If I only had the nerve
The swarthy tones mingled long and loud over the packed multipurpose room that late Saturday afternoon for the boy who stood playing the Beast. It had taken him hours to assemble himself that day. Girls swooned in silent corners watching as the one lucky makeup girl, who had volunteered months before so as to simply avoid casting and stage fright, took the small cream swab in her hand and covered it in the cake makeup to match the football player’s warm dull opal to bronze skin tone. He smiled at her, mumbled a quick sorry for not being at the makeup chair earlier on dress rehearsal night, then closed his eyes so she could begin her work. The transformation complete, he donned his moppish wig of cascading curls and wild mane, only slightly different from the one the year before, a curl-glorious lion head from The Wizard of Oz.
He had stepped out of football cleats into jazz shoes for that role. It was not dissimilar to this, yet in his mind the Beast had anger, panache, and swagger that the Cowardly Lion could never obtain based solely upon the sad nomenclature which one adjective can affect. That and his typed two-paged backstory which he had given his Beast character because his teacher had required all of the leads to do that. He had finished it with a little help from the old Disney movie and the girl who volunteered long hours after school in the library. He had no idea that helping him made her heart reawaken, since she worried that, after long evenings in the library, if she disappeared and turned into one of the books which she shelved that she would never be checked out. He was so kind. She would ask Mrs. White if there were any tickets left to the Saturday show.
From the wings he could smell the stage paint hand-brushed and plastered over layers of former set pieces, this being once the hillside in Austria where the girl mimicking Julie Andrews twirled in an old grad gown turned nun’s habit. Before that, the tagboard stood as a mushroom in Alice’s Wonderland, but spray-painted splotches still lingering on the backside could not deny their year producing Hair and Godspell, a truly serendipitous yet disappointing pairing as costumes could be reused but sadly never forgotten.
He glanced from behind the stage as the girl who played Beauty belted about her day in a Little Town and her heart for books. He spotted in the front row his own mother and a few smaller cousins. Three rows back a few snarky but beloved teachers had come to support the cast of first block misfits and the jocks-turned-thespians. Standing in the back he could barely make out the taller audience members—standing room only. His knees shook a little until he held them and posed as he did before a game. The field was his first passion, albeit forced on him by his sheer size and stature his freshmen year. He couldn’t help his corn-fed all-American shoulder span. People can’t help telling babies with long fingers that they’ll probably play the piano one day. But they never tell a big baby that he’ll probably play the Beast his senior year.
His nose itched but he knew better than to scratch after an hour in the chair, so he continued calf stretches and squats before listening again for his cue to bound in.
He was fond of the tumbling, attuned to the audience reactions, and ever listening for the call to roar. He would never admit it to his brothers on the team, but his favorite part was the dance in the ballroom. He was glad he didn’t invite them because watching him glide and swoop and twirl might diminish his lifetime of reputation building, yet something about becoming someone totally new on stage had transcended all of those end-of-game rally moments, roses, and wins, and when a single audience member laughed or reacted, it was bliss.
Then the end of the play when little Jeremy—the would-be pyrotechnic who wrote a request to the administration to get to use real flaming fire bursts at the transformation sequence but was denied—put the dry ice block into the pans below the stage and waited in his elbow-high black gloves for the mist to cover the beast. It worked finally, and the boy Beast slinked off stage and was replaced by the Prince played by Sampson, who was an odd casting choice for many reasons—other than perhaps the implication of his biblical name which he did not exactly live up to at all. Each night the same reel of thoughts from the wings carried through to the curtain call. Each night a boy was made new. He may return to football, he may not. He only knew that the few times he’d felt truly alive were those when he had forgotten to eat he was so excited for opening night, and when, after the curtain call, he had seen the face of his coach who, like a father, came to see him sing and dance and was beaming at him and whistling.
He couldn’t explain it, but he never wanted to wash his face. Under this guise he had become someone else, and later, much later, perhaps at the cast party after the hundredth congratulatory remark, he would see his reflection and know that his life could never be the same again.
STEPHANIE PLATTER is a teacher, writer, Seattle coffee-lover, and film critic who finally realizes that the waiting-in-the-wings life metaphor is as valuable as the pounce and lion’s roar.