Francis, Shut Up!

The Obscure Penguin
—The Obscure Penguin—

(Originally written Nov., 2018)

My first play was “Merry Christmas Crawfords" in Junior High. I recently found the script stashed away in a plastic bin.  It’s funny what you keep.  It was a typical school play, a silly family story. Back then I was shy, or I should say cautious, because I was always the new kid. I was a military brat and was terrified of asserting myself because I was quite insecure.  The thought of getting up on a stage in front of a lot of people was unthinkable, but I did it for love. I loved Edie.  It’s funny what you keep.

Edie was in my class.  She had very long brown hair, a round face, freckles, and a smile that lifted me into the clouds. She was one of the sweetest girls I had ever known.  I had no idea how to make an impression, because, as I said, I was cautious and insecure.  Every time I was near her I was terrified I’d say or do the wrong thing so I usually said nothing.  As young as Edie was, however, she was perceptive.  She knew I had a crush on her and she knew I was reluctant to say anything to her.  She mentioned that she was in the Drama Club and was going to try out for the school play the next day and suggested that I audition too.

I remember how elated I was that an opportunity to be near her had presented itself, indeed, that she had suggested it.  It was later that evening that terror struck. What if I made a fool of myself at the audition?  Edie would be sorry she showed me attention! To give myself credit I faced my fear and determined to follow through because, of course, I loved Edie.

I sat with her in the auditorium, watching the kids go to the stage when their names were called.  Some seemed confident and even polished as they read their lines.  That was Edie.  She breezed through the audition with ease and personality.  She was a natural.  Others were nervous and tentative.  I coolly observed my fate.  I knew I would die up there.  For me, a fan of war movies, I was hunkered down in the trenches of Paths of Glory, starring Kirk Douglas, waiting for the order to advance, knowing I would rise out of the trench and be immediately cut down when my name was called.  Of course I was hardly facing death.  I was facing the possibility of incalculable humiliation.  I was facing the loss of my tenuous reputation and any possibility of my love being returned by the woman who had suggested I be there in the first place!  I glanced at her and she smiled and suddenly I was back in the clouds.

Then my name was called.  “Larry LeMAHNS?”

“Lemmons,” I corrected her.  Teachers always got my name wrong.

I stood alone on the stage facing the director and the kids who had auditioned before me who now examined me with jagged, piercing expressions of sadistic glee. The director told me I was to read the part of the brother of the obnoxious character, Francis, a bratty girl who was bothering the new neighbors next door.  As I held the script my stomach twisted and my hand shook. I clutched the little green Samuel French booklet with both hands.  Then my right leg began to twitch uncontrollably.  So I shifted my weight to my left. As I read my lines a tremor tickled my throat and affected my voice.  I was enduring puberty.  I felt I couldn’t control my body, but I was in the thick of Audition of Glory, starring Larry LeMAHNS. No turning back.  It felt like three days past eternity up there on the precipice overlooking the trench, or what actors call the apron, waiting for the gunfire to stop.  I wish I could say I got over the anxiety, that I survived, but I didn’t.  The director’s cold “merci” (she was not French, merely pretentious) penetrated my heart, yet freed my soul from that stage of pain. I exited, stage right, despondent over my failure, resigned to the fact that Edie would laugh at my wounds.

Edie smirked and tossed me a quick and quiet applause.  I sat next to her, mortified.

The casting results were later tacked up on the bulletin board outside the auditorium. Edie got the lead, a young woman whose family had moved into the apparently haunted house.  I stood dumbfounded, staring at the list.  I was cast in the part I had read.  I was in!  Was I not as bad as I thought?  Who cares?  I was in!

The rehearsal process was fun, but another kid, the one playing Edie’s brother was taking up all her attention.  The whole point of my doing the play was to be near her after all, but this jerk was in the way and I wasn’t confident enough to assert myself.  There were to be four performances for various classes in the school auditorium over four days.  I was so preoccupied, thinking about Edie, that I never really considered what it would be like to perform for a full audience of my peers four times.  Fortunately, most of my lines were during my second entrance so I could cope with the butterflies, knowing I was not expected to do much when I first went on stage. In fact, I only had to say two words and then wait a few lines before saying another sentence as I exited.  After the lights were set I realized it would be difficult to see the audience and that was a comforting thought.

After lunch, right before our first performance, I was profoundly excited and nervous. Waiting for the audience to be seated incited prickly anticipation. Then the lights went down, the murmuring faded to silence. The curtain rose and the audience applauded.  And Edie spoke.  I watched from the wings as she performed and was stunned by her beauty.  She was so eloquent.  It was one thing to watch her in rehearsal, but to see her charisma in front of an audience was to see her true self.  She was an actress, in complete command of every gesture, or so I imagined. She was only a year older than I. I peeked around the curtain to see every seat filled in the auditorium.  I wondered if I would forget my lines.  No, I thought.  Just concentrate on saying the two words.  It’s just two words.  Once I say those two words I will be fine.

My entrance was coming up.  Surprisingly, my sister, Francis, the obnoxious child who was driving the family crazy with her incessant talking, who would not leave them in peace, was actually getting something of a reaction from the audience.  They didn’t like her at all and were shuffling in their seats. My moment was coming… closer… closer.  Francis kept droning on and on and on. That’s my cue!

I step out onto the stage, the bright lights blinding, my heart pounding, my head swimming, lights and faces. Lots of faces. Steady paces toward Francis, with that irritating squeaky voice, telling my beautiful Edie what she needed to do, over and over and over and over.  I hit my mark, stop, look directly into Edie’s irritated eyes…beat… and say…

“Francis, shut up!”

I wasn’t sure what the sound was.  It came roaring from the direction of the audience.  All those kids, the entire auditorium, burst into cheers and applause. They weren’t just clapping.  They rose from their seats.  Some stood on their seats!  I was receiving a standing ovation!  The stage shook with audience appreciation.  Edie’s concentration broke briefly and she cast me a surprised smile.  All of us were happily stunned.  We held for the cheering and then continued.

My God, how we laughed and danced after the show over that standing ovation. As it turned out, we received a standing ovation at the same moment during every performance.  With those two words I received my first taste of the love of an audience.  I was hooked. “I will be an actor!”  And from that moment, something changed in me.  My insecurities were being challenged by a newfound confidence.  I had the power to arouse an audience with two simple words.  There is no more accurate way to describe it than “magic.”  I owe that magic to my love for Edie.