“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re at half hour.” The stage manager reminded the cast and crew over the intercom.
Sitting before my mirror in the dressing room, I joined the professional actors as we completed our final preparations: applying make-up, repinning loose strands of hair, checking costumes, and brushing teeth.
I was making my acting debut, as a one-time only guest spectator in the courtroom scene of To Kill A Mockingbird, produced by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. I’d bid on the spot in the theatre’s silent auction last March.
Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, is set in the fictitious town of Maycomb, Alabama during 1936, an era of Hoover carts, shoeless children, interminable summer heat, and racial segregation. I first read TKAM in 1967, turning pages surreptiously under the desk during my 7th grade social studies class. Like sealing wax, the story left an impenetrable impression that continues to this day. I taught the novel to middle school students, hoping to infuse its timeless messages of integrity, compassion, tolerance, and equality.
When I heard about the theatre’s plans to produce the play, adapted by Christopher Sergel, and its intentions to offer a courtroom seat, I jumped at the chance to be part of literature I love.
At my costume fitting, I tried on five period dresses, several pairs of shoes, and a couple of hats.
Women weren’t allowed to be in the jury then; but townspeople filled the benches, eager to watch how the town’s attorney, Atticus Finch, could possibly defend a black man accused of raping a white girl.
I attended my “put-in” rehearsal to practice entering, carrying a folding chair, setting it up in the right spot, sitting with my ankles crossed, responding to what I heard and saw on stage, finding a comfortable pose to maintain during moments when the action froze so another scene could occur, using my prop, a paper fan, and exiting in the dark, my arm balanced by another performer.
To play a Southern woman of that era, I knew I had to invoke a persona outside my comfort zone. How could I possibly side with the character of Bob Ewell, a drunk who took advantage of his daughter, the lonely Mayella?
I considered the famous words of town attorney, Atticus Finch, appointed to defend the accused Tom Robinson.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it. ” (TKAM, p.30).
I rolled these words around inside my head the entire day, while hiking in the Poconos, while driving, while eating meals. I needed to suspend my personal beliefs to remain in character, to express shock that a black man was being called as a witness, to absorb Atticus’ charge to the jury, and to react to the verdict.
Dressed, hair in a coil, and made up, I entered the “Green Room,” the space below the stage where the actors wait until they appear in the play. (for the origin of the term: http://www.theatrecrafts.com/glossary/pages/moregreenroom.html) Here the actors ate from large trays of take-out Chinese food, played endless card games of poker and solitaire, that they’d stop when they were needed and resume as soon as they returned; stretched into yoga poses, and scanned the Internet, looking for their next job.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re at 10 minutes.”
And then, “Ladies and gentlemen, 5 minutes. Places, please.”
What the performers say about TKAM:
For other posts about TKAM: