We had one elective. It might have been Creative Writing if I hadn’t had something to prove. I’d gotten sick right before the 6th Grade Talent Show. Everyone was sympathetic, even my parents, and the TV ad spoof I’d written was well-received. But I knew the real reason I’d baled-out last second: it was because I was a sniveling, craven, cowardy custard!
True, I’d told stories and done funny character voices in elementary school, even planned a professional stage production starring me and Debbie Reynolds (emphasis on “planned”). But I’d never actually been on stage! So I had to take Drama. And I knew I could do it because, after all, I was an Actor!
Mr. Baxter begged to differ. He was something almost unheard of in a junior high school drama teacher: a professional! True, he’d taken this demeaning suburban day job to pay the bills, but he had “a life in the theatre” and even ran a professional acting workshop in Hollywood! Whereas I, Mr. Baxter made clear from the start, was simply a class clown (observe the four cut-ups in the back of the Drama Class photo, with notes added by me at age 13).
All right, it was true, I loved making people laugh. But I’d done tragic characters too, ones that had actually made people cry—well, made me cry anyway when I watched myself performing them in the bathroom mirror.
I tried to prove myself by begging Mom to drive me to one of Mr. Baxter’s Hollywood acting workshops. It was in a converted store just off “the strip” (Sunset Blvd.). None of the other actors had their moms with them (possibly because they were in their 20s and 30s), so she hung out in the back. When Mr. Baxter finally called me up front to read a scene with a woman my mom’s age, I was spectacularly…not awful. Still, I didn’t, in Mr. Baxter’s words, “make it real.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Baxter threw me a bone. He’d chosen a one-act murder mystery for our school. The lead roles were played by serious actors—8th graders who’d learned their craft at the master’s hands. I was given a tiny role as the play’s comedy-relief character, an Inspector with just seven one-word lines, all either a “Yep” or a “Nope.”
Even during the actual performance (I was terrified, but, hey, I went on!), I couldn’t remember which was which. Another character would ask me, “Is that the murder weapon, Inspector?” And I would reply, “Yep.” And then the entire cast would whisper, “Nope” under their breath, and I’d say, “Nope.” And on it went. The audience roared, certain it was all intentional, et voilá,
I was a star.
But Mr. Baxter knew the truth. Shortly before he resigned at the end of my 7th grade year, he gave me a look, and I knew exactly what it meant:
“Make it real, Mitch.”