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Amateur Theatricals
by Heather Henderson

“A love of the theatre is so general, an itch for acting so strong among young people.”
– Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

The room is lit by candles and the Christmas tree lights twinkle.   Guests toast one another with champagne as excited children scamper about.  Suddenly, in the midst of this festive holiday party, a mysterious figure in a black and silver cape sweeps into the room.  He wears a black eye patch and a sequined bow tie; from one ear dangles an enormous silvery pearl.  All eyes turn to this fantastical stranger, who bows politely to each guest, then approaches a small girl in a party dress.  From beneath his shimmering cloak he produces a gorgeously wrapped present.  The girl claps her hands in delight and unwraps it to find – a Nutcracker!

Are we in $90 orchestra seats, watching the New York City Ballet performing its annual holiday production of the Nutcracker?  Actually, we’re in our own cramped living room, surrounded by grandparents, aunts, and uncles, listening to Tchaikovsky’s music on a CD.  We watch nine-year-old William as he twirls about in the guise of Herr Drosselmeyer, offering his five-year-old cousin – happily, if coincidentally, named Clara – a toy Nutcracker.  The children have been preparing for this evening for months. 

The story of how this performance came about illustrates some of the rewards of homeschooling – children taking the initiative, the whole family participating in a communal project, and everyone discovering unsuspected talents.  It’s also a story that is hardly finished, as our boys continue to give new meaning to the words “home entertainment center” with their impromptu plays based on our reading this year of Greek mythology and Bible stories. 

Where did it all begin?  Lots of little girls fall in love with the Nutcracker, attracted by the pretty dancers, the tutus, the Sugar Plum fairy.  But, my boys have always enjoyed the story, too.  Maybe it’s the creepy Mouse King and energetic sword fighting? 

So, for Halloween, the three of them had decided to dress as characters from the Nutcracker.  Their grandmother and I took them to a Goodwill store, where we found the makings of costumes among ladies’ castoff party clothes: a red satin jacket, to which we added gold braid and epaulettes, was perfect for the Nutcracker; some lacy fabric made an elegant ruff for the Mouse King.  With many suggestions from the children, we figured out how to make mouse ears and a crown (getting it to stay on was an engineering challenge).  In the midst of fittings, the boys swirled their capes and practiced with their plastic swords. 

Suddenly, a great idea was born.  Why not stage our very own performance of the Nutcracker in December?  Ideas flowed and we began to sketch out the scenes.  What started as a basic skit grew increasingly complex.  Who would dim the lights?  Who would slowly pound out the twelve strokes of midnight on the piano?  Would five-year-old Patrick, who played Clara’s mischievous brother Fritz as well as the Nutcracker himself, have time for his costume change?

We rehearsed and rehearsed, making modifications as we went along.  The experience was intense, a kind of creative fever that overtook us all.  We became totally absorbed in our project, with everyone brainstorming.  We tried to keep things simple: there were no words and not much dancing.  Everything was done with gesture and mime.  Still, coordinating the music, the lighting, the entrances and exits, and making programs out of red cardboard and gold ribbon – these things gave us all a more profound appreciation of the many elements that go into putting on a play. 

The spectacle culminated in a dramatic sword fight, in which the heroic Nutcracker, miraculously come to life, rescued Clara from the menacing Mouse King.  Then, Drosselmeyer presided over the happy ending, flinging handfuls of glittery confetti about the room as everyone took a bow. 

This magical evening turned out to be just the beginning of amateur theatricals at our house.  Once launched as actors and costume designers, the boys took off on their own, planning plays entirely by themselves for the entertainment of their parents.  Although nothing quite so elaborate has since been staged, we have been treated to highly comical presentations of “Theseus and the Minotaur,” “Circe and Odysseus,” and assorted puppet shows, including “Noah’s Ark” and “The Tower of Babel.”  Sometimes they make tickets for us to bring to our living room; sometimes they make posters “advertising” their current play. 

Where does this creative energy come from?  A love of acting out stories seems to be hardwired in the human psyche; in all times and all cultures, people have staged dramas that speak of every aspect of human experience.

And then there is the sheer joy of dressing up.  A piece of shiny fabric can be the Mouse King’s cape or a Greek god’s toga.  A coat hanger turns into Apollo’s bow.  Our Minotaur needed only underpants and a cardboard box with some paper horns to be ready for his role.  Cupid and Hermes didn’t even need the underpants – just some paper wings taped to shoulders or heels.  Three giggling boys with their bodies wrapped in a dark cloth became Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog from Hades.

In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, a stern father puts an end to the amateur theatricals that have engrossed the young people while he was absent from his estate.  He fears that their frenzy for acting has run riot, threatening the staid social order.  Happily, in our times we can, as homeschooling parents, see again and again that enough free time and a well-stuffed costume basket are all that imaginative children need to realize the truth of Shakespeare’s line, “The play’s the thing.”  And, if “all the world’s a stage,” then why not start in the living room?

Heather Henderson is a homeschooling mother and freelance writer.  She and her husband and three sons divide their time between Vermont and New York City. 

 

 

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