frog

I’ve been told the best way to get humans to bond is to have them risk their lives together. Surely the second-best way to bond must be performing. Nothing’s scarier than getting in front of people and saying, “Hey, I’m worth paying attention to!”

Intending to meet people while nurturing my inner actor, I signed up for a 24 hour play event in my new town. For those unfamiliar with the concept: a series of (short) plays are written, rehearsed, and performed by various groups, all in a span of less than 24 hours. The crowds are usually pretty forgiving, because dropped lines, miscues, and ad libbing are common. Plenty of people show up just to enjoy the train wrecks.

They call roll. A man with a theatre-beard and a ponytail calls my name, a rare perfect pronunciation, and my hand shoots up. He points at me, then jerks his thumb towards the back. I’m with him. He calls several other names. Everyone meanders to the front.

Huge age differences in our group. It’s strange coming from the artificial college environment where you spend four years surrounded by perfect coevals. Very disconcerting to be interacting with this 30 something director, who apparently has a kid. I’m socializing with people who’ve procreated!? And then there’s the graying, slightly overweight man with the well-trimmed beard. He’s got the clear look of the bard; tons of Shakespeare has slipped past that beard. The third guy in our group also has an excellent beard. In fact, he carries with him the air of coolness, like the kind of guy at the top of every girl’s list. But at the same time, he’s reserved, not dominating conversation at all. An attractive person without an ego; I take an immediate dislike to him.

Why, I ask myself, did I not grow a beard? I’d fit in much better.

Then there are the girls. I list them second, but it goes without saying that they were noticed, and in greater detail, first. There’s the stage-hand playing actor tourist. And that’s fine, it’s one of the reasons 24 hour plays happen. Casual acting opportunities. She smiles a lot, slips catnaps into the rehearsal schedule, compliments everyone appropriately, and references her marriage as often as possible.

The bulk of my male awareness centers on the second girl. She initially repels.  Though clearly little older than myself, she dresses unironically like a 65 year old. Loafers. Waist-high pants. Thick, horn-rimmed glasses. On someone with more confidence, this could be a hipster look, but as if ashamed of herself, she avoids eye contact, muttering words straight into the carpet. But I know she’s pretty. A nice figure, great hair and skin. Hair, eyes, nose, and the rest roughly in their designated places. A degree and a nice job; a fondness for video games; knowledge of obscure writers. What more could I want in a girl? Still, it’s baffling to see such a beautiful girl shackle herself with self-defeating body language. It’s like the first 30 minutes of any Julia Roberts movie.

The final girl is the quintessential train wreck. An unemployable reservation child bumped from city to city her entire life, and finally settled on studying theatre. Devoid of prior theatre experience, she must be in it for the big paychecks. Her speech patterns speak to her lack of education. I tamp down the thought as soon as it pops into my head. But it’s there, for a second.

I hate the play almost as much as its author. Shoeless, he ambles through the audience house wearing athletic shorts and an Athletics jersey. His jacket hood is up, and his arms swing so much I worry he’ll spill his open beer.

Frustration froths inside throughout the first read-through. It’s a fable, in the sense that most of the characters are frogs, or talking trees, or halves of a hole. Yes, two actors work as a team to represent the absence of dirt. Fortunately, I’m cast as a man. Even if one-dimensional, predictable, and boring, at least the part’s the correct species, right?

Specifically, I’m an explorer. With each successive read-through, my character invades the pristine Caribbean island, home to the venerable leptodactylus fallax (or Chicken Frog). Bravely, each iteration of the explorer scrapes the potentially cancer-killing fungus from the Chicken Frog, basking for a few moments in the promise of altruism before succumbing to hunger and trying to eat the nearly extinct frog. Not surprisingly, the explorers’ gluttony are their undoing. Each tries to use a helpful talking tree for firewood, briefly, before being crushed by his own felled timber.

Again and again I become the explorer. Rehearsals start to seem endless. The play is only 6 minutes long and we’re given nearly 8 hours to rehearse. Line memorization is less of a problem than remembering who I actually am.

And yet, our born-again theatre major cannot get her lines straight. Long after our married girl masters speaking tree and our Julia Roberts perfects her holiness, this supposed theatre major cannot remember her 6-line rhyming poem. Professional theatres can fire people. Even community theatres can shuffle people around. In a 24 hour play, casts are stuck. Those of us versed in theatre understand this, and know that criticism at this point will only cause more harm. We can’t risk making driving her to quit. We need her now, even for just 6 little lines of frog poetry.

So we break out all of our memorization advice, every single trick we’ve picked up over the years. Still, she struggles. And then, in time, after putting in a great deal of practice, she gets worse. It’s a miracle. Still, we keep rehearsing. I explore more, becoming the prototypical blundering, environment squandering human over and over. Slowly, and quite against my will, I start to perceive nuances. The man’s obliviousness to the pleas of nature become less preachy and more tragic. The tree’s breathy whistling becomes truly ominous. The wailing of the holes actually speaks something into my heart about nihilism. A monologue from our doomed Chicken Frog, in the hands of our experienced bard, takes on deep undertones of loss and loneliness. Where before I’d seen a cliched, prideful man, I now see a well-meaning person led astray by temptation. Good intentions leading to a flawed result.

Surprisingly, our little play comes together. But our theatre major still can’t master her handful of lines. How frustrating, to watch her incapable of spitting out 6 measly little lines and walking offstage. That’s all the play calls for, all we ask. Just a little prologue to set-up the action. By this point she’s spending equal parts of time lamenting future failure and practicing lines. It’s not a good sign. Lining up behind the curtain, we grit our teeth against the worst.

The curtain opens. Frog-man, tree, and two hole halves kneel, sit, or stand frozen. I wait offstage. The frog-girl, our theatre major, crosses to center stage. Her first line comes out. Then the second, and the third. The first five come out beautifully, followed by 9/10ths of the 6th… and then she stops. Slowly, the frog-girl turns and exits. Not perfect, but enough to get the point across. The main action commences. We execute just as rehearsed. Lying crumpled in a heap with the holes and the tree, a dead frog prostrated just beyond, I realize that the frog girl lives. Of everyone, the frog girl lives. She’s our protagonist.

Our theatre major got more out of that experience than the rest of us. We put on a performance. She faced a fear.

Now I’ve got the number of a beautiful, unattractive girl in my phone. What will I do with it?

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