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The Stage Mother
It’s not what Ellen Bell had in mind when she took her 7-year-old to his first audition. It’s better.
Published May 2010
I’m crouched down, below the light. My nose is close to the dusty floor. My heart races and I try to control my breathing. This is usually the time when the butterflies get busy, rising to dance in my belly, just like when I was little. I clear my throat, swallow, and then clear my throat again. I want to be ready when it’s my turn. It’s almost time.
My knees complain because my weight is pressing them into the floor. They are covered with scrapes and bruises that would make any 10-year-old proud. It’s 9:30 on a Thursday morning at the La Mirada Center for the Performing Arts. I’m a 46-year-old mother of two—and I’m Peter Pan.
In less than a minute, a bearded stagehand will jump from a 12-foot ladder to catapult me through a stage window in a blaze of twinkling pixie dust. My stomach will flip and, for just a moment, as I reach the top, gravity will let me go and I’ll feel like I’m flying. The children in the audience will gasp at the boy in green tights flying toward them from out of the darkness. I will land center stage and take a moment to settle my feet. Because of the spotlight, I won’t be able to see the children’s faces, but I’ll know that they’re smiling.
My friends and neighbors in Irvine will spend this day focusing on computer screens or at Gelson’s filling their carts with groceries, but I will be playing make-believe, balancing on the end of a wire, dressed as a boy who won’t grow up.
I didn’t plan for this to happen. Like most of the happiest things in my life, it came completely by surprise. When I took my 7-year-old son to audition for a local production of “Oliver!,” I intended to broaden his horizons. The theater would be a perfect fit for a little guy who never stopped talking and loved to dress up in superhero costumes.
“Just try,” I told my nervous boy. “It doesn’t matter if you get the part or not. What matters is that you stand up and try.”
I was so proud of him as he stood there, all 4 feet of him, and sweetly sang 10 bars of “Where Is Love?”
That was supposed to be that. Mission accomplished. But then the director said parents were needed to play some of the adult roles and asked if any moms might be willing to audition.
“You can do it, Mom,” Tyler said, pulling at my sleeve. “You’re a great singer.”
“No, no, honey,” I whispered to him. “Mommy doesn’t do plays anymore.”
“Just try,” his brown Bambi eyes pleaded. “You said it’s important to stand up and try.” Half an hour later, I was homebound on Culver Drive with a proud little boy and the lead in the play.
Tyler and I went on to perform together in many productions with Children’s Theatre Experience of Orange County. Sometimes we sang duets: his Artful Dodger to my Nancy, his Winthrop to my Marian the Librarian. And even though my reconnection to the theater came through my child, the experience always has been a direct contrast to motherhood.
My life at home is all about safety and parental caution. I live with grocery lists and carpool schedules, and I move methodically through a daily routine that is comfortably predictable. There isn’t much danger in Woodbridge.
But in amateur theater, life is exciting and scary. You learn to expect the unexpected, stay on your toes, and react to the constant threat of surprise. Over the years, I’ve dodged falling set pieces, survived wardrobe malfunctions, and answered a stage telephone that was still ringing three seconds after I said, “Hello.” I’ve felt the sheer, cold terror of a forgotten line, and I’ve learned that if you keep smiling, the audience will forgive just about anything.
Most of all, these plays have given me a precious chance to escape, to feel unique in a place where everything looks more or less the same. And even though I’ve identified with just about all of the roles I’ve performed, it wasn’t until I played Peter Pan that I met my true alter ego. How many other people in Orange County would recognize themselves in the role of a perpetual child who flies away from the constant threat of aging?
Now, here I am, 10 years after that “Oliver!” audition, on stage and playing a boy who refuses to act his age. I feel the tug on the wire connected to the harness under my costume. It’s the signal from Nate the stagehand, letting me know he’s about to jump. I wonder if I’m getting too old for this. Maybe it’s time to enjoy the play from the seats with Tyler and the rest of the audience. I’ve had a great run and, so far, I’ve managed not to kill myself.
I close my eyes and hope for a good show. I hope I’ll hit my marks, remember all my lines, and that my voice will sing out, clear and true. I hope the crew will remember to open the stage window in time for me to soar through it. Most of all, I hope I never forget what it feels like to fly.
Ellen Bellis an Orange Coast contributing writer.
Illustration by Megan Berkheiser and Mike Caldwell