an (non) Actor’s Lament
“He stole my scarab beetle!” I mumbled.
“No, no, no. Again, stronger please.” Each shake of Professor C’s shaggy head was rife with that combination of exasperation and despair so particular to the French.
“He STOLE my scarab beetle!”
Professor C sighed. I was supposed to be furious, yes? So, where was my fury?
Oh, my fury was there, all right, and, like usual, it was tied up in constricting knots.
I had arrived in Paris a month earlier, when the city was a green-gold oz of languid picnics and easy laughter and insouciant summer scarves. Now the ginko leaves were falling, and I was falling too, deeply disquieted by my inability to summon a six year-old’s roiling, aggrieved rage.
When I enrolled in “Acting French,” it had been in the manner of an empty nester signing up for pottery classes: a “why not?” threaded with a thin suspicion that I might actually be good at this. Apart from a successful turn as an angry Loyalist in our fifth grade class play, there was no historical basis for that suspicion — but I’m a card-carrying millennial; at 19, I believed I could be good at (almost) anything.
Right away, there were warning signs. In my naiveté, I had imagined that we would spend most of class reading aloud from classic French plays, like a sort of extended adult story hour. Maybe I would finally understand why people liked Les Miserables so much, I figured. But Professor C, sprightly in pirate boots and a military jacket, informed us that the play we would be workshopping all fall was one of her own. At the end of the semester, we would get to perform it at the American Embassy. What a treat for us all!
The play was based on the letters of Simone de Beauvoir. Simone was a complicated woman; Professor C acknowledged this by chopping up her life into eight different roles. A sylvan-voiced, doe-eyed Missourian, the sole theatre student in the class, got the role of twenty-something Simone, teenage Simone went to a very stylish Teen Vogue intern, and child Simone went to me.
Ninety percent of my role was a monologue concerning the whereabouts of the aforementioned beetle. Like a good budding philosophe, I exhausted all possibilities; then, I hid in some bushes. I always rushed through my monologue, hoping to reach the bushes before Professor C interrupted me. Unfortunately, the bushes were invisible (the professor was a big fan of the Our Town aesthetic, or else there was no money for props), so even when I escaped sans remark, my flaming cheeks were on full view.
It was, objectively, a terrible play, and I, just as objectively, was terrible in it. My terribleness compounded, which confounded me, and then it flatlined, which confounded me more. I was accustomed to linear progression, but as October slid into November, it became clear to me that my only hope was an exponential hail Mary.
In Mid-December, we bundled the bony stools that constituted the entirety of our set into a van and set off for the Embassy. “Don’t come,” I instructed my boyfriend, but when I scrambled, fizzy with nerves, atop my stool, he was there, partially blocking the view of an ambassador. In the dressing room right before we went on, I had swallowed a glug of tequila, and as I waited for Professor C to finish introducing the play, I realized that the nerves I was feeling were the good kind, the kind I used to get as a swimmer behind the starting blocks. “Oh hey, this is going to be fine,” I thought, and it was. I tore into my monologue with the requisite fervor; for the first time, my lines didn’t feel like lines anymore, but like skin, something I owned. Quite suddenly it was all over and I was blushing less fiercely than usual and I could hear the audience laughing, just has they had when I was a bonneted Loyalist.
At the party afterwards, Professor C congratulated me and insisted that I finish one of the nicer bottles of champagne that was circulating. “You’ve earned it,” she said. But exponential Hail Marys, however welcome they may be, do not really give one the sense of having “earned it.”
The following fall, I received an email. Someone had made a documentary about Simone and our Embassy performance was part of it. There would be a viewing party at NYU’s Maison Francaise, in the Washington Mews. I was free that evening, but I did not go. I have never tried to act in anything since.