Ch. 10. If It Itches...

You know that story you mother tells that embarrasses you horribly, yet you can’t honestly remember doing it because you were too young? 

Miss Caudill tells a story like that about me. I swear I don’t remember it. I swear.

The play opened successfully, and everything went remarkably well. Lighting cues were on time, everyone remembered their lines, costume changes went without a hitch. As we performed we got a little better. I think we did three or four nights, and the crowds grew larger each night. 

One of the odd things about performing on stage is that it isn’t as nerve-wracking as you might think. When giving a speech in a boardroom, you can see everyone’s faces and get feedback on how well you are doing from their body language and attentiveness. The same thing is true for teachers–if you pay attention, you can tell how you’re doing. 

When performing on stage, for the largest groups of audience members, the opposite is true. The lights blind you to the darkness beyond as if you were performing in front of a darkened window or one-way mirror. They can see you, but you can’t see them. The only feedback you get is the occasional laugh or clapping or some other auditory feedback; and in a well behaved audience you might not even get that. 

Isolated on stage it becomes more and more like the world you are attempting to portray. Under these conditions I could do more than imagine that I was Grumio...I could be Grumio, really attend to and respond to Petruchio’s words instead of simply saying my line when it was my turn. 

These were all things our teacher taught us to think about explicitly. We talked about thinking. We thought about thinking while acting. I believe she wanted us not to just act with our bodies and voices, but with our brains. She said to us once, “One of the hallmarks of great acting is what you are doing when the audience is not supposed to be paying attention to you. Are you listening to the main character speak, or is your mind wandering because you know what she’s going to say? If you’re not focused, in character, every second on the stage, the audience will know it, and they’ll stop paying attention to the story in order to see you slip in and out of character.” 

After I had been a student of hers for a while, she told me what my internal theory of acting was. I wasn’t really conscious of it, but when she told me, it made a lot of sense. “You approach acting scientifically, Jeffery Mason,” she said. “You put on a role like layers of clothes. First a voice, then a walk, then mannerisms, then your face, then costuming, then, near the end, you tie it all up and actually become the character. Very methodical.”

“There’s only so much new information I can...program my brain with at once,” I said. “I need to master each thing before moving on.”

“If it works, it works,” she said. “Every actor is different. You’re going to be a great character actor. Not like John Wayne or Charlton Heston who always just acts like themselves in every movie.”

I had never really thought of myself pursuing acting professionally. I wondered if I could handle the competition in a city big enough to make a living doing it. The competition must be fierce.

Miss Caudill went to college in a small town called Berea, Kentucky. At Berea College, you could only be admitted if your parents didn’t make too much money. Once admitted, you were not charged tuition, just books and living expenses, which you could partially defer by working part time for the college. One of her professors there, a gentleman who eventually became one of my teachers, was a professor named Paul Power, who taught her – and later me– to act with our butts. 

“When you’re sitting there on the stage with your back to the audience,” he’d say in his mild New England accent, “even yoah butt is acting. Even yoah butt. You sit there and tell us what you’re thinking with yoah ahss.”

At the time when I heard him say it, everyone else laughed, but I knew he was serious, because I’d heard it before. This is one way teachers sort of gain a bit of immortality, I think... they pass on these little gems of wisdom that have a way of propagating themselves. 

Then there are things they’d rather not remember. 

I’m sure Miss Caudill has had second thoughts about the time she decided I had ham hands when portraying Grumio, then gave me a large wooden spoon to use as a prop. At first, it was hanging there like my hammy hands, but soon I brandished it like a sword when Petruchio says that Grumio must defend Kate. I tapped Curtis on the head with it to get her attention. I twirled it around my ear, as if to say, “He’s crazy,” as Petruchio attempted to befuddle Kate with contradictions and confrontation. 

“That’s some good business you’re developing,” Miss Caudill said. “Keep it up.”

During the second or third performance there was one scene where we were supposed to be lying on the floor, exhausted from hauling all of Petruchio and Kate’s gear, while Petruchio berated Kate for not being obedient. “It is the moon if I say it is the moon!” bellowed Benny. 

I tried to imagine what Grumio would do in such a situation. Momentarily deprived of the glare of Petruchio’s attention, he would take a nap, I decided. I pulled my hat down over my eyes and waited for the command to get moving again. I must have let my mind wander a bit too much, because Benny snatched the hat from my face and began beating me with it, like the Skipper beating Gilligan. I reacted with shock at this unrehearsed piece of business, and noticed Benny grinning at me in full view of half of the audience. What was he doing...? Was he going out of character?

Ah. He wants that fraction of the audience to see that Petruchio is pretending to beat on Grumio for Kate’s eyes, who could see Petruchio’s back and not his face. 

Now that’s acting. 

Eventually, the spell was broken, the play ended, and we heard applause from offstage even with the exit doors closed (and they were doors–one led to the music room, and the other led to a storage closet with no other exit, which was a challenge for blocking scenes.)

For the first time, I remember hearing what felt like thunderous applause –although the tiny theatre at the community college could only hold a couple of hundred people. The performance was sold out, and when the cast came out to take their bows, we all got lots of positive reinforcement due to standing ovations.  

Miss Caudill got roses from someone, and I stood, heartbroken, as Benny and Lyn stood holding hands and taking bows long after decorum and character would have required it. 

After the performance, we were excused from the usual after-practice grilling over our performances and sent home. I started to ask Miss Caudill a question, but she merely looked at me with a twinkle in her eye, and waved me away without saying a word. The next day at school we were debriefed. The debriefing started during the last period of the day (when I was still officially in P.E.) and continued through the afternoon before our next performance. 

I was puzzled by the reaction of everyone when I walked into the room after school. Miss Caudill, perched on top of her desk with her legs crossed like a little kid, took one look at me and howled. Just howled with laughter. Everyone else started laughing too.  I looked down at myself. Were my pants unzipped?

Eyes streaming down her cheeks, she said to me, “Tell me, tell me, did you do that on puh, puh, purpose?” 

“Do what?” I asked in all honesty, which sent her back into a gale of laughter. 

“You upstaged me, you little turd,” said Benny. “Nobody upstages me.” 

“What do you mean upstage?” I asked. 

“You stole the scene from him, ripped it right out of his hands,” choked Miss Caudill. 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I repeated. 

“You scratched your ass right on stage, with that stupid wooden spoon, and everyone just lost it,” declared Benny. 

“I did not!” I indignantly declared. 

“Oh, yes you DID,” said Miss Caudill, “And it was absolutely the most brilliant, the most hilarious ASS-scratching I have ever seen in my entire life! What a HOOT!”

“I don’t remember doing that,” I protested, blushing hot enough to feel the heat in my face without looking in a mirror. 

“I don’t care,” she said. “It was during the sun and moon scene when you were all laying around the stage. “

“Yup, he did it all right,” confirmed my sister, who had been in the scene nearby during the...event. This, however, was the first I’d heard of it. If it was so shocking and funny, why hadn’t she said anything about it last night? “You little dweeb.” 

“CC,” said Lyn, “You told us once that if you were sufficiently well trained, no one could upstage us.” She looked pointedly at me, eyes wide, shaking her head. “I used to believe you.”

Of all people to be mortally embarrassed around, she had to be there. I started radiating into the near infrared. I blushed so much I think I started sweating from the sheer heat of it. 

Miss Caudill continued, “That was so completely what Grumio would do! Could you be any more in character? I don’t think so!”  This brought a surprised glance from Benny and from Lyn, but they said nothing and accepted the direction, as we all always did.  

“Let’s just discuss your timing, Hoss,” she continued. “There’s this one spot involving Biondello that drags a bit and could use a little excitement.” Benny and Lyn exchanged a glance, which I interpreted as Better him than us, and I sat down as Miss Caudill leafed through her copy of the script. 

“Yes, ma’am,” I managed to croak. 

 At that time, with those people in that play, we would have stripped naked for Miss Caudill and performed in the nude if she thought it was necessary.  And if we had been anywhere but Hazard, Kentucky, I wouldn’t have put it past her, given some of the things we eventually did in the name of good theatre. At least we never performed a simulated rape and childbirth like the dance troupe from Paducah–which was performed for the theatre competition. 

Miss Caudill was so enamored of this story she never hesitated to tell it to anyone who didn’t know me. Such as my future college professor, Paul Power. And my mother. The next time she has an occasion to talk about me in public it’ll probably be the first thing that comes out of her mouth.

I suppose it could be said that in high school I was an award-winning ass-scratcher.


© Jeff Adkins 2014