I wrote this a while ago, and just found it on my hard drive… I thought I’d share it:
“Does Grandpa play with Barbies too?”
It was a cold, wintry day in an elementary school outside of Boston, and many of the children were wet from the record-breaking snowfall.
My group came in from New York, and we were doing a tour of the Boston area for the week, driving around in a rented van, and staying at a VERY inexpensive motel.
I had no idea I was going to end the day choking down my tears.
We would do an assembly for kids, aged from kindergarten through high school age, and since we did improvisation, the show was always different, fun, and exciting. I had been working with Freestyle Repertory Theatre for a few months, and had become very close with my fellow performers. All of us were just trying to chase the dream, and had found a little slice of it working with each other, making each other and hundreds of kids laugh everyday.
It was a silly, low-paying, acting gig- but hey- it was a full-time acting gig!
We did “Improv games”, similar to what you might see on “Whose line is it anyway”, and one of the games was called “Biography”; We would get a child from the audience, and give them a bell and a horn. We’d act out scenes “from their lives”, and they would direct us with the bell and the horn. They would “ding” if we were on the right track, and “honk” if we were not; we’d change according to their noise.
It’s usually fun, and fantastical; the child would end up “directing” a scene between themselves and a family member, mom, or dad, and they get a million dollar allowance. Or maybe they’d get their talking dog and go save the president. Or maybe they’d rescue a princess, just in time to make it back to school for the big test.
But on this day, we called up “Sally”.
Sally was an adorable little dirty-blonde haired girl, in red dress, that had a dark ring around the hem because the snow had gotten to it. She came up in her white stockings and socks, without her shoes because they were too wet to wear. She seemed to be quiet and shy, but I think something about the promise of seeing a scene from her own life made her raise her hand and volunteer.
She came up and sat in the chair onstage, facing her school mates and all of the teachers.
Often for the shy ones, it takes a second for them to get over the idea of being in front of everyone, but she only looked out there for a minute. She mostly paid attention to “Jamey”, the big boy who was explaining the game to her:
“Ok Sally, Kelly here is going to play YOU in this scene, but I want you to pick who you want ME to play- I can be a friend, a family member, or someone famous- anybody in the world- real or imaginary, dead or alive…”
“Um…. My grandpa who died”
Jamey was a little taken aback, but we realized that it was a wonderful suggestion, and he smiled and said:
“Ok, Sally- Kelly will be you, and I’ll be your grandpa who died….. what was his name?”
Sally shrugged her shoulders and said:
We all giggled, suddenly feeling protective of her, and my partner had to wipe her eyes a bit.
I was on the opposite side of the stage, watching all of this, and it was my job to sometimes help the kids along with their decisions if they get stuck. I could feel my throat swell, and as I looked around, I saw some of the teachers put their hands over their mouths, understanding that the moment although very much fun, and kind of funny, had a sweetness that brought us all back to a time when adults were amazing, interesting creatures.
As the scene began, Kelly came out with a camouflage military hat on :
“I’m Sally, and I like to yell orders to people in the army”
She began like this so she could be “honked” by Sally, therefore showing that Sally is NOT like that. Sally looked over to me, wondering what she should do.
I said “Sally- is that like you?
“Then if it’s not like you, do you honk, or ding?”
She honked, and Kelly ran to the back for a different costume- the doctor:
“My name is Sally, and I am a doctor who operates on animals”
Kelly tried again: “My name is Sally, and I like to play in my room with dolls”
Ding! Kelly was on the right track.
“My favorites are my Pokemon”
Honk! Try again Kelly.
“My favorites are my Barbies”
And Sally sat up higher, realizing what power she had; that she was seeing her own life, as directed by her.
Then Jamey came out with the grey-haired wig on:
“Hi Sally, it’s me- ‘Grandpa, Grandpa’!”
he looked over to us and we giggled, as he continued:
“I like to play with your Barbies too!’
Sally didn’t move.
I decided to coach her a bit:
“Sally? If that’s right, then you “ding”, if it’s wrong, you want to “honk”…
Did your grandpa like to play with your Barbies too?”
She looked at me questioningly, shrugged her little shoulders and said:
“I don’t know…. I never met him”
That’s when it all became so clear.
Sally was depending on us to show her what her grandpa was like BEFORE he died; she wanted us to TEACH her about him, about her family. Her grandpa’s spirit is what she was looking for, and suddenly our grandpa scene went from being something just for entertainment to being extremely important and responsible work.
All of the adults in the room did their best to hide their instant tears, including us on stage.
Jamey, being a professional, quickly recovered, and engaged Kelly in a scene where Sally and her grandpa had a wonderful time playing together, and going on an adventure. She also learned that whenever Sally wanted to, she could use her imagination to play with her grandpa, and she can know that he loves her very much, even if he can’t be with her now because he died.
When the scene was over, Sally bounded off the stage, happy and confident that her grandpa loved her, the other kids applauded wildly for the great adventure scene with “Grandpa, Grandpa”, and the adults all took very, very, deep breaths, and passed tissues to each other.
We continued with the shows, the tours, the many, many biography games, but none of us will ever forget little Sally and her “Grandpa, who died”. It was a silly, low-paying job with long hours, but that day, we were more than actors-
we were an important part of a little girl’s growth.
I wonder if Sally still thinks of him?
Dedicated to every member of Freestyle Repertory Theatre, and all children’s performers; It can be a really rough, disrespected gig, but it’s days like this that make it worth it, huh? I’m proud of you!