."

The audience thought this was scripted dialogue until he said, "No, really, let's go again from the top. Hey folks, this is a preview and these things happen."

He waited for the conductor to find his spot and asked us, "How're you liking the show so far?"

Huge applause. We were in the palm of his hand when he shattered the fourth wall into smithereens.

It was fantastic. Loved it. So cool. When they were ready the boy, a complete pro, plucked a note from the air, started the song and they finished the scene, radiating in the glow of audience love.

Yup, sometimes it's real and very worth it.

What it means to be a best friend means to back your friend when he's in trouble. Like if I were Mcbeth I would not have killed my best friend Banquo. I would have told him.
Oliver, 4th grade