The kids had written a play about pirate adventures themselves, but had never run it more than once or twice. Some kids didn’t have their lines memorized, some didn’t even have a script with them to look at, only about half had any kind of costume pieces, and all of them were feeling the pressure of genuinely wanting to do their best for their families and friends coming to watch. On top of it all, I was someone they had never met before, and this kind of rushed trust doesn’t help to make students or teachers feel safe in a creative space.
I have taken a short hiatus from teaching recently and found myself beginning to panic under these circumstances. What would happen? Would the kids get too nervous to perform? Would the audience be disappointed? Would a parent confront me and accuse me of not being fit to teach the class? My mind began to conjure up all sorts of things at the thought of failure.
Fast forward to the rehearsal. It went exactly how you would expect. Kids dropped their lines, dropped their props, forgot to enter, or took a full sixty seconds between lines, failing to pick up their cues. All the while, there were new lines popping up here and there, in response to the clear struggle that it was becoming to get through a run through of the play.
“It’s your LINE!”
“Pssst! That’s MY line, you weren’t supposed to say that!”
“Ugghhh. You’re not doing it right!”
These guys were limping through at best, and I wasn’t helping. I was at a loss. Looking at the time, I realized that we hadn’t gotten through a full run of the play and the audience would be arriving in thirty minutes. Time to do something, to say something; something wise, something witty, something that would hopefully get these young actors motivated to keep going.
“Alright, let’s take a break for a moment. I want to say something.” But when I tried to continue, I had nothing. I just stared at them, and they stared right back. I looked out at a sea of pirates, mermaids, sailors, and sea creatures with no idea of what to say. Finally, I said not what was wise or witty, but what was honest. And completely improvised.
“Ok, guys. Umm. Ok, I know this is hard. What I’m asking you to do is hard. It’s not easy. But I am asking us to just try and get through it. Just keep going.” Not exactly worthy of going into Bartlett’s quotations, but it was the best I could do at the time. And the truth was, I was giving that advice more to myself than the kids. I was faced with what felt like an impossible challenge, to try to wrangle fifteen students into an ensemble in less than two hours. I couldn’t run away (even though I had considered the thought), so all I could do was try to get through it and do the best I could.
We continued to rehearse, with the goal of simply getting through the play in mind. Even though it was a rough run, the kids got through it and practiced taking a bow at the end. We broke for snack right after this, and that’s when one of the smaller girls, with blond curly hair and huge glasses came up to me and tugged on my arm.
I looked down. “Yes?”
She adjusted her glasses and spoke. “We got through it! Like you said. It was hard, but we got through it!” Then she skipped away to her snack.
I couldn’t stop thinking about her remark all week. You know what? This is what making art, making a life is all about. It’s about redefining success and motivation. It’s about realizing that true courage does not mean diving into the fray of a challenge proclaiming “I’m not afraid at all!”, nor is it avoiding something we aren’t sure we can do. Rather, it means facing the beast head on, and being able to say “I’m nervous and frustrated and unsure, but I’m going in anyway.”
So, I’ll be giving myself this advice as often as I need it, which is to say pretty much every day. It sounds so simple, but is something that has been a longstanding battle for me, both onstage and off. It’s not always easy, and in fact is actually very difficult, but we can make a vow to try to get through it, with as much gusto and heart as we can.