OOD MORNING, boys and girls. On Tuesday night, you will be faced with the formidable task of taking a beloved Leonard Bernstein classic and reïmagining it through your pre-teen eyes without reinforcing overtly racist Puerto Rican stereotypes.
Now, your director (slash gym teacher) gave me twenty bucks this morning to come here and try to motivate you while he sleeps off his hangover in the janitor’s closet. He said many positive things about you before he coughed too hard and inadvertently vomited in his mouth.
I want to begin by talking about teamwork. The cast of any play is like a flock of geese. When geese migrate long distances, they fly in the shape of a V because some of the geese are just better looking than others, and those geese should get to fly in front where the world can see them. The geese in the back know their roles, and they are happy to play them in order to let the better-looking geese shine.
Take for example that young man standing in the back there. Yes, you, chewing on that plastic switchblade. I bet you would have loved to play the role of Bernardo, the charismatic, hot-tempered leader of the Sharks. But your severe underbite requires you to wear orthodontic headgear, so you should be happy playing the role of Ice, the silent, obscure Jet who only appeared in the film version of the musical. You are like the goose who flies at the back of the V: still important, just less important, and more likely to get shot at by hunters.
Whether you are a Shark or a Jet, the lead actor or lighting-crew alternate, you share the common goal of communicating the timeless social commentary encoded in West Side Story: that the power of love cannot always overcome social barriers, and that escalating violence cannot be resolved through elaborately choreographed dance-fighting.
Ask yourselves why you are doing this. Maybe you find refuge in the world of fiction. Maybe you act because you crave an outlet for artistic expression in an otherwise prosaic tween existence. Maybe you sing and dance on stage because when you do it on the playground, Billy Pratt puts you in a headlock and calls you Queery Fairy. The point is, I don’t care whether you’re participating in this musical because you’re trying to impress Becky Lewis or because it’s your bipolar, overbearing stage mom’s attempt to resuscitate the rotting corpse of her own dreams. Whatever your motivation, you’re all in this together.
You are one flock of geese migrating towards the same lukewarm pond of obligatory parental applause.
As preteens, your identities are often defined by what you cannot do. You can’t drive a car, you can’t have unsupervised coed sleepovers, you can’t steal your dad’s credit card and buy $300 Jonas Brothers tickets for you and Jenny Fischer. But on the stage, you can do or be whatever you want. Use the opportunity to escape the pains of reality and live in the world of possibility. In real life you pack hand sanitizer. On stage you are packing heat.
One day, years from now, you will bring your girlfriend home from college to meet your family and your mother will sit her down on the couch, bring out a tray of sliced apples, and show her a home video of you in a knee-length skirt dancing to “I Feel Pretty” because there weren’t enough girls who auditioned for the role of surly, buxom Rosalia and you just happened to look good in magenta. When you set foot on that stage, think about your future girlfriend. You want her to be impressed.
Now I want to be realistic. Your performance on Tuesday is unlikely to launch you into stardom, no matter how well you perform. The chances of achieving commercial success in acting are as slim as winning the lottery or making it through middle school without suffering massive dermatological trauma. Acting has a perverse way of vetting aspiring stars. One day you’re playing Maria, the graceful Latina beauty beloved by all of the boys, and the next you’re playing Raven St. Clair, the 37-year-old bank robber who seduces her arresting officer in a four minute adult movie recorded on your ex-boyfriend’s iPhone and posted on the internet.
After Tuesday night, most of you will never act again. Many of you will join the drama club in high school or college. Some of you will land major roles with community theaters. One of you might even make it into an early round of American Idol, only to be openly mocked by a panel of heartless, surgically enhanced judges on national television. But whatever happens, remember that on Tuesday night, nothing is as important as letting the good-looking geese shine. If you do that successfully, you can all hold your heads high as you take your bows and then go backstage to remove the tape from your construction paper sideburns.
Now everyone take your places. And someone go wake up Mr. Ryan.