Viola in Reel Life, page 6
“Viola, someday you’ll be able to travel with us.” Dad looks at Mom and then back into the eye of the computer camera. “And even make movies with us. But right now, it’s best for you to have an experience like boarding school. I promise that it will open you up in ways you never imagined.”
“It was so good for me, Viola. I know it will be good for you.” Mom nods slowly.
“Okay, okay.” The notion of what might be good for me makes tears come to my eyes. I wipe them on my sleeve. Dad and Mom reach out and touch the camera on their end, and I do the same on mine. For just a moment I can feel their hands on mine, and a rush of warmth and security and love washes over me like autumn rain. As the screen goes to black, I remember that a year is just a year, even though it seems like so much more, like a forever and always more.
I took a risk before I came to PA and had my bangs cut—and the results were more Pippi Longstocking (bad) than Hayden Panettiere (perfect) so I’m using this time wisely by growing them out, and practicing my dance skills in gym—just in case I will actually dance at a thing called a dance.
I think my bangs will have time to grow before the dance if I don’t get tempted to cut them short when they start to get in my eyes. That is the problem with bangs—there’s a lot of upkeep involved. Growing hair out is a lesson in patience. Scientists have confirmed that human hair grows on an average of half an inch a month, so I’m about six weeks away from the tops of my ears.
“Are you ready to go?” Trish pokes her head in the doorway.
“Yep.” I stuff my laptop into my backpack.
“It’s really nice of you to help with Founder’s Day.”
“No problem. I think it’s important to understand what you come from in order to move forward. That includes the history of the Prefect Academy.”
Trish thinks for a moment and then smiles. “You’re joking, right?”
“Trish, you’re onto me,” I tell her.
We head over to Hojo. Trish is growing on me. She helped Romy through a bout of food poisoning, took Marisol over to the infirmary when she was starting to get a case of carpal tunnel syndrome from all her key padding, and best of all, she remembered Suzanne’s birthday and baked a cake for her. And it was good. Trish is on her game as an RA and when I see how some of the other resident advisors act around here, I’m glad we ended up with her. She is someone you can interrupt any time, day or night. And that is a gift.
“Aren’t you glad you didn’t take that single?” Trish says as we walk.
“It was a comic beat, Trish.”
Trish thinks a moment and then laughs. “You’re a pip, Viola. Room forty-seven.” Trish motions for me to follow her.
There’s a portrait of Phyllis Hobson Jones over the entrance that is post-modern. It’s done with a bunch of tiny stones, pointillist almost, in an enormous frame.
Phyllis had a real 1950s face: simple red lips, pageboy hairstyle, and wide-set eyes full of wonder. Would she think it was funny that we call the hall named after her Hojo, or would she be insulted? Women as beautiful as Phyllis rarely have a good sense of humor. That’s just my unscientific opinion.
Room 47 is a black box theater. It’s used for rehearsals and the occasional performance by some overly talented senior who does a one-woman show of Ruth Draper monologues that she uses to audition for the theater program at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
There are a bunch of upperclassmen sitting on painted black wooden cubes formed in a circle when we arrive. Diane Davis pops up and comes right over to me. “Our director of photography and set designer!” Diane says to the group, introducing me with the announcement of two jobs I’ve never done before. Great.
I settle on a cube and pull out my laptop. Diane starts the meeting by talking about a play that they do every year that was written about the founding of the Prefect Academy by a student who graduated in 1938. Diane explains that they, the committee, would like to breathe some life into the old script and come up with something new. She passes around photographs of past productions.
I’ve seen better theatrics at American Girl birthday parties in Manhattan. In the photos, the students romp around in bad wigs, long dresses with bustles, and high-top shoes made out of modern shoes with paper spats glued on top. Awful. The scenery is bad. Paper trees in one, and a giant map of the campus painted on a sheet in another. The worst.
“Something wrong, Viola?”
“Have you guys ever heard of blue screen?”
“What’s that?” Diane asks.
“Well, I am able, with the proper technology of course, to take video I’ve shot and put it on a giant screen behind the action. Something like this.”
I turn my laptop around and show them how I wrote my Shakespeare paper for Carleton’s class with images I downloaded of Shakespeare’s England and then wrote passages that appear at the bottom of the page explaining the action.
“We could have that onstage?” Trish’s eyes widen.
“Yeah. I could film around campus and then you could do the play in front of the scenes.”
“Oh my God. This is great.” Diane sits up straighter on her cube. She is proud to change the course of crappy Founder’s Day productions of the past and bring them into the new century.
“It’ll take some work, but it could be pretty great,” I admit.
“Could you work with Mr. Robinson in computer science? He helped install the computer tech system in the theater.”
“Sure. Whatever works,” I tell her.
When I get back to our quad, there’s a bowl of cold microwave popcorn waiting for me on my desk. Marisol is asleep already. Suzanne and Romy are doing their homework by the small, bright beams of their desk lamps so as not to disturb Marisol.
I tiptoe to my desk and pull out my laptop.
“Sorry the popcorn is cold,” Romy whispers.
“No problem,” I tell her.
I IM Andrew.
Me: You up?
Me: Just got dragged into the Founder’s Day—shoot me now—planning committee. I’m doing sets for the play. They didn’t know anything about blue screen.
AB: No way.
AB: Do you have the new program for it?
Me: There’s a new one?
AB: Yeah. We used it on our fall production of All My Sons at LaGuardia.
Me: No way.
AB: You want it?
Me: Absolutely. I can already see this thing is gonna eat up, like, my entire life. The old program takes forever. I don’t have time to program each individual scene.
AB: This will help. You download the images, and this actually sorts and stores them per your instructions. Then you just do an assembly on a DVD and you’re done.
Me: That will save me hours!
AB: Okay. Will send.
Me: You rock.
AB: I know.
I sign off my computer, so tired that I think I may skip pajamas and BR (beauty routine). But I think of Mrs. Doughty and her false teeth, and how I’d like to grow old with my own choppers, and the only way for that to happen is to take care of them, so I grab my toiletry kit and head to the bathroom. Nothing like the idea of dentures to get me to brush, rinse, and floss before bedtime. First, though, I wash my face with Cetaphil. I dry it carefully, remembering that my mom told me if you scrub your face too hard it tears the fibers underneath, which leads to premature saggage, which I have to start thinking about when I’m thirty. But my mom says good habits can’t start too early. My mom knows everything about skin maintenance, even though she totally skips steps when it comes to her hair.
I look in the mirror. I think my bangs grew a little today. If I really yank, when they’re wet I can almost get them to go behind my ears (almost). I really want them to be that long by the time we go to the dance at Drab Dull. That would be great.
I brush my teeth and think about A
Caitlin used to tell me that there are no accidents in life—that people come into your circle because you have something to learn from them. I think about Suzanne who has definitely helped me be very cool about boys. Romy has encouraged me to be as athletic as is possible with my limited talents in that arena. And Marisol has been good for everything else—I can tell her anything and she never acts shocked or judge-y.
Even if I crash and burn academically here, and socially at Drab Dull, I do have the support of my roommates. This is not a small thing for someone like me who spent the first part of the semester wishing I was anywhere but here. I’m beginning to understand that there is only now, and even though now isn’t perfect, and South Bend isn’t Brooklyn, that of all the billions of places I could be, this is what I’ve got right now. I’ve made three good friends, and hopefully I’ve become one for them too, and maybe that’s what my mother meant when she said she never forgot her year at PA. Maybe it was the friendships that got her through—and is the part that she will always remember.
FOUNDER’S DAY IS A MUCH BIGGER DEAL THAN I EVER thought it would be. It’s more like Founder’s Week. The rehearsals, filming the video for the show, editing the footage, adding music—the bells and whistles of production—well, all of it has eaten up most of the month of October, which is good, as the notion of time flying around here is one to embrace and celebrate.
My grandmother texts me to see how I’m liking school, as she was very worried that I wasn’t adjusting. (My mother can never keep my emotional state to herself—not ever!)
Grand: How’s the play going?
Me: You could never be in it.
Grand: Why not?
Me: You’re too fine an actress. The girls around here are hams.
Grand: I can do ham.
Grand: Do you need anything?
Me: The cookies were a hit. Thank you.
Me: The food here can be sketchy.
Grand: That’s true in all institutions.
Me: Good point.
Grand: I miss you, Viola.
Me: I miss you, too. I hung the picture of you as a geisha from The Mikado over my desk. Everybody thinks I’m half-Asian now.
Grand: That’s marvelous!
Me: I know. Came in handy when I had to do a report on the San Francisco production of the Stewart Wallace opera The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan. Everybody thought I had some inside track on the China angle.
Nerves are, like, totally out of control at the final dress rehearsal for the Founder’s Day play called The First Academy. I am, seriously, the only person who is calm and refuses to freak out. That’s because all my work is done and all I have to do is hit the cues and change the blue screen when the scenes change. Also, I have help.
Mr. Robinson is a true computer geek. Prefect Academy had a whole theatrical computerized light and sound system donated from a mega-rich alum (Trish told me), but no one has really used it to full effect. Until our show. Until now.
Mr. Robinson hooked up my laptop and the blue-screen program Andrew sent me to the main board in the mezzanine of the theater. My scenes look like, well, Broadway quality.
The play opens with some footage of the winding road that leads up to the academy. I shot it in early-morning light, and it’s beautiful—lots of pink light—and I shot this cool effect (which I totally stole from Saturday Night Fever) where I follow the feet of the first student (Clare Brennan in character) to register in 1890. Then I widen out to show the first hall ever built.
The play proper stinks. The dialogue is stilted and the costumes are homemade. The upperclassmen wear uniforms from the past just like Mom remembered. Diane Davis wears a tennis outfit, white bloomers over the knee with a dress over it. Trish went for the gray serge jumper with the drop waist. It’s actually as hilarious as it is educational.
But my scenery is amazing if I do say so myself. The girls onstage can hardly give their lines as they look upstage at the skrim and my backdrops. Their jaws drop as the scene behind them changes from different points of view, to skylines, to day, to night.
Diane Davis shouts from the orchestra, “Viola! Can you hold the sunset over Geier-Kirshenbaum?”
I check my computer log and click on the image of Geier-Kirshenbaum. It appears onstage in full.
“Stunning!” Diane waves and gives me the okay sign.
“This program is really something,” Mr. Robinson says as he sits back on his stool with wheels and folds his arms across his chest. He’s bald and wears glasses, like every computer science teacher in the United States of America.
Romy, Marisol, and Suzanne sneak into the mezzanine from the exit door and sit in the back row. I turn around and wave.
“Cue the atrium shot,” Diane directs.
I pull up the atrium shot of the girls on their way to class first thing in the morning.
“Wow!” Marisol blurts.
Diane covers her eyes and looks up into the spotlight. “This is a closed rehearsal!” she reminds us. Marisol covers her mouth and slinks down into her chair.
When the final dress rehearsal is over, Diane confers with her actors onstage.
“I’d say the blue screen is the hit of the show,” Mr. Robinson confides as he closes his laptop.
“Thanks for your help,” I tell him.
“Nope, don’t thank me. This is all you, Viola. And that program you bogarted out of Brooklyn.”
“That made a difference,” I agree. I’m really happy with how it turned out.
Romy, Suzanne, and Marisol come down the aisle to join me.
“That was amazing,” Romy says.
“Sorry I shouted like that. It’s just that the backdrop was so gorgeous,” Marisol gushes.
“You knocked it out of the park,” Suzanne agrees.
I look at my roommates who are so proud of me that it makes me proud.
“Group hug!” Marisol says. Suzanne and Romy swarm me with Marisol. This is the closest thing I will ever feel to having actual sisters. I’m so glad they came.
“Viola? Can you come down here please?” Diane calls from the orchestra.
“Gotta go. I’m getting notes,” I tell them. Two weeks and I’ve already got theatrical lingo down. As I gather my stuff, my roommates turn to go. “Hey, guys.”
They turn as one and look at me expectantly.
“Thanks for showing up. You’re the best.”
My roommates smile and I watch them push through the door of the mezzanine to the upper lobby. I feel, for the first time since I unpacked at PA, that I have a purpose. I’m doing something. Who knew that something would be a Founder’s Day show? And who knew that the best audience would be my roommates?
I head back to Hojo after dinner to do a run-through of my computer images on the stage. It was hard to concentrate earlier when there were so many people around. Diane gave me my notes and there are a couple of adjustments I have to make. I wish Andrew were here to help me. We’d knock it out in no time.
I push open the door to the theater. The work lights are on, bright beams of white light that turn into murky gray pools when they hit the painted black floor of the stage. I walk down the side aisle and climb the steps to the stage. I turn and face the 300 seats in the theater. It scares me to stand here when the place is totally empty. I feel tiny, as though I’m standing on the ledge of the Grand Canyon. I don’t know how actors do it. I admire Grand even more knowing she has to actually act on different stages all around the country in front of total strangers. She is very brave.
The scent of a flowery, powdery perfume fills the air. Theaters have a specific smell, a mix of wax, paint, and perfume that is worn either by the audience or the
I walk backstage into the wings and look over the racks of costumes. The characters’ names dangle off the crook of the hangers. The costumes are pressed neatly in place and are organized by scene. The corresponding shoes rest in a neat row on the shelf above the rolling rack. On a table close by are wooden forms that hold the hats of each era, also arranged by scene. The hats smell like expensive perfume, roses, and honey. They’re vintage hats with brims of velvet, satin bows, and fronds of feathers. Some have flounces of netting, others have hat pins made of rhinestones and pearls stuck into them. The work lights catch the facets of the rhinestones. They sparkle like the sun hitting the water in the fountain outside our room at dawn.
There’s a table along the backstage wall, behind the skrim, marked with tape for the props from each scene. Putting on a play is a very methodical and organized process. I pick up a wooden ladle and a matching bucket, careful to place them back where I got them. After we do our show all of this will be put away, stored for another production. I’m a little sad to think I don’t have an artistic venture planned after this one. And I wasn’t counting on anything about lame Founder’s Day being this much fun.
I pull out my video camera and begin filming the backstage area. I press Record and then Audio:
“The Viola Diaries continued. It would appear that I am showing you rows and rows of objects called props. They are. This is my first theatrical venture. The program calls me the set designer, though really I didn’t do any of the crappy wooden chairs and tables you see in the scenes, but rather the high-tech visual landscapes that appear behind the actors as they play through their scenes. It’s probably important to make note of this because someday, when I look back, it may signify the very moment where I set foot in the theater and stayed for a lifetime. Who knows? I can’t be sure. I’m fourteen and it’s pretty obvious to me that things change. But this is where I am today. At the Prefect Academy. South Bend, Indiana.”
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