Friday, February 12, 2010

The Corner of 42nd Street and Fantasyland

Sometimes I imagine what Emma’s real family would be like. And by that I don’t mean her birth parents, who were, after all, a couple of ordinary people. No, by “real” I mean “meeting with her approval.” Her supermodel/secret agent mother would be impossibly beautiful, even after six birth kids, all boys, plus a few more adopted ones, again all boys. Her NBA coach/multimillionaire father, when not busy coaching the family teams, would relax by windsurfing on their private island. And the brothers would alternately compete with her, adore her and take all her advice. In this family, every spare minute would be spent running, jumping and competing. And, most importantly, no one would ever, ever discuss the relative merits of Michael Kidd and Agnes De Mille, or spend precious moments deciding which musical remake they’d most like to star in, should Broadway ever call. This would be a family of tote boards and ice packs, not sequins and magic wands.

Poor Emma.

Instead of a Kennedy-esque dream family, blesssed with wealth and boundless energy (and minus the pesky addiction problems), she’s stuck with us. Sure, she’s always known we were boring (I swear to God, I saw her rolling her eyes at me when she was four months old and I couldn’t figure out how to zip up her onesie). But this seems to be the year that she’s also realized that we aren’t normal, and she hasn’t been pleased.

I noticed it last Friday night, our Movie Musical Night (popcorn made in our battered old pot, homemade pizza, and the roulette of whatever DVD has shown up in our request heap at the library). Mary Katherine was singing along, loudly, with the sailors in On the Town, imagining herself, I suspect, in the Jules Munshin role, given her ambitions as a second banana (look for her to be the scene-stealing Rosalind Russell part in a majority of major motion pictures produced in the 2020’s). I had one eye on an impossible NY Times crossword puzzle and the other one focused on the happy trio. I was just about to launch into some obscure anecdote about Comden & Green when Emma turned to me and wailed, “I used to think everyone knew this stuff, but now I know. It’s just us!” The piteous wail got our attention, and she told a sad story about how she had jokingly sung a little tune from Meet Me in St. Louis during biology class and had been met with uncomprehending stares. “Nobody knows this stuff but us!” she j’accused.

I decided not to suggest that this was really important stuff, and that knowing all the lyrics to You’ve Got Trouble, including the reprise, could not help but make her a better, more well-adjusted person in the long run. No, the kid was wise to the fact that she lived at the corner of 42nd Street and Fantasyland, in a town where everyone else is lined up in a neat row on Normal Avenue (cross streets, Norwegian Dullard Drive and Boring as Hell Boulevard, but still).

All mothers disappoint their daughters, but to know you’ve disappointed yours in such a fundamental way is hard for me. Still, she knows that I love her. And maybe someday she’ll be happy that she can recall all the words to Wonderful Town, even if she doesn’t really want to, now.

Monday, February 8, 2010

My Daughter, The Actress

It’s true that she made me entirely miserable while she was in utereo. But if I think of those nine months as her assigned time for standing in the wings, waiting to go on, it makes sense. Because once she made an entrance, Mary Katherine brought me nothing but joy.

We have a little step that leads from the living room to the dining room in our house, framed by a stucco archway. Right after moving in, I remember worrying that it was dangerous. I was sure that kids were going to trip up and down that step all that time. And then Mary Katherine showed up, and saw what no one else had understood. The step and the landing and the little archway formed a stage. At about age 18 months, she began pulling people to the couch that faced the step, urging them to “watch the show.” At that point, the kid had never been inside a theater, at least not in this incarnation. I like to think that way back in her karma, there’s a lifetime where she was born in a trunk in the Princess Theatre in Pocatello, Idaho, but she’s not telling.

Mary Katherine has sung and danced and performed her way through every day of her life. Up until this point, her audiences have been limited to members of her immediate family, along with whatever quick guerilla theatre she’s able to pull off in school before she’s busted.

Over the next few months, that’s going to start changing. I’ve always asked her, “Do you want to audition? Do you want an agent? Do you want to pursue this?” But she’s been a kid who needs several hours of solitude a day; she loves to go to bed early just so she can enjoy the feeling of being in a quiet, pink space. Recently though, about to turn 12, she told me that she’s ready to move her act from the basement and into the world.

In the way that things seem to work for Mary, she immediately got a phone call from a director. Okay, it’s her former nanny’s brother in Chicago, but he’s the real deal, a talented guy who has done PBS documentaries and wants to move up to feature films. He’s directing an indy to add to his reel, and he asked if she’d be willing to perform in his psychologically gripping ghost movie, with the proviso that she’d never see the whole gruesome script or be allowed to view the finished film. (Like her mother, she’s notoriously squeamish about what other people think of as “pretend” violence. But when you know for a fact that make believe is always, always, real, well, then, you approach Marathon Man from a different angle.) I broached the subject with Mary Katherine gingerly, hoping that the idea of performing in something scary would not be upsetting to her. Her first question, delivered with the hopefulness some kids reserve for requests for ponies: “Can I have fake blood?” We called the nanny’s brother back and said yes.

In addition to gleefully anticipating her own dismemberment on celluloid, she’s working on an audition piece these days, since a local kids’ theatre group is producing a play based on her favorite book. She understands that she may not get the part she wants, or any part, but now that she’s started on this road, she seems clear that persistence is part of the deal.

So, she’s going to be an actress.

And who knows what that will mean or where it will take her, but I can’t help thinking that whatever she does, she’ll always bring a few fistfuls of sparkly confetti to the endeavor.

My best friend, who lives in New York, was once forced to share professional and living space in a building that included an off-Broadway theater and an audition hall. She came, during those years, to loathe actors. I should expand that – she loathes everyone connected with show business, probably including the guy who sweeps up after the elephants at the Big Apple Circus. The reason, she declares simply, is that they aren’t people. And I do see her point. When you’re trying to run a fun and safe and caring afterschool program for disadvantaged kids in Hell’s Kitchen, and all Woody Allen does is keep popping his head in to tell you that he’s rehearsing and you need to keep it down, then you might come to experience Mr. Allen not as a brilliant auteur, but as a big pain in the ass.

In that parade of loathsomeness that was her experience with actors, there was one guy, Tony Hale, who walked by one day on his way to an audition and did a double take. He came into her room and asked if he could volunteer sometime. He showed up for his assigned shift, kept coming back and was wonderful with the kids. (If you’re thinking he’s so nice because his acting sucks, that’s not true. He was Byron Bluth in Arrested Development and is currently Professor Lazlo in Numb3rs, so at least he’s working.)

In my friend’s view, Tony Hale is the reason she does not call Mary Katherine to insist that she stop this nonsense right now. Given that she has proven to herself the existence of one actual human being in show business, she figures Mary Katherine can hold on to her humanity, too.

I hope so. No matter what she does, Mary Katherine does entertain, but she also heals. There’s something about this kid that makes everyone feel better in her presence. Our nanny told me of a time they were together at the park, when she was about three. A busful of developmentally disabled adults arrived, and they all made a slow-moving but determined beeline to Mary Katherine, petting her hair and touching her. Mary Katherine remained calm, smiled up at them, and everyone was soothed.

She still does it now. One former babysitter, now an adult, comes over when she’s frazzled just to sit in Mary Katherine’s pink womb of a room and get what she calls “Vitamin M.” Mary Katherine’s best friend, who has experienced more crap than any eleven-year-old should be forced to, begins to visibly relax in her presence. After a few hours of their being together, I always notice that the little wrinkle that always seems to be between her eyes has disappeared.

What I wonder is, will any of that healing juju translate to the world at large? People are different on the screen or on stage than they are in real life, and I wonder if anyone will be able to feel and benefit from her presence in the way those of us who love her do.

I suppose some people wish that their children would make pots of money or right great wrongs or become incredibly famous. I’m hoping that she gets to do what she loves most, for as long as she can. And, along the way, I hope that she can help some people to unclench their eyebrows, if only for a little while.