As a middle aged woman who was born with two left feet, people laugh at my forays into martial arts, gymnastics, and my long conversations with my imaginary friends. Each week as I bend over and pant for breath, I ask my gymnastics coach why I’m doing this and he says ‘mid-life crisis.’ But no, really, it’s kinda fun when you reach that age that you’ve accomplished all the low-hanging fruit in your lifetime to-do list (such as an education and career goals) and you start chasing after the more absurd stuff you always wanted to do.
My earliest ‘bucket list’ item was my foray into community theater. Recently divorced and back to college to get a degree, I had no idea of who I was, so I decided to rectify that problem by becoming somebody else. What better way to do it than to become a free-spirited hippie?
I had no acting ability whatsoever when I walked into the Janus Players audition for ‘Hair.’ I didn’t know anybody. I saw the sign one night while taking an evening class and walked into the audition on impulse. I remember the director’s face as I read my lines for a script I had never seen. I hadn’t ever watched the musical! Yeah … it was pretty lame.
But then the music director asked if I could sing. I didn’t know the songs, either, although I had heard Age of Aquarius on the radio when I was a kid. So then he ran me through some basic scales. I’m one of those rare creatures that can hit a high-C cold. His eyebrows got higher and higher as he brought me through the upper registers, past the high-C, into a D, an E, and a very squeaky, breathy high-F, and he hopped off of his piano bench like the White Rabbit checking his watch when my voice finally gave out at a high-G. It didn’t matter that my only acting experience was playing ‘Little Buttercup’ in the fifth grade. I could sing coloratura, so they stuck me in the background and the character ‘Chrysanthemum’ was born.
Over the next six weeks, oh, boy, did my grades slip! I was attending college at night after a full day at work and raising my eldest daughter (that’s her, she was our official mascot and was given a tiny role). But it was also some of the most breathtakingly fun time of my life. I got recognition for a skill I’d always had (those perfect high notes), got to try on the persona of a free-loving hippie, I learned to act, a skill which has served me well in my legal career, learned to make costumes, and I learned to dance the swing. Most importantly, I met some friends who I still keep touch with today.
But there was one other gift that stuck with me more than any other. Because Janus Players is hosted by our local community college, the director brought in some members from the local Vietnam Veterans association to educate us that Hair is not really a story about fun-loving hippies, but a protest against a war which never had clearly defined goals.
Here is the article I wrote for the school newspaper. It was featured on the front page (bottom-right) along with the write-up about our play in general:
|Nam Vets Association Tells “Hair” Cast How It Was
Six members of the Nam Vets Assn. met with cast members of the musical “Hair” to discuss what the war protests were all about in 1968, the time setting for the show. Viewpoints differed according to the time frame the G.I.'s served during Vietnam, ranging from acceptance of the war for soldiers serving before 1967, to shame for those who served later in the war.
“Everyone was afraid of being drafted and sent to ‘Nam, so they hated anyone in a uniform who represented their worst fears” said Mike Williams, who served from 1966-68. “We saw idealism go right down the toilet,” said Williams. “Watching the (war) machine go to work... changes everyone forever.”
Hank Tucker, who served as a Combat Engineer until 1967, spoke of not daring to walk down the street in his uniform. “Most of the protestors were scared-they just wanted their brother’s and cousin’s to come home.”
“The play “Hair” is about the internal war in the U.S. by the hippies,” said Mike Trainor, who served for 6 months.
All expressed deep anger at Jane Fonda for her pro-Viet Cong stand on national television. Ms. Fonda was videotaped frolicking on the tanks of the Viet Cong during the war, portraying the V.C. movement as a humanitarian effort for the Vietnamese people. All felt that Ms. Fonda had done more damage to the war effort than any single movement.
Not conveyed in that tiny article is the impression which stuck with us long after we’d finished singing Let The Sunshine In. All of the veterans spoke of suffering from PTSD, which at the time, most of us had never heard of. They felt proud to have served their country, but all were frustrated about how poorly they were treated after they returned. They spoke of being spat upon and called ‘baby killers’ by the hippies and war protesters we’d been cast to play. They spoke of fear, and an inability to reconnect to their families after they got home. And most of all they spoke of how nobody who hadn’t been ‘over there’ could understand what it had been like. That their experience had scarred them. That a lot of them were still not okay more than twenty or twenty-five years (at the time) after the war had ended.
This is why a significant portion of The Dark Lord’s Vessel is devoted to exploring the Archangel Mikhail’s lurking PTSD, and why it’s taking me so long to write the story. I want to get it right. I want to get it right because this group of combat veterans came into our cast session and bared their souls. I think of our soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq today, and while we now shake their hand and say ‘thank you for your service’ instead of spitting upon them, not a lot else has changed. We still can’t understand what it’s like for them to reintegrate because we’ve never been over there. We cannot grasp the brotherhood and the horror of war.
The knowledge the veterans gave us changed the way we portrayed the hippies. Yes, we were still a bunch of snot-nosed college students, but our characters now portrayed an edgy quality of fear as we staged the mock protests. Our music director, Tom Dutton, amended the score of Three-Five-Zero-Zero to lose that 1960’s ‘soul’ feel to be a cold, mechanistic indictment of war. Everybody who saw the play said they felt chills as we sang through the verses, enunciating each word with the precision of a sword, and it made their flesh crawl.
Ripped open by metal explosion
Electronic data processing
Two hundred and fifty-six
Prisoners in Niggertown
Being on stage was a dream I’d always had, so while I can’t say answering my ‘bucket list’ impulse to audition for community theater turned me into an actress, what it did do was improve my life in the following ways:
- I learned to act … a little bit;
- Once you’ve sung White Boys in a skimpy gold go-go dress in front of 600 people, public speaking becomes a cinch;
- I draw upon my experience bringing dialogue to life on a stage not just in my writing, but also in my day-job as an attorney when examining a witness during trial;
- I learned to dance the swing … sort of;
- I made some great friends;
- I learned how to ‘fake it until you make it.’ During one of the performances, the guys singing Crazy for the Red, Blue and White messed up which part of the song they were supposed to be singing, but after six weeks of rehearsal they worked really well together, so they all sang it wrong … right … and nobody but the cast realized they were singing the words to the wrong song!
- I learned how to create a character from nothing;
- I developed a deep and abiding respect for our veterans.
- The cast party… Yeah … I’ll write about that another time! [*anybody who doesn’t want me to spill the beans should send blackmail concessions now … I’m partial to chocolate, cash, and pretty, shiny deadly things.*]
So … what’s on your bucket list? I want to hear from you guys because I’ve got a series in the works, a bunch of short novellas about a group of middle-aged women who cope with their impending old age by creating a bucket list and then conquering their fears. These are meant to be short, humorous stories, mostly for fun to break up the long stretch between my full length, more serious books.
Tell me what you hope to try before you kick the bucket? And do tell us why you’ve always wanted to do it. The more absurd, the better! And if you have a link to a video or article about your crazy dream, include that as well. Why not? Maybe you’ll Let the Sunshine In and inspire somebody else?
*All images self-taken photos, from U.S. government websites, or adapted from a licensed image purchased from DepositPhotos. Full list of image credit licensing available upon a written request sent via USPS certified mail with a postage prepaid return envelope. No emails please … my spam filter eats it.