by Joel Young
The Curtain Opens
On a Far From Perfect, Heartbroken Teenager Desperately Trying to Hide His Secrets and Guilt
The next day was Friday - the day the show opened. I woke up before the alarm clock went off, and I was hungry! I got ready for school early, just so I could go downstairs and eat.
My Mom said she'd be happy to make me a big breakfast. She gave me one piece of toast, a bowl of non-fat yogurt and fresh blueberries. What I really wanted was to drive through McDonald's and order a couple of egg muffins. But, that wasn't going to happen. Both my parents needed their cars that day, and Dad was driving me.
As I got out of the car to go into the school, Dad said, "Break a leg, Sport! Mom and I will be at the show tomorrow night. I know it's going to be great. How could it not be great? My son is taking over the lead!"
I know that wasn't a terrible thing for a father to say to his son, but it annoyed me. Once again, I was being told that I was expected to be great, if not perfect, in everything I do. And, that just put more pressure on me.
I trudged up the long, partially-shoveled sidewalk toward the front door of the school. As I walked, I wondered what my parents would say if they knew I was plotting to go away for a romantic weekend with the twenty-two-year-old man who was directing the high school play. Quickly, I tried to redirect my thinking. "Don't be an idiot, Joel!" I thought to myself. "You have more important things to think about today. Put those thoughts out of your mind – and focus, for God's sake!"
Staying focused was difficult, and the school day went by in a blur for me. I barely paid attention in any of my classes. After 6th hour, I headed to the auditorium.
Ben was in the auditorium, waiting for the cast and crew. His friends from DCOPA - Jennifer, Jerry, and Chris – were also there. They had set up two large tables filled with sandwiches, chips, cookies, fruit and bottled water. "I want everyone to eat before getting ready," Ben said. "But, no food after 6:00 o'clock. It just works out better if you don't eat for an hour or so before the show."
Jennifer added, "I brought bunches of toothbrushes, toothpaste, and floss. You all need bright smiles when the curtain opens. And, be sure to use the restroom before we start!"
We all got our food and drinks, and we sat down as Ben gave us a pep talk. "This is it, people!" he said. We're going to put on a great show tonight. You all know your parts. Just do what we've practiced - and have fun! If you enjoy the show, the audience will enjoy it, too. Are there any questions?"
Sara spoke up. "Is anybody going to talk to the audience about Corey?"
"Yes," Ben said. "That's a good point. I've asked Jennifer to make the pre-show announcements. She will welcome everyone and make a brief, but heartfelt, statement about Corey. She'll also announce that Joel will be taking over the part of The Messenger." Everyone seemed agreeable with Ben's plan.
Ben continued. "I've been talked into having a lobby call after the show. Personally, I think that lobby calls are for children's theater. But, I've been told your parents and families would be disappointed if they can't greet you - in costume - out in the lobby. So, after the curtain call, go directly out to the lobby and line up in the same order that you come out for the curtain call - leads at the end of the line. Jennifer will be in charge of the curtain call. Anything to add, Jennifer?"
"Yes," Jennifer said. "It's very important that you greet each person in line - whether you know them or not. This is not a time to be talking with your friends in the show. This is the time to greet your guests. Look each person in the eye, and give them your full attention. Then smile, shake their hand and speak! Plan out several things you might say to strangers. 'Thank you for coming out tonight.' 'I hope you enjoyed the show.' 'We appreciate your support.' Things like that."
"And," Ben added. "Keep the line moving. No family reunions while people are lining up trying to leave the auditorium. If you want to have a longer conversation, invite the people to stay after the lobby call. There will be light refreshments for them while they're waiting. Any questions?"
There were no questions, so Ben gave his final instructions to us. "I know I've said this before, but I will not be backstage during the show. I'll be in the audience. Jerry is in charge backstage. If there are any problems, see Jerry. He has headphones, so he will have direct contact with sound, lights and the head usher. Anything to add, Jerry?"
"Not really," Jerry said. "Just remember never to peek out from behind the curtain to look at the audience."
Ben looked horrified at the prospect that anyone of us would do that.
"See," Jerry said. "Ben would burst an artery if anyone did that during one of his shows."
"Okay," Ben said. "As soon as you're done eating, go get ready!"
Ten minutes before the 7:00 o'clock curtain, we were all in costume and makeup. Waiting for the show to start was the worst time for most of us. It seemed as if there was nothing to do but get nervous. Then, Ben came backstage.
"Great news!" he announced. He seemed overly excited, almost like a kid coming downstairs for Christmas morning. "We're sold out!!! We're turning people away!"
While that may have been great news for Ben, it scared most of the actors, including me. Ben noticed our reactions. "People," he said to us. "This will help you! It's easier to play to a full house. You can hear people react, and that will help you feel the emotions of your character."
I heard what Ben said. But, I was still feeling extremely anxious. I thought back to auditions and how I had said I'd do anything but act. Yet, here I was - moments away from the exact thing I had dreaded.
I heard Jerry quietly call to the actors, "Places." When we were all where we were supposed to be, Jerry put on his headphones and spoke to the head usher to confirm that the audience was mostly seated. Then, he spoke to Chris in the light booth. "Dim lights," he said. From backstage, we could hear the audience begin to quiet down. Jerry waited an extra few seconds. "Let there be sound!" he said into the microphone attached to his headset. Jennifer was across the stage from Jerry, ready to start the preshow announcements. Jerry looked at her and raised his hand with his pointing finger straight up. He listened to the sounds from the audience and waited for most of the chatter to wind down. Then, he slowly brought his hand down and pointed directly at Jennifer.
"Welcome to Joliet High School," Jennifer said into the backstage microphone. "We are very pleased that you are joining us tonight for our production of James Hailey's The Messenger . For the safety of our cast and crew, no flash photography may be used during the show. And, no recording devices of any kind are allowed."
Jennifer paused briefly. "At this time, the entire Joliet family would like to take a moment to recognize someone who has contributed greatly to our show. Recently, Joliet senior, Corey Anderson, was seriously injured in an automobile accident. Please join us in wishing Corey a complete and speedy recovery. For tonight's performance, the part of The Messenger will be played by Joel Young."
Jennifer paused again and then finished the announcements. "And now, ladies and gentleman, please come along as we are all invited to be part of a timeless story of the real meaning of life, love and loss, as told to us by - The Messenger."
I could see Jerry holding out his pointing finger as he ticked off the seconds and counted silently to three. Then, he said, "And, open curtain,"
I was sitting on my bar stool, down stage right, when I felt the heat of the spotlight on my face. Although I had dreaded the prospect of feeling uncovered and self-conscious in front of an auditorium full of people, I experienced a feeling of confidence instead. The spotlight wasn't on me. It wasn't glaring down on a far from perfect, heartbroken teenager desperately trying to hide his secrets and guilt. The spotlight was shining on a man called The Messenger - someone who cared deeply about the people in his town; someone who had experienced the joys and sorrows of life; and someone whose wisdom, just like all of life's blessings, is meant to be shared. And, I knew that I could tell his story.
Thirty minutes later, Jerry called, "Close curtain." The first act was over, and the audience was clapping enthusiastically. We all knew it had gone well. I walked around backstage and observed the flurry of activity while listening to parts of various conversations.
"Oh, my God! Did you hear the audience react when I stuck my tongue out at Mary?"
"I was so pissed at Ben when he made me practice that over and over again. But he was right!"
"Is my hair in back still up? I think I lost a barrette on stage."
"I had no idea people would think that line was so funny!"
"This is so much fun!"
Jennifer came over to me and said, "We need to touch you up, Joel. Best to keep your hands off your face – you're less likely to smudge that way."
I followed Jennifer to the makeup area and sat in her chair. "You're doing super, Honey," Jennifer told me as she gently pushed my head back. "But, you're getting makeup on your shirt collar. Can you keep your neck up a little straighter?"
"I'll do the best I can," I said.
"I know you've got lots to think about on stage. Just give it a try," she said.
"No offense," I said to Jennifer. "I mean, I know it's your profession and all. But, I really don't like wearing makeup. It makes me feel like - I don't know - like people will think I'm a girl."
"Sweetie," Jennifer said. "No one will ever mistake you for a girl! You're nothing like the guys who perform at places like Baby Jane's Locker."
"Is that the place Ben talks about? The bar he calls 'The Locker?' I know he likes to go there on Friday nights."
Jennifer stopped working on getting the makeup off my collar. She looked concerned. "Ben hasn't - asked you to go there with him - has he?"
"No," I said. "Besides, I'd never be able to convince anyone that I'm twenty-one. Ben says I have a baby face."
"Yea, I heard him say that," Jennifer said. "But just the same, the Locker is no place for you, Joel. Trust me; you wouldn't like it there."
Just then, Jerry came into the room looking for me. "Time to get back out there," he said. I thanked Jennifer, and I followed Jerry back to the stage. "Just keep doing what you're doing, and we'll be sold out tomorrow night, too," he said. As I was about to head back to my bar stool, Jerry stopped me. "Joel, see me after the show. I want to talk to you about something."
"Places," Jerry called to the actors. Moments later the second act began.
Just as we all knew would happen, the audience fell in love with Mary and Zeb. Mary had finally understood her role, and she was fantastic! When the scene ended, and Mary and Zeb started walking off the stage, the audience started clapping – even though the second act wasn't over. And, the audience applauded loudly for everyone when the act did end.
As soon as the curtain closed, most of the actors had to rush back to the costume and makeup areas. The third act jumped ahead into the early 1940's. The makeup crew had to work fast to add ten years to the appearance of the actors. I had a break. The Messenger doesn't age like the actors do.
The third act was the most difficult one for the entire cast. I had to start out by putting the first two acts of the story into perspective for the audience. Then, I had to foreshadow the tragedies that were about to be revealed.
I walked ahead of Mrs. Johnson and Zeb as we headed to the church. I opened the church door for them, but I did not follow them inside. Mrs. Johnson was holding a tiny baby wrapped in a blanket. There was a coffin in front of the church altar, and Zeb slowly walked toward it. A spotlight came on, revealing that it was Mary in the casket. I heard gasps from the audience. Zeb broke down in tears, leaning into the casket as Mrs. Johnson looked down at her deceased daughter. When the scene ended with Zeb letting out a heart-wrenching scream of grief, I had to fight back tears. Many people in the audience couldn't hold back, and I could hear people crying right along with Zeb.
The following scenes showed a grieving town trying to pull itself back together. Families attended church services together, and neighbors brought baskets of food to the Johnson's home. Through pictures projected on a blank screen lowered from the fly space, the audience could see the seasons changing. And, just when the activities of a typical day in Cedarville seemed to be returning, I had to put on my newsboy's cap and ride a bicycle across the stage to the home of the Brown family. I knocked, and Mr. Brown answered the door. I handed him a telegram, and I waited for him to read it. He looked up at me in shock and then started to cry as I put my arm around him.
"Cut stage lights," Jerry said into his microphone. "One, two, three – spotlight on center aisle."
From the back of the darkened auditorium, and illuminated only by the spotlight, a man walked down the center aisle toward the stage. Taps started playing softly in the background. The man wore a World War II military uniform. He walked slowly, but with the precision of a military march. He didn't look at anyone in the audience as he passed by them, row by row. When he reached the front of the auditorium, he climbed the stairs on the side of the stage.
A second spotlight came on and illuminated the graveyard, revealing Mary standing motionless. The man slowly walked into the graveyard and stood by Mary. He didn't look at her. He assumed a straight, tall posture, and he stopped moving. It was Zeb.
When the audience realized that Zeb had been killed in the war, I could feel the shock and grief people were experiencing. I walked upstage as the projected image of the schoolhouse appeared. I looked center stage. A spotlight illuminated an older looking Mrs. Johnson brushing the hair of a young girl.
"Grandma," the girl said, "Can I wear a bow in my hair at school tomorrow?"
Mrs. Johnson gave the child an adoring smile and nodded. "Of course you can, Maryann," she said. The light faded on Mrs. Johnson and her granddaughter.
I came all the way downstage toward the audience. Now, it was my job to acknowledge their pain, to explain to the audience how loss was just part of life, and somehow, to lift their spirits so they could believe that all pain passes and new blessings are always on their way. I delivered James Hailey's beautiful summary of the meaning of life, and then I ended the play. "Remember," I said. "There are always blessing on their way to you. You just have to be able to see them, and of course, share them with the people around you. Thanks for coming to Cedarville tonight. You're always welcome here." I turned and walked slowly off the stage, and the show was over.
I heard the audience break into applause as I quickly went backstage to line up for the curtain call. I was to be last in line, with Heather and Kevin directly in front of me. They were off to the side, with the costume and makeup crews working frantically. Even though there was almost no time between Heather and Kevin leaving the graveyard and going back on stage for their curtain call, Ben insisted that they come back out with their younger appearance. He wanted to leave the audience with the picture of youth and young love.
Mary and Zeb got in line moments before it was time for their curtain call. And, when they walked out together, hand in hand, the audience went nuts. People stood, hollered and clapped - loudly. Then, Kevin stepped aside, turned toward Mary, and started applauding for her. By doing so, Kevin gave Mary her own moment in the spotlight. She had started rehearsals with no clue about acting, but she had grown more than anyone in the cast. She deserved the standing ovation thundering through the theater.
The audience was still standing when I walked out and took my bow.
The lobby call was fun. It was nice to hear people tell us how much they enjoyed the show and appreciated its message. I think both the cast and the audience liked being able to greet and acknowledge each other face to face. I really didn't understand why Ben had initially resisted a lobby call.
I went backstage to talk to Jerry as he had requested. I found him setting up for tomorrow night's first act.
"You wanted to talk to me? I asked Jerry.
He walked me over to the side of the stage. "Yea," he said. "Joel, I heard you talking to Jennifer about the Locker. How much has Ben told you about that place?"
"He's just mentioned it in passing a few times," I said. "Why are you asking?"
"I just - well - wanted to be sure," Jerry said. "Joel, you do know that Ben is - ah - you know, a little different?"
I knew exactly what he meant, but I said nothing. For some reason, I was enjoying watching Jerry squirm. I just stared at him, as if I were clueless.
"Joel," Jerry said. "When Ben has had a few drinks, he talks. So, most of his friends have heard all about the play - and about you. Ben has talked about how smart you are and how much he – well, that he's impressed with you. I just want to make sure you understand the situation."
Although I appreciated Jerry trying to look out for me, I didn't like how he was talking about Ben behind his back. I considered my options in responding.
I thought about what the blunt truth might sound like. "Jerry, I know that Ben is gay. I'm pretty sure that I am, too. And, I'm really hoping Ben fucks me when we go away together next weekend."
I realized that I didn't have the balls to go down that path. Since Jerry didn't know me at all, I considered an outright lie. "Are you saying Ben is - gay?!? I can't believe it! Of course, I've never really known anyone who is - actually - that way. Thanks for the warning Jerry. Trust me; I'll keep my distance!"
As always, I took the middle ground. "Jerry, I know that Ben is gay," I said. "And, I'm cool with it. He told me he's moving away after he graduates next month, and I wish him the best. I appreciate you looking out for me, but - I'm good. There's nothing for you to worry about."
Jerry looked relieved. He slapped me on the shoulder and said, "You're a good man, Joel. See you tomorrow."
I was feeling great by the time I got home and went to bed that night. I was relieved that the play had gone so well. And, I was really pleased that Ben had complimented me to his friends. I fell asleep, reassured that Ben and I really did have a good relationship and that I could trust him.
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]