Thursday, November 17, 2011

Trauma and Triumph: My Experience Playing The Turkey In The School Play


When I was in third grade, my class was chosen to perform the Thanksgiving school play. This news sent waves of excitement through the student body, and immediately, I began to daydream about what role I might land.

It was a delicious kind of speculation for an 8 year old mind: Would I end up playing Squanto, the Native American from the Patuxet tribe who helped the Pilgrims survive their first winter? Or Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag tribe? Or perhaps Samoset, the Wampanoag who first initiated contact with the Pilgrims? Heck, I wouldn't have minded getting the role of Captain Miles Standish, leader of the Pilgrims, even though he was, by some accounts, kind of a scumbag.

But as it turned out, I didn't get any of these roles. Instead, I ended up being chosen to play the Thanksgiving turkey. Yeah, the actual bird.

When I first heard that I'd been assigned the role of turkey, I was pretty upset. But dashed hopes were the least of my worries. The irony of my being chosen to portray a character that would eventually be devoured by the other characters wasn't lost on my classmates, and they helpfully reminded me of this. A few of the students would pretend to sharpen fake carving knives whenever I walked by. Children can be so creative in their ridicule.

But after a few days of sulking, a strange thing happened: I started getting into the turkey role. I mean, really getting into it. For example, I started hanging out at a local turkey farm, studying the birds' mannerisms, listening to the sounds they made, and applying this to my role, as would a method actor.

I soon became very skilled at mimicking gobble-gobble noise of the turkey, its herky-jerky movements, and its vacuous gaze. As it turned out, my role didn’t require much onstage walking around, but I felt it wise to be as thorough as possible.

This behavior soon became a source of concern to my parents. They humored me at first, but after a while I could that they were becoming alarmed with my dedication to preparing for the turkey role. When they began discovering feathers around the house, which I'd gathered from the farm in order to make my training more realistic, my parents finally drew the line.

In due time, the date of the school play drew near, and we began rehearsals. The play was to be a simple rendition of the story of the first Thanksgiving, from the pilgrims' arrival at Plymouth Rock, their initial difficulties in adjusting to their new surroundings, freezing their butts off the first winter, and then having their lives saved the subsequent winter by the Native Americans who showed them how to survive in the new land.

The first time I tried on the turkey costume, I was disappointed by how un-birdlike it looked. A giant ball of wire and paper mache constituted the body; a long, conical piece of construction paper served as the neck, and a little turkey-head had been fashioned from a shoebox wrapped in brown felt. Two small holes were punched out in the neck for me to see through. And for feathers, there were cut strips of cloth that hung down on all sides.

The simplicity of the costume, the teachers told me, was a reflection of the symbolic nature of my role: The turkey was the main sustenance shared in the first Thanksgiving, and I was supposed to shuffle onstage at various times during the play and just kind of stand there until the end of the scene, when the stage darkened. I appeared during the pilgrim's first winter in the New World, and later, during the following winter, when the Native Americans began teaching the pilgrims how to survive in the harsh conditions.

This role obviously wasn't challenging, and so in my restlessness, I began to find ways of using the turkey skills I had developed, even though they were not in the script. In between the periods of dialogue I would make the gobble-gobble noise, just loudly enough to elicit giggles from my classmates. I discovered that by doing this, I could cause them to lose track of their lines, which made this even more enjoyable to me. Unsurprisingly, the teacher directing the play wasn't happy about this, and she told me in no uncertain terms to stop what I was doing, and she forbade me to do it during the actual production.

When the Big Day arrived, my fellow actors and actresses had not only stopped teasing me, they actually seemed a little bit jealous. After all, I was playing the central symbol of the Thanksgiving story, the image most people immediately think of when they hear the word mentioned. They were also nervous about their roles, but I wasn't in the least -- there was no way I could forget my lines, since I didn't have any.

My third grade class had never staged a class play before, but the previous year, the second graders had given a presentation of Romeo and Juliet. It had gone so well that the students were still strutting around the hallways like pompous little movie stars, nearly a year afterward. Their play had given them a lot of cachet around campus. And to be honest, us third graders were hoping for a similar impact from our Thanksgiving production.

And the play ended up going very well, with one exception. The main characters nailed all of their roles so well, and with such confidence and clarity of speech, that I felt compelled to show some of my talents. This went outside the scope of what I had been assigned to do onstage, but I didn’t care. I just wanted a piece of the spotlight that was being hogged by the other kids in the play.

So in the last scene, when the Thanksgiving feast was winding down and I was standing in the background near a flimsy replica of Plymouth Rock made of balsa wood and cardboard, I began to move around a bit. I channeled my inner turkey and mimicked pecking the ground in front of me, as if searching for some concealed seeds. I burbled in the low, muttering way I'd come to know as the turkey's form of idle chatter. None of this was in the script, naturally, but no one seemed to mind.

That is, until I slipped during one of the pecks and fell backward into Plymouth Rock.

Luckily, I didn't knock it over. The other kids in the play busted out laughing, as did most of the kids in the audience. The parents, meanwhile, tried to pretend like they weren't laughing, but they were. But we finished the play without any further issues. I caught some flak backstage from the teacher/director, but the production had gone so well overall that her scolding was almost half-hearted.

What's the lesson here? Not sure there is one. Except that in life, it's good to make the best out of the hand you're dealt. And if that comes in the form of being assigned to play the turkey in the school play, you should tackle that role with a level of intensity and enthusiasm that scares the heck out of your parents and teachers.