Fifteen year old Oliver Mannion was laid off from his job a couple of weeks ago and he’s still brooding about it.
Actually, there’s some question as to whether he was laid off.
In fact, there’s some question as to whether he actually had a job.
He feels he had a job and he feels laid off and that’s a sad feeling.
Here’s the story.
When he was in seventh grade, Oliver worked stage crew for his middle school’s production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Among his several duties was handling the spotlight, an important job because the spot was integral to most of the show’s many special effects. And those effects were special. This was one fine production for a middle school play with a limited budget. My favorite effect was when Veruca Salt got carried away by the squirrels, although putting Mike Teavee inside the TV was a show-stopper too. And the cast was good. Oliver had a great time and liked and admired the teacher who produced and directed. He was looking forward to the next year’s show and seriously considering working on the other side of the spotlight.
But when eighth grade rolled around and it was time to get to work on that year’s play, the teacher begged off. She was the adviser for two other clubs and producing and directing a play was just going to be more than she could handle. Sadly, no other teacher stepped up to take over. This was a blow to Oliver and his friends.
But our local library has a theater program for kids called Books Alive, kids being defined as grade schoolers and middle schoolers, books being defined as books, and alive being defined as the kids bringing those books to life on stage. Oliver decided he’d check it out. As it happened, he wasn’t the only newcomer to the program. Our wonderful and dynamic library head, who had been running Books Alive but was finding she didn’t have the time she wanted to devote to it anymore, had recruited a couple of retired high school teachers to take over. JP and AP had just moved up from the City and were looking to get involved in the community. Our library chief knows how to spot talent and she made her move. JP and AP were put right to work. And they were great!
They didn’t simply supervise and shepherd the kids through rehearsals for the show they were putting on, a revue of skits and songs adapted from Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. They taught the kids the elements of acting, song and dance, improvisation, dramaturgy (although they didn’t call it that), and playwriting. Essentially, they ran a six-month theater workshop.
Oliver was impressed. Impressed by the job they did and impressed by them. Impressed enough to change his mind about what he wants to be when he grows up from computer game designer to teacher.
He had a swell time and even performed in a couple of the skits. He still insisted on running the spotlight though and sometimes, when I hear him telling it, I think his favorite moment was when he had to turn off the spot, make a mad dash out the doors of the middle school auditorium, run through the halls, down one flight of stairs and up another, dive under a teaser to get backstage in time for his entrance, do his bit, then dive back under the teaser, fly down the one set of stairs, up the other, run down the halls, and burst through the auditorium doors and take his place again behind the spotlight in time to get the beam trained on the kids doing the next number.
He’s a fan of Slings & Arrows and I think one of the things he’s picked up from that show is that some of the happiest memories from a life in the theater are those of moments of near disaster.
Unfortunately, as a graduate of eighth grade and a soon-to-be high school freshman, he was now too big a kid for the program. His mother and I thought he’d join the drama club at the high school, but the drama club is just that, a club. Join and you spend the year socializing after school and then everybody pitches in and throws a really big party in April in the form of a musical.
Oliver figured out that since he was a freshman and not a natural song and dance man he probably wouldn’t get cast even in the chorus. He was fine with that. He would have been happy working stage crew, but then his services wouldn’t be called upon until it was time to start building the sets and hanging the lights in March. For him, joining the drama club would have meant sitting around twiddling his thumbs for five months while watching other kids having fun.
There was something else to consider.
The quality of the productions varies from year to year, depending on the depth of the talent pool, from terrible to mediocre to not as painful to sit through as you feared to hey, at least that girl playing the lead could sing like a pro, think she’ll major in theater in college?
Even if truly good wasn’t beyond their reach, it’s beyond their budget. Most of the costumes look as though they’re scrounged out of the kids’ grandparents’ attics and the sets look like what they are, the unconvincing products of less than sure hands trying to follow instructions from the one kid who has drawing and carpentry skills.
My high school drama teacher had a long list of reasons why she refused to stage musicals. It started with the sheer expense of the things---the royalties on just the book, let alone the sheet music, are staggering. For less than the cost of putting on one musical, she could stage three regular plays, all of which would have higher production values and feature much better performances, because her next reason for not doing musicals, was that it was easier to find fifteen or twenty high school kids who could act, at least well enough to carry off the right, carefully assigned part, than to find two or three who could sing, dance, and act and you need at least ten of those to pull off even the least demanding musical comedy, forget something like West Side Story or Oklahoma. She had high standards. She didn’t see the point of putting on a half-assed production of Bye, Bye Birdie or Annie Get Your Gun instead of top-knotch (and funny) productions of The Taming of the Shrew and The Man Who Came to Dinner. Our production of The Crucible broke hearts and left grown men and women weeping in the aisles, even though I always felt the kid playing John Proctor was in over his head and would have been better cast as Reverend Hale.
Oliver has high standards too and agrees with my drama teacher, even though he’s never met her. Part of it is his own temperament, but I think a great deal of it is that he learned a lot from JP and AP.
Oliver wanted to put what he’d learned from JP and AP to work and he decided the best way to do that was to go to work for them.
At the beginning of the fall, he marched himself down to the church where Books Alive rehearses and informed JP and AP that they needed an assistant and he knew just the man for the job.
They didn’t take much convincing.
“You’re hired!” they said. At least that’s how Oliver interpreted whatever it was they actually said, which might have been “You’re hired,” except they meant it in a slightly looser and more colloquial sense than Oliver took it. They meant, “Great! We’re glad to have your help. This is going to be fun” and Oliver took it as “Be here Tuesday at three-thirty sharp, kid, and be ready to get to right to work.” And that’s how he approached his new job, as work.
“I have to go to work today,” he’d announce in the morning.
“I had a pretty good day at work,” he’d tell us over dinner in the evening.
Every Tuesday and Wednesday, after school, from 3:30 to 5:30, from September through April, Oliver was on the job, helping to organize and run rehearsals, teach the kids the basics of acting, improv, and playwriting, running errands for JP and AP, setting up, tearing down, building, painting, holding hands, wiping noses, pitching in any way he could however he was needed. The show was another revue, with songs and sketches adapted from Dr Suess making up Act I and an original play about bugs from outer space Act II. And JP and AP let Oliver direct the Wocket in my Pocket sketch on his own.
He was listed in the program as Assistant to the Directors but the job title he gave himself was Assistant Teacher.
Now, this isn’t just a proud father boasting. Oliver did a truly fine job. The kids in the cast loved and respected him. JP and AP were impressed by his work ethic and grateful for his help. The liked and admired him and they still do. But…
Books Alive is really intended for kids. Oliver is without doubt a young man. A responsible, capable, hard-working young man, but still no longer a kid. And the job he gave himself has turned into a lesson JP and AP want to add to the program. They want to teach the older kids the basics of producing and directing. I’m guessing that one of the things they learned from Oliver is how they can make future productions more of the kids’ own doing. I’m not sure if it even occurred to them that Oliver might have wanted to come back to work next fall. I think it might have caught them by surprise when he started talking to them about his plans for September.
As tactfully as they could, they explained their thinking on the matter.
What Oliver heard them say, though, was, “I’m sorry, kid, but we’re going to have to let you go.”
And like I said, he’s not over it. When he talks about it, he refers to what happened as his having been laid-off. It was his job and he loved his job.
But don’t get the idea he’s been sitting around moping.
Right now, he’s down at the library for orientation for summer work as a volunteer. And in July he’s off to his fantasy-adventure camp but not as your ordinary camper. He co-wrote the scenario for the role-playing game they’ll be acting out this year and he has to be there to help supervise.
He’s planning on getting himself hired next summer as a counselor, if he hasn’t talked himself into some other job before that.
I’m starting to wonder if maybe he should join the high school drama club. He could start pushing for them to do How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
They’d have a natural for the part of J. Pierrepont Finch.
Anybody have an opening for a junior executive trainee?