Sunday, June 22, 2008

The History of Drama (Part III): A Soldier’s Story

When I was seven, we moved to a new town and my mom decided the best way for all of us to make friends was to get involved in our new school’s Christmas pageant. I wasn’t too keen on this idea. I was used to being drafted each year for our church’s Nativity plays and I never liked being in them. My sister (who had waist-length hair) always landed the plum role of the Virgin Mary, while I usually got stuck as the third shepherd from the left. I never had any lines. All I did was stand there in a bathrobe with a towel on my head. I found the whole thing sort of boring and was expecting something similar with this new show. I was in for a surprise.

Unlike the little homespun events we were used to, this was a musical with painted cardboard sets and sewn costumes. The story revolved around a bunch of toys that came to life on Christmas Eve. I was selected to be one of six toy soldiers. We had our own song and some choreography that involved us marching across the stage while stiffly swinging our arms and legs as if we were made out of wood. Since I was tall for my age, I had to stand in the back row behind this shorter kid named Carl. I’d only been in this school for a few weeks, but I already hated Carl. He tended to shove people on the playground and steal the ball from you in gym class. Having to spend any extra time with him made the whole idea of being in this dumb show even less appealing.

As opening night grew closer, I noticed my Mom was becoming increasingly excited about her contribution to the show – sewing my costume. All the mothers had been given a pattern from a book and together they'd chipped in for a bolt of red corduroy fabric so that all the soldiers’ jackets would match. My mom (who was very “crafty”) was already helping the other moms with the tricky job of making our tall cardboard hats. Meanwhile, Carl was really getting on my nerves. He did nothing but fidget and fart around during rehearsal and didn’t even know the lyrics to the stupid song. I wanted to drop out of the show, but knew I couldn’t because of my mom’s clear dedication to whole silly enterprise.

The day before the show, I came home and was excitedly ushered into my bedroom so I could try on my newly completed costume. I begrudgingly put it on and shuffled out into the hallway. Seeing me, my mother squealed with delight. Even my crabby grandmother was pried away from her beloved soap operas to come see how cute I was. Despite my whining, pictures had to be taken. Finally, as I was trudging back to my room, I stopped and looked at myself in the hall mirror. I blinked. I looked like one of those English soldiers I’d seen on TV when the Beverly Hillbillies went to Buckingham Palace. For the first time in my life I was looking into a mirror and someone different (someone not me) was looking back.

The next night we arrived at the school to find the auditorium quickly filling with people. My heart started to pound. Suddenly, I felt nervous. Everyone was going to be looking at us. What if we screwed up? What if everybody forgot their lines? Before I knew it, the show had begun. In the first scene, two kids in pajamas talked about what they wanted for Christmas and left a note for Santa. In the wings, all of us toys waited breathlessly. We knew that at the end of the first scene, the curtain would be pulled and that was our cue to rush out into our places. As I listened to the "pajama" kids say their last few lines, my mouth went dry. I felt like I needed to pee, but it was too late. This was it. There was no backing out. That’s when it hit me. I was in the back row! No one would see me. No one would see this cool costume my mother had slaved over. Suddenly, I was consumed by this huge terrible instinct. It totally overtook me. Fuck Carl! Why should he be in the front row? He didn’t even know the damn song. Whoosh! The curtain swept closed and all the toys charged the stage. Although Carl was way more athletic than me, I was taller and had longer legs. I beat him to our position by the Christmas Tree and skidded into the front row. As expected, he panicked and scrambled into the only open slot (mine, in the back row). Just before the curtain reopened, I heard him hiss “You’re not supposed to be there!” I didn’t respond. I knew Carl could beat the shit out of me, but I doubted he’d do it in front of an audience full of adults. Whoosh! The curtain reopened and everybody clapped like mad! One by one, the toys performed their individual numbers. When our moment came, the toy soldiers went for it and a relatively unassuming little boy was, for a few moments, transformed into a grinning, 75-pound Virginia ham. In hindsight, I may have swung my arms a little higher than I should have, but nobody seemed to notice. We finished to a big round of applause.

The second the show was over, I bolted from the stage and into the safety of my parents' arms. On the way home, they told me I had done a wonderful job. Carl never did beat me up. In fact, he didn’t seem to much care about what had happened. He quickly went back to knocking people down at recess and I opened an office at the top of the jungle gym where our paths were unlikely to cross. I don’t think I ever exchanged another word with him. The following year, we would move yet again and my new school would not be quite as nice. Soon, I'd begin to withdraw into my own little world; quickly mastering the fine art of invisibility. I wouldn’t set foot on a stage again until I was fifteen; drawn there not by any desire to be in the spotlight, but by a much more compelling force: a terrible pointless crush. But more on that in the upcoming chapters of “The History of Drama.” Have a good week, Hollywood. See you next Monday.

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment

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David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being proudly middle-class in Hollywood at

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