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Revisiting Third Grade / First Brushes with Acting

April 22, 2011
Principia 3rd Grade Thank You

Principia 3rd Grade Thank You

While in St. Louis to perform Lilia! at Principia Upper School, I offered to talk to classes about aspects of what I do. To my surprise, the first to take me up on it was a third grade teacher whose class was gearing up to deliver monologues about famous African Americans.

My first thought was, “Hmmm… third graders. What can I possibly give them?” I expected to be talking to high school drama classes.

The kids sat cross-legged on a rug in their classroom watching me with adorably wide eyes as we chatted. They expressed concern about their first time performing in front of an audience. Their teacher smiled on with compassion.

I performed a couple of scenes from Lilia!, then told them how my grandmother was an actress, but that was definitely NOT what I wanted to be. No way! I wanted to be a visual artist – a sculptor or painter.

Suddenly, it all came flooding back. I was their age when I first encountered acting.  I told them the story.

One day, my dad took me to the house of a lady in town who taught acting classes. She made grand gestures and spoke with rounded, elongated vowels. I clung to his hand and said nothing while she spoke to him over my head. I was relieved when we left.

“Maybe you’d like to take acting classes from her,” my dad suggested.

I shook my head NO, hoping that would be the end of it.

In third grade, I was going to a new school called Elisabeth Morrow. One rainy morning there, the drama lady my dad and I’d visited entered my classroom.

“Class,” said Miss O’Callahan, “We have a special guest today. An actress.”

The drama lady pulled out a red telephone and instructed us to come up to the front of the room one at a time and improvise a telephone conversation with an imagined person on the other end.

NO!

Here I was, the new kid. The quiet one. Elizabeth. This was my first year using my real name to avoid the teasing I’d received at the old school with my nickname Libby.

Kids used to sing: “When it says ‘Libby, Libby, Libby on the label, label, label,’ you will like it, like it, like it on the table, table, table.”

One by one, the other children went up to the front of the room. Liz went up, and Lizzie – the other two Elizabeths in class (I insisted on the full “Elizabeth”), Peter, Carl and everyone else.

I heard nothing anyone said because my heart was pounding too loud.

Soon, everyone had gone but me. I shrank with all my might into invisibility. The drama lady glanced around the room as I prayed for dear life:

“Don’t call on me. Please don’t call on me, please…”

Her eyes skimmed past me. Then she inhaled deeply and announced, “All right, that was everybody. Thank you very much.”

I could hardly believe my ears. I expected classmates’ heads to turn and say, “No, wait!” Peter, the loud-mouthed class clown would surely blow my cover.

But no one saw me. No one noticed.

The drama lady lifted her red telephone off the desk, placed it in her bag and exited with a grand flourish.

My life was spared!

A few days later, Miss O’Callahan announced our class would be putting on a play called The Missing Turkey Lurkey. Carl, the chubbiest boy would play the title role. I was cast in the chorus, dressed as a pilgrim. Miss O’Callahan reviewed our lines with us daily.

When my dad found out, he was thrilled and immediately called my grandmother Lilia, the actress. On her next visit, she commanded me to recite my lines, which I did:

“When the frost is on the pumpkin and the fodder’s in the stock,
You can tell Thanksgiving’s coming without looking at the clock.”

“No, No, NO!” Exclaimed my grandmother. “You’re rattling off the words without meaning. Think about what you are saying!”

With rapturous feeling, she demonstrated the poetic lilt, carried away by the images and sound of her own voice:

“When the frost is on the pumpkin and the fodder’s in the stock,
You can tell Thanksgiving’s coming without looking at the clock.
For all the leaves are turning brown and many trees are bare,
And there’s a sort of spicy smell a floating through the air.”

There was no way I was going to say the lines like that in unison with the rest of the chorus. I’d sound ridiculous, plus it would ruin everything. I ignored her direction completely.

My 3rd grade production of 'The Missing Turkey Lurkey' (I'm the pony-tailed pilgrim, back row center)

My 3rd grade production of 'The Missing Turkey Lurkey' (I'm the pony-tailed pilgrim, back row center)

In sixth grade, my dad took me to a local drama school to watch a class. I sat frozen as kids my age got up and improvised.

“Would you like to sign up for classes here?” My dad asked afterwards.

“No way! I can’t think of what to say in real life, let alone on stage in front of an audience.”

Then, in seventh grade, I befriended a new girl who moved to town named Charlotte. She was shy, too. We went to see Fantasia together. On the way home, we talked to each other in accents. It was so fun, I forgot to be self-conscious.

“I’m going to sign up for Saturday acting classes at The Neighborhood Playhouse in New York,” she told me. “Wanna do it with me?”

Well, gosh, if Charlotte was shy and she was OK doing that, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Plus, my ten year-old sister was already taking the train into New York four days a week for classes at the School of American Ballet. It would be exciting to have my own reason to go to New York.

I told my grandmother I wanted to go to the Neighborhood Playhouse. Delighted, she immediately called and set up an interview. We went together, and I was accepted.

A few days before classes began, I called Charlotte. “I’ll see you on the train Saturday morning,” I said.

“I missed the interview appointment deadline,” she told me. “I won’t be going.”

What?!

It was too late to back out, so I went alone.  None of the kids knew each other the first day, so everyone was shy but ready to jump in, which I did. I loved it and have been hooked ever since.

Some of the third graders looked back at me thoughtfully, others smiled. I assured them those feelings of nervousness were really just feelings of excitement. How I would have loved to have been there for their performances to cheer them on!

A few days later, I received a package of beautifully handwritten thank you notes from those kids (see below). Here I was hoping I’d managed to give them something of value – a boost of encouragement, and their letters turned out to be enormously encouraging to me, letting me know I had indeed helped them. My heart grew about forty times bigger. I was so inspired by the power of their letters that I immediately wrote the class to express how much they’d meant to me.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Bert Silverberg permalink
    April 26, 2011 2:30 pm

    Hi Libby.

    What a wonderful story! I enjoyed it thoroughly. Some of my students recently visited a fourth grade class — taught by a former student of mine — to read them some stories for National Reading Week. The kids were remarkably polite and attentive. We concluded the session by reading a short play, in which several of the children readily volunteered to participate. We had as good a time as they did.

    Thanks for sharing this experience.

    Bert

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