The Play Goes On

One day back in the first year of the North Branch School, back in the Silurian period, I was sitting peacefully at the big room table—which then was three rickety folding plastic tables—when the entire student body, which numbered twelve, approached. Their expressions were serious. They did not speak. They thrust a sheet of paper in front of me.

We, the students of the North Branch School, hereby demand that we be allowed to write our own play. If you, Master Tal Birdsey, do not accede to our demands, you will be attacked by a pitch-fork wielding mob. 

 Love, the students of the North Branch School.

Every student had signed it. I could not deny this wish, which represented not only the students’ initiative, but also their deep dream and wish to play and create something together.

The following year we authored our first play. I was hesitant to do it, since I had had nothing but a terrible and terrifying theatrical career up until that moment. In seventh grade I had been unable to remember my lines in “L’il Abner,” and the director resorted to giving me my lines on a folder. Even worse, I had been unable to remember the lyrics to songs, so I hid in the back of the crowd scenes in my overalls and heartlessly mouthed “Jubilation T. Cornpone.” My only other acting moment occurred during graduate school, when I was tapped to act in a short Tennessee William scene for another student’s directing class simply because I had a southern accent. Even then I struggled to remember my lines, and most of what I remember is calling out “line” over and over in rehearsal. When I thought about theater it seemed to be an alien and threatening place where only bad things happened, like forgetting lines and cues, making a fool of myself, or knocking over some clattering metal thing in the dark of the backstage area and ruining the entire show. All of this from someone whose main subject of study in college was the plays of William Shakespeare.

I did, however, find my comfort zone working on tech crews. In eighth grade I skillfully helped manufacture a large papier-mache boulder for “Brigadoon,” and was given the opportunity to operate the fog machine so that we could create the illusion of remote Scottish highlands in a hot and steamy basketball gym in Atlanta. Later, in graduate school, I worked on a professional crew at Breadloaf. The actors were magnificent. The sets were ornate and complex. Being enclosed in the theater in rehearsals, among an audience consisting only of sound and lighting techs, costume designers, and a couple of carpenters, gave me the sense of being on the inside of a magical, living being. To listen to King Lear thundering at the gods shook and moved me.

This was the extent of my theater experience when we embarked on our first North Branch school-wide production. My challenge was to have every student participate in the writing; every student would be in the play, and every student would participate in costuming, sets, and props. These guidelines followed the fundamental principle of the school’s pedagogical belief: every student did everything. Because the school was small it did not have to balkanize itself into the “theater kids” or the “sports kids” or the “math nerds.” We were all writers and poets, all math nerds, all scientists or saunterers in the woods; all of us hiked together, skied together, built sculptures together, talked about our feelings together, negotiated conflict together. The school, in all its various forms, was indeed a school, as in fish—one body made by many, all of us moving together with each other and for each other. So it would be with our play.

Because I was trepidatious, and because there were others who knew more about theater than I, we brought in the experts. Deborah Lubar helped the kids write monologues, as a way to infuse characters with personal meaning and real emotion. Kendra Gratton, who’d put on plays with kids before, could play the guitar, and helped direct and do blocking, a topic of unimaginable complexity and limited solutions (as far as I could see when you were working with bumbling middle schoolers). We also managed to link our three half-working computers so that we could write on various scenes and then put all the pieces together (the presence of these hand-me down computers was over my grudging acceptance and the vociferous ire of some in the school community. While the rest of the world was accelerating into the digital age and the bubble, we still used phone-trees, and I still mailed home weekly announcements to parents in paper envelopes. We did not have a web-site, nor did we understand how a website might function or what exactly it might do).

We spent two months cobbling together our first play. All year we had been asking questions, of all kinds. We had studied religion. And I had spoken to the kids of Dante’s nine circles of hell, often reminding them that they, or we, were in one of the circles at any given time. Whenever one of them was in a low place, we tried to determine what exact adolescent circle they currently resided in, and then we discussed how they might climb out, at which point I would call out my favorite quote from Paradise Lost: “Long is the way, and Hard, that out of hell leads up to light.” Then I would assure them that their teenage suffering would not be forever, that this too would pass.

Our play was called: “The Quest: A Journey Into the Realm of Questions and Answers.” It concerned two travellers, Yorick and Hamlet, who were journeying into the human soul, visiting various locations where they observed a variety of humans at each stage of life, from birth to old age. Along the way they visited, among other places, a pre-school, the rooms of teenagers, a murder scene, and an old folks home called “Green Pastures.” Rehearsals were chaotic and cumbersome, since we didn’t know exactly what we were doing, and because we had nothing like a stage to rehearse on. The kids were wildly excited, overflowing with energy and worry. Cooper Sanford was so terrified of acting that in rehearsal one day he broke down crying and so we had to give a part that had no words. We shouted, laughed, and came up with solutions. We made terrible stage signs painted on taped-up cardboard. There was no back-drop for the stage—justy a shiny, white wall. Our lighting consisted of six chicken brooding lamps clamped to metal chairs at the foot of the stage. I controlled the light simple by plugging and unplugging an extension cord. Our acting was shaky, our voices muted, the plot line rickety

At the time, we thought we had made the greatest theatrical work in the history of middle schools. It tuned out the play had six short scenes, which amounted to a little under 55 minutes of time on stage.The play ended with all the students surrounding the audience in a circle. The actors, now merging back into their real selves, fired off round after round of soul-questions, questions of each other, themselves, and of the world. The parents, kids, and other audience members found themselves enwrapped in our web of thought and feeling, as best as we could represent it.

Over the years we evolved in our ability to write a play, and much of that was derived from our discovery that the comedy and shenanigans of each particular school year could form the cornerstone and creative energy of the play. For our second play the ideas came directly from the school-day playfulness of the students. That year the kids spent several days in the fall dressing up and play acting every day at lunch. Sophie Allen and Annabelle Maroney dressed up every day as high-fashion British spies, and spent lunch-times interrogating their classmates about their high-heel shoe preferences. The following day, they were confronted by a posse of boys dressed up in heavy overcoats and fur hats who spoke in horribly cliched Russian accents, and who challenged  the British spies for superiority in the Ripton woods. Far more important than shoes, they announced, was the perfect mine, they claimed, where they planned to extract minerals to run their communist collective. The following day, a number of other boys appeared in dark suits and carrying toy machine guns. They claimed they were seeking the perfect hole, which would provide the perfect place to deposit a perfectly dead body. Their leader?  Cooper Sanford, who called himself what would be his stage name come spring— Papa Salami.

From these three days, we had the beginnings of a very funny play. Our task was then simply to figure out a plot, and weave some meaning into the story.

Over time we began to incorporate inside jokes, facts, ideas, current events, and topics we studied. It was a kind of adolescent soul-stew, a pastiche of SNL, iCarly, Monty Python, and us. Our plays included gods, heaven, hell, and other far-fetched locales. The search for freedom, revolution, and utopia permeated the narratives. We had devilish characters named Beezle and Bub, who ran a casino called the Royal Flush, the plumbing of which was backed up, and which was being patronized by three marginally noble knights  knights who had come to Vegas to celebrate after finding the holy grail (which they’d promptly lost at the Vegas airport). Another scenario included a boxing match featuring the four prophets of a retiring god, and the match was called by Howard Cosell, resurrected from the grave, looking over the proceedings in his yellow sports coat. We had a female Jesus, accompanied by her male side-kick, who, with his long hair, beard, sandals and sexist beliefs, felt he should be promoted to Head Jesus.

Another year featured a coffee shop called the “Big Talk Cafe,” which had been established as a refuge from small talk. One play took place in a combined Guns and Donut Shoppe, called “Nuts ‘n Guns.” Police sporting huge donut-guts paraded around seeking the criminals who had ransacked an artist’s studio and smashed all her sculptures. This play idea had originated from a real-life news story that occured that year: a bunch of local teens had broken into the Homer Noble Farm house, where Robert Frost lived during the summers, and had held a huge party. They’d left beer cans, vomited in the corners, and burned furniture in the fireplace. Amazingly, they did not burn down the house, but in a local paper an editorial noted that while no one knew who  had done it, the North Branch School was just down the road. From that we had a play.

Plays were set in real and imaginary places, Watersmeet, Missouri; Twainsboro, Arkansas, Ripton, Vermont, the WNBS News Station, a jail, a boot camp for the love-sick. In the therapy session with God, whose retirement was imminent, his psychotherapist counseled him on how to hand over his powers, in King Lear fashion, to his four children, while his attendants, Peaches and Cream, brought him bottles of San Pellegrino.

The scenarios were fantastically imaginative and joyfully idiotic. One year the play was set on a tropical volcanic island after a ship had crashed on a nearby reef. The survivors were two families, each headed by moronic former fraternity presidents. When the island’s volcano begins to erupt, their solution is to have a grilling competition. Another play was set in the underworld, in Purgatory, where a band of mortal fools wandered about looking for a Golden Ducklet. Another play was set In Jeff’s Celestial Comedy Cellar, where the head comedians were the Devil and God, and where the devil began the play with the intention to read the entirety of Moby Dick to the audience. We included talent shows within the play, spoofs of crappy musicals, and set pieces featuring the actual musical talents of the kids.

Another play was set in a sand-box on a playground in a town divided by a wall, with females on one side, males on the other. It was clear that current events and politics were being placed center stage. In 2016, the play was set at the gates of Heaven, following the funeral of a man named Ronald Hump. That play had begun in the pitch dark, with a hooded priestess standing over a coffin, reading lugubrious last rites as the entire cast stood by, heads down, holding tea lights. That year, due to the fact Ronald Hump and his fellow deceased did not possess the credentials to be allowed into heaven, Hump and his followers decided to hold an election to see who would be the President of the New Heaven. Needless to say, Ronald Hump did not win. One play was set in the most horrible high school in history, Crapperstown High, home of the Dung Beetles, and the Gods were mercifully watching over it. In another play, Anna Akhmatova visited an English class and awakened the slumbering souls there. Once, Eric, the science teacher, made a cameo as Gandhi. In the middle of a different play, Rowan tossed a football to the crowd, which I had to catch and then dash off to operate the lights, which we had upgraded to a small light board and four spots. Another year, we put on three false endings, one of which was me stopping the play, walking out into the middle of the audience, feigning fury and frustration at the cast for their terribly corny and insipid ending. “That’s the most embarrassing and horrible play ending that’s ever been on stage. Total crap! Come up with something acceptable, and play it again!”

In every case the play was filled with music, poetry, real writing from the school year, scenes from stories, and the actual, lived drama of the adolescent actors. Into their plays they poured themselves. And it was play, and they were players playing together, and from that a great, rambling communal joy was made. I became better at directing them and marshalling their excitement, anxieties, and high intentions. Every year I was certain we had authored the most horrible, insufferably long play in history, and every year it all came together. Donna became a properties master, and Rose became a master set designer who occasionally offered up tidbits that might help the play along.

Some number of years ago we were struggling to find an ending to the play. The opening scene had been set at the Walt Whitman Memorial Poetry Reading, where each of the poets was repeatedly interrupted by crass advertisers and a variety of rude and self-centered buffoons. But we could not find a suitable way to bookend the play without being overly hokey. Previously, Rose had read lines from Whitman one morning in meeting, and suddenly, we had our ending— words which were not ours, but Whitman’s, by way of the math teacher, out of the mouth of Bryn Martin, who spoke for all of them: 

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

Over time the play became central to the school’s identity, and central in the narrative of each school year. The play became intertwined in the school, and we became intertwined with the play, with each student, every year, contributing a verse.

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