My parents were waiting for me when I got home after the cast and crew meeting. They had heard about Corey. They didn't know the Andersons, but they asked me if there was anything they could do. I told them I thought some flowers might be nice.
I wasn't surprised that my parents didn't say anything about my understudy situation. They probably knew how upsetting it was for me. And I think, in their minds, they thought it best not to add to my stress by discussing it. I sort of wished they would have at least asked me how I was handling taking over the lead role in the play - at the last minute. But, that's how my parents were. They just didn't talk about sensitive subjects within the family. They seemed to believe that problems would just go away if no one discussed them.
I didn't sleep well that night. And, when it was time to get up for school, I was tired and feeling overwhelmed. The week ahead was going to be completely crazy. There were dress rehearsals that night, Wednesday and Thursday. I was shaky on some of my longer speeches, and I would have to find time to study my lines during the school day. Performances started on Friday night. There would be another evening performance on Saturday and an afternoon performance on Sunday. After Sunday's performance, there was the cast party – hosted by my parents!
Several weeks earlier, my parents had asked me about having the cast party at their country club. At first, I didn't like the idea. I knew that if my mother were in charge, the food would probably be trays of fresh vegetables, maybe with some yogurt dip. My father pulled me aside and promised that if I agreed, he would make sure there was plenty of 'real teenager food.' And, he said he would cover all of the costs as well as hire a DJ. I said I'd talk to the cast and crew and get back with him. I found that everyone was okay with having the cast party at a country club, with a free, catered dinner and a DJ. So, the plans had been finalized.
That Tuesday at school, I got lots of support. Before first hour British Literature started, Mrs. Marlowe asked me how I was doing. I told her I still needed to work on my lines, and she released me from class so that I could study in the library. She also talked to Mrs. Gruber and got me out of second hour. And, the Librarian ran lines with me in her conference room.
By the time I got to the auditorium for dress rehearsal, I was feeling more prepared, but I was still very anxious. I didn't want to be on stage with a spotlight on me. Ben greeted me and asked, "You okay?" I explained how I'd been released from two classes, and the Librarian had run lines with me. Ben said, "Good. Now, we need to get you ready. First, costume; then, makeup."
I went to the small room off the backstage area that was being used as the men's dressing room. Ben held Corey's costume up to me, and it was immediately apparent that it wouldn't work. I was not as tall as Corey, and I was skinny compared to Corey's huskier build.
"I should have known that we'd have to start over," Ben said. "Your costume has to fit perfectly. If it's too big for you," he explained, "it will give the audience the impression that your character is overwhelmed by the challenges he faces in the story. If the costume is too small, well, it just makes you look stupid. The Messenger has to look wise and confident."
Kevin was in the dressing room. "Maybe I can help," he said. "My father's a tailor, and if I take Joel's measurements, I'm sure Dad can come up with something. There's a Goodwill store near Dad's shop. Maybe he can find something there that he can alter for Joel. Since it's sort of an emergency, I'll ask him if he can get us something for tomorrow night."
Ben agreed and thanked Kevin. "Take Corey's costume home with you for your Dad to look at – just to give him an idea of what we have in mind." Ben suggested that Kevin take my measurements after rehearsal. And, Ben changed his mind about makeup for the night. "We'll get you looking the part tomorrow. There are plenty of other things to focus on tonight."
I was surprised at how well rehearsal came together that night. The understudy rehearsals and running lines that morning made a huge difference. Ben almost had to prompt me twice, but I remembered the lines just as he was about to speak.
At the end of the night, I asked Ben for some feedback. "You were amazing!" he said. "I don't think I've ever seen an understudy step in as easily as you just did."
I looked around the auditorium to make sure no one was listening. "Ben, I love to hear compliments from you. You know that. But, I know I can do better. Tell me how I can improve."
"Okay," Ben said. "But, just remember that you were very good. If you want to be awesome, I just have one serious suggestion. Several times, you had to think about your lines. I could see it on your face, and I know an audience would see it too. When you have to think about your lines, it breaks the flow of the story. The audience is reminded that you are an actor on the stage, not the character they want to know. It interrupts the magic."
"On which parts do I need to focus? I asked.
"Here," Ben said. "I made some notes." He handed me a legal-sized sheet of paper filled with notes. I thanked Ben, promised him I'd fix the problems and went to find Kevin. He was doing some homework in the dressing room while waiting for me.
"Great job, Joel!" Kevin said.
"Thanks. And you are the perfect 'heartthrob' of Cedarville," I said. Kevin looked a little surprised by my comment. Quickly, we both went about the work of getting me measured for my costume.
Kevin took my shoulder, chest and waist measurements. He measured my sleeve length. Then, he bent down to measure the inseam. "I'll try not to get too personal," he said. "But, I've got to start kind of high."
When he placed the top of the tape measure all the way up, the back of his hand made direct contact with my privates. I wish he'd just ignored it and moved on. But instead, he apologized. "Oops! Sorry," he said. "I guess I don't need to measure there. I'll just tell Dad to make sure there's some extra room in that area."
Kevin had the costume by the start of Wednesday's rehearsal. His Dad had done a great job. Ben liked the look, and the clothes fit me very well. "Good job, Kevin!" Ben said. "You and your Dad are lifesavers. I want to thank him myself, so be sure to introduce us after one of the shows."
Ben took me to the makeup area, and he introduced me to Jennifer from DCOPA. She was in charge of the Joliet students working on stage makeup. Ben asked Jennifer to do my makeup herself. I sat in a chair while Ben looked me over and told Jennifer what he wanted.
"Let's not make Joel's appearance as old as we had discussed for Corey," Ben said to Jennifer. "Joel has more of a baby face, and it won't work if we try to make him look older than - maybe - thirty-five. Corey is bear-cub cute, so gray hair was good. But, Joel is more boy-band cute, so let's just give him a light salt-and-pepper effect - at most."
Ben put a hand on each side of my face. "Keep his makeup extra light," he said. "Just enough to keep him from looking shiny under the lights. But whatever you do, don't cover up those dimples! Oh, and trim his eyebrows and even up his sideburns."
Having people talking about my appearance, right in front of me, was weird. I didn't like hearing assessments of how I look and what needed to be changed. It was creepy!
"I think he's going to need some eye-liner," Jennifer said to Ben. "What do you think?"
"Yea," Ben answered. "And, maybe some blue, sparkly eye shadow."
When I heard Ben suggest blue, sparkly eye shadow, I freaked out! I pulled away from him. "No way!" I said.
Ben started laughing, and I realized he was teasing me. I was annoyed. "Are we done?" I asked in an impatient tone.
"Oooooo," Ben said while striking a girlish pose. "Be careful, everyone! The new star has a tem-per!"
I had never seen Ben act effeminate before, and I didn't like it. I felt like he was mocking me, and it made me angry.
Ben left so that Jennifer could do her work. I guess she could tell I was mad. "You know, Joel," Jennifer said. "Ben did that to you on purpose. I probably shouldn't tell you this, but Ben was trying to make you mad. It's a director's trick. If an actor looks nervous, like you do, some directors will deliberately get them mad. Anger takes the edge off of being nervous, and that makes for a stronger performance."
"Thanks, Jennifer," I said. "And don't worry about giving away Ben's directing secrets. I'm still mad. Being manipulated by Ben really pisses me off!"
Dress rehearsal that night was very good. I had worked on all the issues Ben pointed out in his notes. The light crew was fantastic! Just like Ben had said, the creative lighting, done correctly, brought the stage to life. Heather and Kevin were adorable together. The actors were getting emotional - just at the right times. And, the story flowed naturally. Finally, everything was clicking, and the effect seemed to surprise everyone. At the end of the night, Ben was having a hard time containing his excitement. It seemed to me, however, that Ben was afraid of giving too many compliments. Maybe he thought it would jinx the show. Maybe, withholding praise was just another director's trick.
The next night was the last rehearsal before the play opened. The evening started out with bad news and went downhill from there. Corey had taken a turn for the worse, and he had to have more surgery. That news seemed to upset everybody, and it was a major distraction during the entire evening. And, I missed one of my cues.
At the end of the night, Ben gave us another pep talk. "We all know things were a little rough tonight. But, we're in good shape. Sometimes, the final dress rehearsal is difficult. Sometimes, a rough dress rehearsal can even foreshadow a great opening night. Make sure you come in rested tomorrow, and eat a good breakfast. I want you at your best!"
As was becoming my habit, I stuck around to talk with Ben after everyone else had gone home. I had gotten over how irritated I was with him about the eye shadow thing the previous night. So, I decided to ask Ben about our plans to spend a weekend together.
"Sorry about the missed cue," I said to Ben.
"Missed cue?" he said. "What missed cue? You were perfect! You're my reluctant, shining star! My cute, young savior! Missed cue? Never happened!"
"Ben," I said. "My parents always want me to be perfect, and they act like I never make any mistakes. From you, I want honesty – even about things I mess up."
"Fair enough," he said. "Joel, you were too slow on your last cue in the second act hospital scene. Don't do that. Otherwise, don't change a thing - that's an order." I smiled and nodded at him.
"Do you have a few minutes to talk?" I asked Ben.
"Sure," he said. "There's something that I want to talk to you about, too. You go first."
"Well, I'm a little embarrassed even to mention it," I said. "But we haven't talked about it in weeks. Are we still going to go to Ann Arbor to see the other production of The Messenger ?"
"You still want to?" Ben asked.
"Yea, I really do," I said. "I want to see the show, but mostly I - want - you know - to spend some time with you."
Ben looked very serious, and maybe a little skeptical. "You've thought about it, Joel? And, you still want to go with me?"
"Yes, I do - even though I know you are leaving soon," I said.
"Joel, I have to be absolutely sure we're on the same page," Ben said. "You're telling me you want to spend the night with me - in the same hotel room?"
"Yes, Ben," I answered. "And, you don't need to look so concerned. I've been with a guy before."
"Okay then," he said. "Next weekend, after our show closes, it's you and me. The show is at Leland College, just south of Ann Arbor. Jennifer is doing the makeup for Leland, too. It should be fun! But, what are you going to tell your parents?"
"Actually, that's going to be easy," I told Ben. "I'll tell them that some people from the cast are going to see the other show on Friday night. And, I'll tell them that I want to stay over so that I can poke around the U of M campus the next day. Both my parents are Wolverines, and they would love to see me go to college there."
"Clever," Ben said. "Okay, I'll look forward to next weekend." He paused for a moment. "Can I change the subject and ask you something?"
"Sure," I said.
"What are we going to do if Corey wakes up and tells what he saw?" Ben asked.
As I considered the question, I remembered what Ben had said about my emotions changing from one moment to the next. And, when I felt myself instantly getting angry in response to his question, I realized he was right. But at that moment, I didn't care. I had good reason to get mad! When I had tried to talk with him last Friday, after Corey caught us kissing, Ben brushed me off and dumped the problem on me to solve. Apparently now, he was getting worried. I really wanted to say, "Don't worry about it, Ben. You'll think of something."
But, I decided I should be helpful instead of flippant. "I've thought about that a lot," I told Ben. "I think our first line of defense is denial. We could say that you and I were going over the lighting diagrams - that's why we were sitting close together on the stage. Corey simply misinterpreted what was going on."
Ben nodded in agreement, and I continued. "If that doesn't hold up, our second line of defense is one that I really don't want to use, but I'll do it if I have to. I'll confess that I have a crush on you and that I was the one being inappropriate when I tried to kiss you. That's when Corey came in. We'll say you were shocked and tried to pull away from me. I'll use the 'confused teenager' defense, and you'll be off the hook."
"You'd do that for me?" Ben asked. "You'd take the fall?"
"Well," I said. "I really don't want to do that, but I will before I let anything happen to you. It will be much easier on me than it would be on you to take the fall. But, there is one other possible defense."
"Wow," Ben said. "I had no idea that you were such a strategic liar."
"Yea, well, I'm not proud of that," I said. "Okay, here's our other defense. I'll say that Corey has a crush on you. And, when he saw us sitting together, going over the lighting plan, he became jealous and misunderstood what he saw. We could even suggest that all the medications he's taken may have affected his memory."
"I don't think we should lie about Corey having a crush on me," Ben said. "He obviously freaked out when he saw two guys kissing. Being homophobic is his problem, but I don't think we should accuse him of being gay when he's not. That would just be wrong."
"Ben," I said. "Corey doesn't have a problem with two guys kissing. He has a problem with me kissing you. He wants to be the one kissing you."
Ben looked confused. "Wait a minute," he said. "Are you saying Corey really does have a crush on me? How would you know that?"
"I promised I wouldn't say anything, but I guess everything has changed now," I said. "Corey told me how he feels about you. He said he likes you in the way he's supposed to like girls."
"Wow," Ben said. "I had no idea." He paused and seemed to be thinking about the situation. Then he said, "I supposed it would be insensitive if I were to say he's not my type."
"Oh, my God! Are you serious?" I said. "Yes, Ben! That would be an extremely insensitive thing for you to say! It would make it sound like you didn't care about anybody but yourself!"
I thought maybe Ben would be angry at me for speaking so harshly to him. Instead, he hung his head and pretended to be remorseful. "Sorry, Mr. Young," he said.
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