Illustrated by Emily Thornton Calvo
In another room, children are changing into their costumes. Some of the boys are wrestling in the corner. I stride over. Don’t get cross with them. Stay calm. You need them. “Boys, boys,” I say with a coaxing smile. “Are you ready? Don’t damage your costumes. Come and help me put the programs on the seats.” I regret this as soon as I’ve said it. There’s no guarantee they will behave any better in the auditorium, and there they will have an audience. Even though the play doesn’t start for another hour, I know that the hall will be full of families silently striving to sit on the front rows; these bitter battles go on until the show starts. I have put reserved signs on the staff seats, but someone (not me, coward that I am – I’ll ask the new teacher, who won’t know what’s ahead) will have to go and move people from these seats. Parents glare angrily at anyone who tries to remove the coats or bags on “saved” seats. In the past, there have been actual fist fights over this, but I wasn’t director then. It was someone else’s problem.
Have the class teachers got their registers? Are all the children here? I check and re-check anxiously. I feel sick. The absence of a child with even the smallest part can throw the whole show off. Improvisation does not come naturally to children. They are much more likely to stop and stare vacantly at me (sitting directly in front of them in my director’s chair) if the expected line does not appear. Yes! I knew one would be missing. She’s always late. After asking her friends if they’ve seen her, I race across the playground to find the list of home telephone numbers, mentally cursing the mum who, although perfectly pleasant, will not appreciate the necessity of punctuality tonight. As I run panting into the office, I see them strolling across the playground. Strolling! As if they have all the time in the world! “Hi, mum, I’m so glad to see you. We’re running a bit late. Please can you take Olivia straight to her classroom to have hair, make-up and costume done?” My words come out in one long, breathless rush. “Oh Mrs Fox, how nice to see you. Olivia’s so looking forward to the show. She’s learnt her words and been practising every night…” I catch her arm in a death grip and hustle them across the playground, smiling at her in a frantic mask of civility.
It’s time to line them up. A straightforward job, you might think. Wrong. They have to line up in the right order. In silence. Seventy-five exquisitely excited or nauseously anxious children. I fall back on the tried and tested ways: shouting, pleading, threatening them with no playtime tomorrow, and finally, the trick taught to me by an old hand (the previous director), I lie, telling them that I have heard (only a whisper you understand, it may or may not be true) that there is a famous casting agent in the audience. This mythical person is looking for children who are not just good, loud actors, singers, and dancers, but children who have control over themselves, children who can line up in the right order and walk silently into the auditorium. It works! With only a few whispers and stifled giggles, we are ready to go.
We walk in a long line across the playground to the hall. I run up and down alongside the line with feverish exhortations:
“Have you got your prop?”
“You can’t go the toilet now. I told you all to go before. Oh OK, well if you must …” I detail a staff member to ensure her safe return and carry on.
“You’re all amazing.” It’s actually a bit late for the positive praise bit, but I realize that earlier, in my panicked state, I may have been a little, a very little, domineering.
I hate this walk for many reasons; the main one is that they have to walk outside with no shoes and socks. The health and safety implications of this are terrifying, ranging from broken glass to broken legs. Again, pre-directorship, I never gave it a thought. Once we reach the door of the hall, the shushing from the staff and the “Be quiet children, the audience will hear you,” from me are louder than any noise from the children, who seem to have finally realized that the show, their moment of fame, is actually here and are suitably awed. We creep in.
It is pitch black. And hot. Gosh, it’s hot. Why is it so hot? I sidle out again. “Sally, is the heating on? Well, turn if off!” There is the usual scuffling and pushing as the children argue fiercely in whispers over who sits where on the benches, even though we have practiced this many, many times. But I don’t mind; it happened even under the old director so I assume it’s normal. There’s the occasional sound of a baby’s cry or a toddler voice, quickly silenced. The parents know they’re not allowed to bring the younger ones, but sneak them in anyway. I make a mental note to identify who has broken this rule and give them a stern look later when the lights go up. My parental powers as director are limited to this. I make my way to the center aisle where the director’s chair and lectern are set up. No parent has dared sit here! Perhaps they have more respect for me than I imagined? I place my script and water bottle on the lectern and check that my glasses are around my neck. As prompter, I daren’t be without these. I stand and give a hard look or two to some children in the back rows who appear to be … eating? I signal to the teacher who slips around to deal with them. A deep breath, thumbs up to the pianist, to the lighting and sound guys, and off we go.