My favorite school activity was always the Creative Writing assignment, except for when it came time for those awful “What I Did on My Vacation” entries. Other kids would write things like “Today I slept until two o’clock, played basketball and ate macaroni and cheese.” Or sometimes “We went to visit my grandparents in South Carolina and went fishing. It was fun.” If it was a really good vacation, they might write “My family went to Disney World. Donald was my favorite.” Mine were never so direct or easy to understand. In fact, I still have one from fourth grade that reads like this:
“I had a lot of rehearsals on this ‘vacation.’ You couldn’t really call it a vacation, though, since I feel like I worked harder than I do when I’m at school. We had rehearsals almost every day for a play we’re doing called Gypsy and even though I’m only in the first act, there is a lot to be done. Gypsy is a play about a real-life stripper named Gypsy Rose Lee, and I play her when she’s a little girl (before she’s a stripper, that is).
“When I’m not on stage, I’m usually helping backstage with costumes or microphones. It was really difficult finding ways to hide the microphones this time, since most of the girls hardly wear anything, but my dad says that I’m the expert. I also get to help Michelle with all of her costume changes, which keeps me pretty busy because she’s the lead. We also had to paint and build the set, and that takes a long time. Some nights we were there until two or three in the morning, but to be honest, I like those nights the best.
My favorite part of the play is “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.” That’s when all the different strippers show off their routines, like light-up panties, butterfly wings and Mazeppa who likes to “bump it with a trumpet.” It’s so funny. After all that work, mom says we need a vacation from our vacation. I agree.”
It may come as no surprise that I rarely got to read my reports in their entirety, as my elementary school teachers were too afraid of what was coming next. Not all of my essays were about strippers; some were about learning how to load fake guns, makeup lessons from drag queens, or explaining the origin of the term avante garde, which I learned during a production of Mame. I have a vivid memory of consulting my second-grade teacher about the spelling of the word, since I couldn’t find it in the dictionary. She simply turned her head, raised her eyebrows and said “Well, if it ain’t in the dictionary, and if I ain’t heard of it, then it ain’t a real word.” This was the first time I ever felt smarter than an adult.
What did my teachers think I was doing with my nights and weekends, and how many times did they try to call child services? Fortunately, my principal from grades 3-6 was a community theatre participant himself. He and I acted alongside each other in many productions, including Gypsy, and we had a pact. “You never tell anyone at school that you’ve seen me dance in a cowboy costume,” he bribed, “and I’ll give you excused absences on your opening nights.” It was a pretty good deal.
A few of my friends at school were also theatre kids, raised in unconventional environments. Like me, my friend Laura loathed What Your Parents Do at Work Day because neither of us could explain it properly. While I tried to enlighten my classmates on the intricacies of theatrical sound design, she had to tell everyone that her father was a music historian, or more aptly, a balladeer that attended outdoor festivals dressed as Uncle Sam, Henry VIII or a Civil War veteran singing jaunty, era-appropriate tunes. We would often find ourselves in conversations like this one:
ME: I can’t spend the night tomorrow, I have an opening.
THEM: A what?
ME: At the theatre. Remember, I said I was in a show?
THEM: Thee-ate-er? Like a movie?
ME: No, not a movie. A play.
THEM: A play? Like what we do here at school every Christmas?
ME: Yes, kind of.
THEM: Why’d anyone wanna do that on purpose?
ME: Well, it isn’t really like school plays. They’re better and more fun. You should come see me!
THEM: Yeah, alright.
They never came. I didn’t expect them to. I was quite content to lead a double-life, one filled with reading, writing and the dreaded arithmetic and kickball, the other filled with costumes, paint, glitter, lights, songs, dances and tangled plots that resolve in two hours or less. To this day I find it odd to answer the simple question of “so, what do you do?” without feeling like that little kid standing in front of her class, reading an essay about strippers.