I told myself to practice the longest and most difficult of my lines ten times in the mirror before I could go to the easy lines. She said practicing in the mirror was the best way to memorize while also getting used to having an audience. How I got myself into the role of a thespian in a high school play was still a mystery. I was sure Ernest W. Stanley, who I was cast to play in The Man Who Came to Dinner, would have sympathy for my bewilderment. The performances were all scheduled, tickets printed, costumes selected, and my name was in the program. There was no way out, so here I stood in front of a mirror trying to memorize my part, dreading the first day of dress rehearsal.
My longest lines, directed at the lead character, Sheridan Whiteside, an unwanted guest in the Stanley household, were monologues. My character gathers his courage and says, “Not having your gift for invective, I cannot tell you what I think of your obnoxious interference in my affairs, but I have arranged that you will interfere no longer.” My character turns to three silent actors waiting off stage right and continues, “Mr. Whiteside, these gentlemen are deputy sheriffs. They have a warrant by which I will be enabled to put you out of this house. And I need hardly add that it will be the greatest moment of my life. Mr. Whiteside, I am giving you 15 minutes in which to pack up and get out. If you have not gone in 15 minutes, these gentlemen will forcibly eject you. Thank you, gentlemen. Will you wait outside, please? Fifteen minutes, Mr. Whiteside, and that means bag, baggage wheelchair, penguins, and octopus.” I then turn to exit stage left and exclaim, “I am now going upstairs to smash our radio so that not even accidentally will I ever hear your voice again.” Presumably, the audience applauds as my character exits.
I focused on repeating words and phrases in the dialogue to anchor my memorization. ‘Mr. Whiteside’ and ‘fifteen minutes’ were each repeated three times allowing me to memorize using the repeated words as a focus. There was also blocking on stage, which started with my character briefly addressing his wife, Daisy, and then striding across the living room scene to Mr. Whiteside, my tormentor, who was sitting in a wheelchair, at which point I started acting like the man of the house. The play had been around for over twenty years by the time the drama instructor at our high school selected it for the annual school play. It had played successfully on Broadway before becoming a feature film. As high school students, we were more interested in films such as Cleopatra, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Longest Day, and Alford Hitchcock’s The Birds than a Broadway play.
My best recollection is that the grooming started in English class, where we learned to write sentences about a noun the teacher selected that day and then diagramed the sentences. If we did other things to improve our English grammar, they have escaped my memory. The teacher was Miss Mortensen, back when it was still acceptable to categorize women by their marriage status. At least, such categorizing was acceptable in the dusty open spaces of eastern Washington State, where I lived at the time. As it happened, Miss Mortensen was also the drama instructor; another job for which she was underappreciated and unrecognized.
It came to my attention that our school conducted some type of theatrical performance in the combination cafeteria-theater, but I never participated or attended. If it didn’t involve sports or girls, it exited through a black hole in my consciousness. My friends were even more oblivious to non-sports school activities. It had to be Miss Mortensen who injected theater into my world, and that world was never the same.
I recall watching in disinterest as she diagramed a sentence on a green chalkboard, and before she finished, she put the white chalk in the tray and slowly walked downstage to her desk. I whispered to the boy across the aisle, “Pop quiz time.” He nodded. We had seen these sneaky tactics before, but not from Miss Mortensen.
“The school play will be in May,” she said as she walked around her desk. I was anticipating she would pull out a file with the pop quiz questions, so I didn’t listen to what she was saying until she sat on the front side of the desk and crossed her legs. “Just a few months away,” she continued and allowed her dress to settle above her knees. The boys in the class considered Miss Mortensen an attractive woman in a mature sort of way. She was probably in her early 30s, tall, wore her hair short like Elizabeth Taylor, and frequently wore tight sweaters. She put her palms flat on the desk on each side of her legs, leaned forward, and looked at the class. Suddenly I forgot about diagraming sentences.
She started to talk about the struggles she faced as a young teacher trying to bring culture into a school that is dominated by sports and tradition. “They say arts and theater have a place— but do they really want to support a thespian program?” she asked without defining thespian. “Yes, we have a stage, lights, and a few set designs, but it takes more,” she continued as the room became quiet. English class seemed to be over. “It takes people, students, willing to play the parts to give of themselves to create theater. Students who want to expand their world beyond the muscle-bound culture we now have,” she continued. I noticed for the first time a box of tissues on the desk. Almost subconsciously, she pulled a tissue out of the box and continued to talk in a husky voice. “If I cannot produce a play for this high school, I doubt I’ll be here next year,” she said, turning her head to look out the windows to her left. As we looked at her profile, she lifted a tissue to her right cheek. Then, for a few moments, she sat and stared into the distance.
Unsure what to do or say, we waited. “Students with undiscovered talent will miss the opportunity to act,” she said as she arched forward on her arms, looked up at the ceiling, the color rising in her neck, and the sweater stretching across her chest. “I’m not sure anybody cares. This is my responsibility to give young people in this community a place to grow and explore their gifts. Even if in the end we must cancel because, . . .” and she stopped, slipped slowly from the desk, reached for another tissue, and turned her back to the audience. We waited in her silence as Miss Mortensen wiped her eyes and straightened her posture before turning around. “I’m sorry,” she said very quietly. “This is not your problem. I came to a school that cares more about football than the performing arts, and I can’t change that.”
“What can we do, Miss Mortensen?” a girl asked from the back of the room.
“Thank you for asking,” she replied and looked down at the tissues in her hands. “Auditions are right after school today if anybody is interested.”
I had wrestling practice that afternoon, and Miss Mortensen never mentioned the school play during class the next day. However, the following day before English class, I heard two girls talking about auditions and how they hoped to get a part in the play. After class, I waited for a chance to talk with Miss Mortensen, who was wiping the chalkboard. “I’m interested in helping with the school play,” I offered while she was still wiping the board.
Without turning around, she said, “I was hoping you would be willing to be in the play.”
I was not sure how to respond, but I found my voice and said, “Is it too late to be in the tryout?”
She turned around, put the eraser in the tray, looked me directly in the eye, and said, “They are called auditions, and you don’t need to audition. Wrestling season is over next week, so come to the first rehearsal. I have a part for you.” That was the beginning of an English lesson and much more.
I had never been on the school stage or the backstage area, so it was all new and exciting as we gathered for the first rehearsal. Every step on the slanted wood stage could be heard in the cafetorium. Backstage was dimly lit, with black curtains, black painted walls, and accents, adding to the intrigue of being in the theater.
Miss Mortensen gathered us on stage around a wheelchair, passed out scripts among the would-be actors, and began assigning roles. She directed one of my classmates to sit in the wheelchair to become Sheridan Whiteside, the lead character. She motioned for me to stand by the wheelchair. “You are Ernest W. Stanley, owner of everything around you, but your life is about to be controlled by the man in the wheelchair,” she said. Next, she walked to a group of girls, took the hand of one, and stood her next to me, “You are Daisy Stanley, the wife,” she informed us. In a manner of seconds, we all had our assigned roles.
During the third rehearsal, I stood offstage behind a curtain, listening for my cue, when we heard a knock on the metal exterior door backstage. Miss Mortensen told everybody to take a break as she went to push the door open with the crash bar. Daylight poured into the backstage area as Miss Mortensen held the door for a man silhouetted in the bright light. When he entered and came closer to the cast members, I heard somebody whisper that he was a former student who graduated three years ago.
Miss Mortensen called him Russ, and he called her by her first name, which we had never heard anybody use. She made a brief introduction without explaining what Russ had to do with our play and why he came in the backdoor. Russ always came to rehearsals and performances through the backstage door with the assistance of Miss Mortensen. It became apparent to our cast that Russ and Miss Mortensen were friends who had a love of theater in common. Over the following weeks, we watched them together, their body language, standing close when talking, smoking on the stairway landing at the backdoor, sharing ideas. Our young minds were filled with imagined roles for our drama instructor and her young protégé.
We grew to appreciate Russ for his ability to see when an actor was stuck on a line, he would whisper the missing word or words from offstage. As our first dress rehearsal approached, I still had not mastered all my lines. I figured that since Russ was good at prompting, he might be helpful with memorization. After rehearsal, I found Russ backstage walking to the backdoor, and I followed him out to the parking lot. As we talked about memorization, he asked, “Have you been practicing in front of a mirror?”
I nodded and waited for his assessment. “That’s good,” he said. “Was Miss Mortensen the one who told you that was the best way to practice?”
“How did you know?” I asked.
“Was that before or after she cried and described how hard it is to be the drama instructor here?” he asked as he lit a cigarette.
I looked at him, unsure of how to respond. Finally, I said, “You have seen her do that before?”
“How do you think she got me to come back here to help with this play?” he replied.
“You mean that is how she recruits people?” I asked.
“Consider it your first acting lesson from a professional,” he said and got in his car.