On The Observer’s second day of work at the Arkansas Times, while still clueless about such necessities as the location of the office bathroom, I was tasked with covering something called Young Storytellers, which sounded innocuous enough. However, what was quickly revealed by The Observer’s boss, through a grin so tiny it almost didn’t register as mischievous, was that this would be an immersive — nay, participatory — opportunity. Instead of just cozying up in the corner of an elementary school cafeteria while a bunch of adult buffoons acted out screenplays written by fifth graders, notebook sprawled elegantly over my tightly crossed legs, I would, in fact, be one of the adult buffoons. Did my boss owe someone a favor? Was this just standard hazing? Or perhaps this was a test of my amenability? Was my employment at stake? Had my tendency to concede been something they considered during the application process? Regardless, I said yes.
For all my moaning and groaning, Young Storytellers, a project of the Arkansas Cinema Society, is sweet and remarkable. Over the course of nine weeks, nine students from the Little Rock School District’s Gibbs International Magnet Elementary, hand-selected for creative and leadership aptitude, got to work with their own mentor to develop a professionally formatted script with scene descriptions, stage directions and shot lists. All the smiley and approachable mentors have legitimate experience in the filmmaking industry, either locally or nationally. This is an impressive undertaking, and it’s obvious that the kids love it, too. When they walked into the library a couple of hours before the performance, one of the mentors exclaimed “the stars have arrived” and everyone subsequently clapped and whooped, the students looking bashful and proud.
OK, back to my woes. The most awkward part of an altogether awkward day was the casting tryout. To make sure we gave these 10-year-olds the full Hollywood rigamarole, we auditioned for them. The other actors all had a shtick. There was a fit, Chuck Norris-esque grandpa wearing a Buc-ees Christmas sweater who facetiously claimed he could speak multiple languages. There was a woman with an outsized personality and a sharp soprano who said she often stars in “happy, bubbly and young” roles. She’s “been in movies” but wouldn’t tell us which ones. There was a bigger guy who’d obviously done a lot of improv and was used to being typecast as a “bad guy” because of his deep, booming voice and long, curly hair. And then there was me, a lowly Observer, who hadn’t set foot on a stage since his senior year of high school. In an attempt to seem humble, I said I was good at “serious” roles, like people who are dealing with “heartbreak” or need to “deliver hard truths.” In other words, I accidentally made myself as uncastable as possible.
Lucky for me, the actor-to-character ratio was chasmic, so I was still given several parts. As we broke for lunch and began to eat our pro bono Chick-fil-A sandwiches, the other actors buried their noses in their scripts, scrawling notes to their future acting selves. “These pretentious local theater types take themselves so seriously,” I thought smugly to myself.
Fifteen minutes passed, and I wondered when we might start rehearsing. And then another 15 minutes escaped us and we still hadn’t done that thing you should always do before you get up in front of people to perform, even if the audience members are just third-, fourth- and fifth-graders. After the clock ticked for another quarter-hour, I decided it was probably time for me to ask when we might get a chance to all get together and practice our acting, as, you know, actors do, and I discovered that there had never been a plan to do a rehearsal. All that pretentiousness I’d so skillfully identified in the other actors was just honest preparation.
As I sat on a kid-sized stool on the cafeteria stage, feverishly flipping through the six scripts I was responsible for being familiar with, the scriptwriters walked down a homemade red carpet, phone cameras flashing. They were happy and I was stressed, as it should be.
My first role was procedural, just a meek cashier handing something to the main character. I watched in awe as the other actors destroyed their lines, knowing precisely how much pageantry (heaps of it) to bring to the table. By the time I stepped into a substantive part, I had learned my lesson and rejected self-effacing humility in the name of show-stopping drama. I wasn’t good, but at least I was energetic. I did my most inspired work as a “smart, undercover hero” who has to convince a loner, hellbent on turning everyone into zombies, that “science isn’t about destroying mankind for your own personal uses.” The kids are alright.