This is a little about Zara and more about the wonderful drama program in her school, Middle School 51, and the amazing teacher who heads it. I’m flocking because there’s a little bit that’s kind of personal to my kids, but there’s nothing terribly sensitive.
Zara was a brilliant Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird last weekend, if I do say so myself. She was very excited to get the part and enjoyed the whole process and is sorry the play is over. She put in her Facebook status "Zara is crying herself to sleep every night now that the play is over." I pointed out that, given that she had written that before there was even one night after the play, it seemed a little dramatic. But she is, after all, a Drama Kid.
I was excited when they were doing To Kill a Mockingbird, too, and happy she got the lead. It’s one of my favorite books, and one of the few books where I love the movie almost as much. As a kid I identified big time with Scout: tomboy girl who wants to do everything her adored big brother can and thinks her father knows absolutely everything. I think Lee is so skilled in how she presents the story through Scout’s eyes yet lets the reader understand so much that Scout does not.
Zara had not read the book before the play came up and when she did she loved it, too. And she and I watched the movie together. There are two parts that make me cry every time. One is the scene where Scout saves her father’s and Tom Robinson’s life – unbeknownst to her – by breaking up the mob when she chats up Mr. Cunningham and talks about going to school with his son and just can’t understand why he’s not answering her. The other is the soliloquy at the end. Both are taken directly from the book and I was thrilled that both made it into Zara’s play.
She worked really hard and it showed. Her movements were those of a younger child (except at the end, when she’s speaking as Adult Scout looking back). She never lost her much practiced Southern accent. She really looked like she was beating up Cecil Jacobs :-). She made the audience laugh and cry and cheer. And she did all of that in the last scene in a slip.
For those who don’t know or remember the story, the kids get attacked near the end and what sets that in motion is that Scout can’t find her dress and shoes to change out of her ham costume at the end of the Agricultural Pageant. So Jem and Scout have to go home after everyone has left, which leaves them vulnerable. Scout is in her ham costume, so when that comes off, she has to be in underclothing.
This was cause of much angst for all the Scouts (there were three productions with three different casts). I think doing the last scene on stage in a slip – including the big soliloquy and the bows – was as intimidating to a twelve-year-old girl as a nude scene would be to a grown actress. Zara tried a bunch of possibilities before deciding on a slip of Kendra’s with a camisole and white shorts underneath, to feel a little less naked. She did the whole thing with total confidence and aplomb on the day and with much anxiety beforehand.
Of course, it didn’t have to be done in a slip. The story could have been altered so that she only lost her shoes, or someone could have given her something to wear when she gets home, or any other kind of change. It would have been easier, but it wouldn’t have had the same impact. You wouldn’t have the vulnerability of a little girl standing there in nothing but a slip, her life saved by an unknown hand.
And that’s John McEneny, the drama director, all over. He doesn’t go for what’s easy – for him or the kids. Another teacher might not have chosen this play at all for twelve-year-olds to put on, with subject matter that includes racism and rape. Or he might have made it easier and more palatable by making the change I mention above, or by taking out the quite frequent uses of the N word. After all, a lot of high schools aren’t reading Huck Finn anymore because of that, and the Broadway musical Big River took it out to make the show more accessible to a general audience. But John felt the kids - and their parents – could handle the story and the language as written and we all live up to his expectations.
The program is one I feel blessed my kids have all been in. In a middle school where they change classes for every subject and each year, John is the only teacher they have for three years straight. He works the kids to death – particularly when they’re in rehearsal – and they love it. And him.
The program is much more than just putting on plays. They learn circus skills from professional clowns, write their own plays and get to direct professional actors in them (source of much unintended humor, since with serious professional actors performing, the twelve-years-old-ness of the plays stands out), have an extensive Shakespeare unit every year and put on a Shakespearean play in eighth grade. A lot of schools don’t even have the kids read Shakespeare at this age and our kids read and watch and learn about the Elizabethan period and put on a play at the end of it. And read the sonnets and write their own. And hear about the Fair Youth, a topic which many high school teachers shy away from because of the queer content.
They all learn and perform a monologue in the eighth grade. They have a Scene Night, too, where they perform one scene from a variety of plays: Ibsen, Tennesee Williams, Brecht. They do original plays of John’s too, often based on historical events or books. Doran’s seventh grade class did a play about the Holocaust that was incredibly moving. I still think of it often. In addition to acting and playwriting they learn – by doing - about set construction and costume design and lighting.
The productions are always very ambitious and the kids rise to high expectations. And as hard as John works them, nobody works as hard as he does and they know it.
The kids adore him, will do anything to please him. I always say it’s a good thing he decided to use his great powers for good and not for evil and turns them into actors rather than trained assassins. And whether they continue to act or not, what he gives them they have all their lives: confidence, poise, stage presence. Going through the whole bar/bat mitzvah thing for the third time now, I thank my lucky stars and John McEneny that with everything else we’re going through I’m not dealing – as many parents are – with a child who’s afraid to stand in front of a room with a couple hundred people in it and speak to them.
Doran loved his time with John and did volunteer work with him when he went on to high school. When Doran was considering joining the Marines, John offered to talk to him. Doran avoided him, knowing that John would try to dissuade him. I told John I figured that was what was happening, and he said, “Tell Doran I love him and I’ll talk to him any time he wants.” It wasn’t until I heard myself saying “John McEneny says he loves you and he’ll talk to you any time” that it hit me how completely impossible it would have been that any teacher in my childhood would have relayed a message like that, particularly to a seventeen-year-old boy.
Doran stopped avoiding John after he came back from the Marines. Last year at Zara’s sixth grade play, John’s father came to see his son in action. Doran went up to him at intermission to tell him how John had affected him. I don’t know what he said to John McEneny, Sr. but I know it made him cry. In a good way.
I’ll close with an excerpt from the email that John sent to Kendra and her classmates when they were auditioning for Laguardia High School. I’ll leave out his cell phone number :-).
I am so proud of you. No matter what happens, please call me when you're done.
As this week's monologue night should have shown, you are more than prepared to audition for LaGuardia. You have had the chutzpah to audition. You have had the bravery to put yourself out there to be judged. You have dedicated your time and energy to creating a concise and detailed piece of art. You have made the strong choices, you are focused like you've never been before, and are ready to act with your whole heart. This weekend's experience should be a learning experience. You are about to experience your first "cattle call." It will be a long, chaotic, and for many, sort of a disheartening day.
Take the day for what it is, and remember that no matter what happens to you this weekend, you will continue to act, you will continue to be creative, and you will remain an amazing person. Do not forget to call me.