The first time I muffed a line, I was in the seventh grade. Unlike the line itself, the experience was unforgettable.
I suppose we must have been studying the American Revolution. That’s the only reason I can think of to explain why a twelve-year-old female should be expected to leap from her desk proclaiming Patrick Henry’s second-best one-liner, “I have one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience.” (His best? “As for me, give me liberty or give me death!”)
On cue I thrust my arm with its invisible lamp high into the air and rattled off the first ten words only to forget the next seven. Seventeen words in all, and I could only remember roughly sixty per cent of them. What if I’d been doing Hamlet? “Alas, poor —ah—ah—”
Naturally my classmates laughed and laughed. As another famous quotation has it, “There are none so blind as those that will not see.” Far from discouraging me from ever setting foot on a stage again, I set my sights on writing comedies and starring in them.
This became a tragedy for a rather large number of people during my college years. The second half of that quotation, attributed variously to the Bible, Jonathan Swift and some poor forgotten soul named Thomas Chalkley, concludes, “The most deluded people are those who choose to ignore what they already know.” Anyone who had the misfortune to be cast in anything that I wrote soon found that, contrary to all logic, I couldn’t remember my lines even if I’d written them.
I suppose I knew all along I was doomed as an actor/writer. You can throw in composer, too. During one of my college comedies, the girl playing my original music on the piano was applauded wildly as the audience begged her to get up on stage. I had taken piano lessons for years and years—come to think of it, they ended when I was in seventh grade—but refused to take part in the annual recital after I forgot the ending to The Minute Waltz and played the same bar for a quarter of an hour. Assuming that I could play my own music without a score, she went on stage to crashing discords that brought the house down in a way my wit hadn’t.
For years after I graduated I stuck to doing theater reviews, following the edict that goes along the lines of “Them that can’t, critique.” It wasn’t until the millennium was well upon us that I had a sudden urge to write a script. I had so much fun doing it that I decided to do another, and another. Off they went to various competitions all over the place, sometimes chosen for performances I never saw—did I mention my fear of flying?
Finally, one full-length play was put on here in my home town. How amazed I was to see everyone up on stage off book, saying their lines with the authority of original invention. I found myself thinking, “I wish I’d written that.”
Of course, I’d forgotten I had.