First thing on the Monday after auditions, I looked for the cast and crew list for The Messenger . It wasn't up yet, so I headed to 1st hour British Literature. I checked the list again before going to the cafeteria for lunch, and I saw the lists taped to the wall by the front door. I read the cast list first. I was very glad when I didn't see my name next to any of the acting roles. And, I was pleased to see that Sara got the role of Mrs. Johnson, the part she wanted.
Next, I looked at the crew list. I was very surprised, and excited, when I saw that I was the Student Director. "Cool," I said to myself. I put my initials next to my name to confirm that I accepted the job.
I also checked to see if John's name was listed anywhere, and I was relieved to find that he was not part of the company.
As I headed to the cafeteria, I realized that I was starting to feel a little bit better. Maybe, The Messenger could be fun. Maybe it would help take my mind off of David – at least for a little while.
"Joel, wait up," Sara called to me. I stopped just outside the cafeteria entrance.
"Congratulations on getting the part of Mrs. Johnson," I said. "I know you wanted it."
"Thanks," she said. "And congratulations to you, Mr. Student Director!"
"Yea, I'm kind of excited about that," I said. "I think it will be fun to work with Ben."
"Maybe," Sara said. "But, he seems a little mercurial – you know, nice one minute and sort of mean the next."
"He's okay, Sara," I said. "I think his bark is probably worse than his bite."
"I'm surprised to hear you say that," she said. "I thought you'd be pissed at Ben for putting you on the understudy list."
"What are you talking about?" I asked. "What understudy list?"
Sara took hold of my wrist and almost dragged me back to the postings. She pointed to a paper taped below the cast and crew assignments. It was a list of understudies. My name was at the top. I was the understudy for the Messenger, the main character in the play.
"What the Hell?" I said. "I told Ben I didn't want an acting part, and then he goes and makes me the understudy for the frigging lead?!? I can't believe him!"
"You don't have to accept," Sara said.
"This stinks," I complained. "I told Ben I'd do whatever he needs me to do. And now, I'm either a liar or a hostage."
I forced myself to calm down and focus. I took a deep breath. Then, I pulled out a pen and initialed next to my name on the list.
"Joel!" Sara said. "What are you doing? At least think about it before making a commitment like that."
"I promised," I said. "And, I can't let Ben down. I can handle the extra work, and probably, I will never actually have to get up on the stage. But, I don't understand why Ben thinks I'd be a good Messenger. My reading wasn't that good – on purpose."
"I can tell you why" Sara said. 'Look who he cast as the Messenger – Corey Anderson, the Homecoming King! I think it's pretty clear; he wants a cute guy in the lead."
"Thanks," I said. "But there are a lot of better-looking guys he could have picked."
"Maybe," Sara said. "But, let's get some lunch. They have Mac and Cheese on the menu, and you could use some comfort food."
That night, I read the play again, this time trying to get a better sense of the Messenger's part. "Good Lord!" I thought. "This part is huge! It's going to take forever to memorize all these lines." So, I started on memorization right then and there.
The first rehearsal was the following Monday after school. Only the actors and understudies had to attend. There was a separate meeting scheduled for members of the crew.
Ben talked to us from the stage in the auditorium. "I want to welcome all of you to the company. I chose this group because I have confidence that each of you can contribute to the production. And, I believe we can all work well together – as a team." He was falling back into his military-like cadence. "I expect you to do your part, and I will always try to make this experience fun and rewarding for you."
As I found out later, his commitment that he would always try to make our experience fun and rewarding was, at best, a work in progress.
"Before I start the rehearsal, I want to explain the role of the Messenger. He narrates the play, and he speaks directly to the audience. He seems to know all about the people of Cedarville. Sometimes, he even foreshadows what will happen later. Three times, he becomes a character in the play. He brings news – good and bad - to the people of Cedarville. That's why he's called the Messenger."
Some of the cast members looked surprised. It was as if they hadn't figured out that the Messenger delivers messages in the play.
"In the first act," Ben continued, "the Messenger becomes the owner of the lumber mill. He delivers the news of a job layoff to Mr. Miller. Remember people, the first and second acts take place in the early 1930's. For those of you who haven't had American History yet, that's during the Great Depression. If you don't know about the Great Depression, look it up – or ask your grandparents."
Ben paused and looked at his notes. "In the second act, The Messenger brings good news to the Johnson family. He becomes the doctor who tells them that their daughter has given birth to a healthy baby girl. And, in the third act, the Messenger becomes a Western Union delivery boy. He delivers the message to the Brown family that a tragedy has occurred. Any questions?"
Corey Anderson raised his hand. "Do I have to change costumes three times?" he asked. That's a lot of costume changes!"
I could tell that Ben was irritated by the question, and it looked like he had to work at remaining patient. "You'll put on a Bollman Hat for the scene at the mill, a white lab coat in the hospital, and a newsboy's cap to deliver the telegram. I think you can manage, Corey."
"Note to self," I thought. "Don't ask Ben questions – unless absolutely necessary."
"Okay," Ben said. "Actors, on stage. Understudies, you can just watch for now." He passed out copies of the script to everyone.
"Today, we'll do a read through of Act 1," he said. "You'll be grouped in families, except for the Messenger. He'll be standing off to the side by himself. Don't worry about 'acting' today. We'll work on characterization soon enough. Today, just follow along in the script and try not to miss any of your cues."
A girl named Heather raised her hand. "What kind of clues should we be looking for?" she asked.
Ben hung his head down, but I could still see his tight-lipped smile. A few moments later, he sighed, and his smile relaxed. He calmly explained what a cue is.
"Okay," Ben said. "Let's get into groups. Miller family – stage right. Johnson family – center stage. Brown family – stage left. Messenger – down stage right."
No one in the cast moved.
Ben looked confused. Then, he figured out what the problem was. "Sorry," he said. "I forgot to start at the beginning." He explained that stage right and stage left refer to the actors' right or left; and down stage is nearest to the audience. "Now," he said. "I think you can figure out what center stage and up stage mean."
The actors managed to find their places. "For today, just stay in your group and get to know your family and neighbors," Ben said. "We'll block the show next week. Blocking means figuring out how you will move around the stage. You know, where to walk, when to sit – which noose to put your head through."
Sara and a boy named Kevin laughed. Most of the actors looked confused. A few seemed scared.
"Lighten up, people!" Ben said. "It was a joke! There won't really be any hangings!" Ben picked up his script. "Okay, Corey. Start us off."
The first read through of Act 1 was rough. Some actors couldn't seem to handle a cold reading. Often, they lost their places, mispronounced words, and missed their cues. I was impressed by Ben, however. He seemed patient – for a change.
Ben asked me to stay after the rehearsal ended. "I need you to do something for me," he said. "Put together a rehearsal schedule for the cast. Avoid Wednesdays. I have a class that night." That was all the direction he gave me before walking away.
The next day, I managed to get a copy of a rehearsal schedule from the last show that Mrs. Weber had directed. Using that as a template, I started working on my assignment.
At Tuesday's rehearsal, Ben had the cast do a read through of Acts 2 and 3. It didn't go well. But, Ben was not only patient, but he was also kind. He gave clear, constructive feedback as well as some much-needed compliments. Then, he said, "I've decided we'll have four rehearsals each week until it's closer to the production. I'm letting you off on Fridays. You're welcome! Joel will run understudy rehearsals once a week on Fridays. See you tomorrow after school!"
Ben had told me to avoid Wednesday rehearsals because he had a class. My draft schedule included no Wednesdays. And, I hadn't known that I was responsible for understudy rehearsals. Since he seemed to be in a good mood, I decided to clarify things before leaving.
"I'm almost done with the rehearsal schedule for you," I said to Ben. "I'll take Fridays off of the calendar for the regular cast. Are Wednesdays still a problem?"
"I'm sorry, Joel. I should have told you," Ben said. "I dropped my Wednesday night class. So, rehearsals can be Monday through Thursday. I probably should have mentioned the understudy thing, too. Do you have any questions? Now is the time to ask."
We clarified many details, and I felt much better about the assignment.
As we were leaving, Ben said, "Thanks for everything, Joel." He was close enough for me to smell his aftershave again. Then he added, "You're awesome." When he patted me on the shoulder, his touch startled me.
Rehearsals improved for the rest of that first week. In the second week, blocking was a little frustrating, but it worked out. The third week was good, except that Ben was moody.
At the last rehearsal of the third week, Ben sat the cast down before everyone went home. "Listen up, people," he said in his on-again, off-again military cadence. "Next week is a big week. We're going 'off book.' That means there will be no scripts on stage starting Monday. You need to have memorized all your lines for the next rehearsal. Don't worry about messing up one or two lines. Joel will follow along with the script. He'll prompt you. If you're shaky on anything, including your cues or blocking, take the weekend to fix it. Now, get out of here and go be teenagers!"
As people were leaving, I noticed that some of the actors seemed concerned about going 'off book' on Monday. Corey, however, looked totally freaked-out. So, I went over to talk with him.
"Corey," I said. "Are you okay?"
"I'm in deep shit, Joel," he said. "There's no way I can learn all my lines by Monday. I didn't want a big part! I wish I'd never even tried out for the play!"
"Everyone knows you've got the hardest part, Corey. And we'll all help you," I said. "How about I come over to your place on Saturday, and we'll run lines together. I'm your understudy, so that will help me, too."
Corey agreed, but he still seemed upset.
My understudy rehearsal on Friday went very well. Since we only had understudies for the main characters, I needed someone to read lines for the other parts. Kevin, from the main cast, volunteered. I told the understudies they had one week to be 'off book.' I was surprised that no one seemed too concerned. Then, it hit me. I was the one with a ton of memorization to nail down!
I went over to Corey's house about 1:00 on Saturday afternoon. I was shocked at how difficult it was for Corey to memorize lines. I finally broke down all of the long speeches into outline form, hoping that he could learn the flow of the speeches. He had the most difficulty with his introduction to the play.
"Corey, look at it this way," I said. "First, you welcome the audience and tell them where and when the play takes place. Then, you show them the town – graveyard, church, school, and homes. You talk about them in the same order that they're laid out on the stage - stage right to stage left. You'll know what to introduce next just by looking at the set. Then, you'll see the families walk out on stage to their homes. Introduce the three families, again right to left. That's all it takes! Remember it this way - welcome, town, families. And, you're good!"
"You make remembering all those speeches sound so easy, Joel," Corey said. "But it takes me a long time to memorize things. And, I don't want to look like a fool in front of Ben. That would be humiliating!"
"I wouldn't worry about that, Corey. Ben's a pretty cool guy," I said.
Corey looked uncomfortable, and he was quiet for a long time. Then, he said, "That's the problem, Joel."
"I don't understand," I said.
"The problem is that I think Ben is - more than cool," Cory said while hanging his head and looking down. "Guys aren't supposed to feel that way about other guys."
I almost freaked-out, right then and there. I knew where the conversation was going, and I didn't want any part of it. The last thing in the world I wanted was to hear Corey's confession that he had a crush on Ben. But what could I do? I was trapped. I decided feigned stupidity was my first line of defense.
"Corey," I said. "We all have people we admire. You know - people we see as role models. There's nothing wrong with that. It's a good thing."
Corey looked like he was about to cry. "Joel, I mean - I like him – the way I'm supposed to like girls."
And, there it was – a confession that I couldn't ignore and a plea for understanding and support.
Second line of defense – acknowledge and withdraw.
"Corey, if you're saying you have a crush on Ben, I'll keep your secret. And, I won't judge you," I said. "I'm not a bully or a homophobe like that idiot, John. And, we'll still be friends. Look, it's getting late. I really should head home. And don't worry about Monday's rehearsal. I'll be there for you if you need prompting."
"Joel," Corey said. "Can't you stay a little longer? I sort of need a friend to talk to."
Now, I was even more uncomfortable. I wanted out of there, and I was running out of defensive maneuvers. "Clarify and redirect," I thought.
"I am your friend, Corey," I said. "But, there's one thing I don't understand. Why are you telling me about this? I mean, why me?"
"I thought you'd understand," he said. "You and that blond guy on the debate team seemed – pretty chummy. And, there was talk that you two might be, you know, more than just friends."
I thought David and I had been discrete enough to hide our relationship. Apparently, I was wrong. But, there was no way I was going to stay so that Corey and I could pour our hearts out to each other. That would be just too creepy!
It was too late in the conversation to complete my plan to redirect. Final battle plan – deceit and retreat.
"David and I were debate partners, Corey," I said. "We had to work together almost all the time. Yea, we became good friends during the debate season, but he moved away. I haven't even heard from him since he left. And the talk you heard, Corey, people like to gossip – even if what they hear isn't true."
I started packing up my things. "Corey, we're good, okay? No judging each other. Just friends. I wish I could stay. We'll talk next week."
"Can I ask you just one question? Corey said. "Before you go?"
He looked like he was truly hurting. I 'threw in the towel' and sat back down.
"Joel, do you think that Ben might – well, sort of have the same problem I do? I mean liking guys."
"Cory," I said. "I don't know that much about Ben. Maybe he's like that; maybe he isn't. He's never done or said anything that would make me think he's gay. He does use great smelling aftershave. But, that doesn't mean anything."
Corey seemed to perk up a bit. "Oh, I know!" he said. "He smells so good! It drives me wild!"
"That's it. I'm done," I thought to myself. "No choice; abandon ship!"
I stood up and headed toward his bedroom door. "Hang in there, Corey! See you later."
As I was driving home, I couldn't stop thinking about what had just happened. I didn't understand why it bothered me so much that Corey had a crush on Ben. I was so disturbed that I had to stop and think. I drove through a McDonald's and ordered a hamburger and a drink. I pulled into a parking space to eat. I needed to sort out what was going on in my head.
I had just taken the last bite of my burger when I realized what was bothering me. I hadn't wanted to admit it, but I had a crush on Ben, too. And, I didn't want competition for Ben's attention from the Homecoming King!
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