Monday, October 5, 2015

The Family That Plays Together

Every other year or so, the theatre group that I perform with puts on a show called “Remembering the 40’s.” The show is a revue made up of songs, dances, and sketches from the 1940s, starting just before the U.S. entered World War II, and ending with a celebration of New Year’s Eve, 1949. There are scenes of the soldiers at the front receiving letters from home, the women back home working in the factories and selling war bonds, several scenes from the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics South Pacific and Oklahoma, dance performances by a group of alumnae of the Radio City Rockettes and others, and a full-scale radio show. There are actors portraying such celebrities as Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Bob Hope, Rita Hayworth, Abbott and Costello, Jimmy Durante, and Mel Blanc.

This show has always been very special to me (see this blog entry). I often comment that it is my favorite show to perform with this group. Seeing the people I portray on stage in the audience watching my performance is both humbling and exciting. But this year’s performance was extra-special to me because not only did I get to perform with my husband, but with both my children as well.

One of my favorite scenes in the show is the song, “Be a Good Soldier.” The song is sung by a father who is in the army and going off to war. He is reminding his young son to take care of his mother, to obey her, and to remember and pray for his daddy while he is away overseas. The scene is sung to the side of the stage while it is acted out in a spotlight in the center of the stage. This year, my son played the part of the young boy. He is a rather intense and sometimes serious young man, and he took his part very seriously. The man portraying the soldier was absolutely wonderful with him. He whispered to him quietly to coach him about what was going on, “Give me a big hug,” “Let’s look out to the audience,” “Now give me a salute.” Any changes or corrections he was given (look back at your dad when you leave, turn towards the audience instead of away, nod when Daddy gives you the baseball glove), he remembered every time. I was so proud of him. And I was so pleased that he genuinely enjoyed being up there on stage.

The opening of the second act of the show was another opportunity for my son to be on stage, along with my daughter. The second act is a radio show, so at the opening, a family is sitting around an old-fashioned radio, listening to snippets of “The Lone Ranger,” “Abbott and Costello,” “Amos and Andy,” “Jimmy Durante,” and “Henry Aldrich.” I dug through our toy box and came up with an old wooden fire truck and a jointed teddy bear that both looked like they came from the 1940s, and our wonderful costumer came up with a flannel nightgown and some striped pajamas for the kids to wear. The kids behaved exactly as kids would have at that time: My son played with his toy and reacted to what was playing on the radio; my daughter was somewhat oblivious and just wanted to curl up on my lap and snuggle. It worked.

But as much as being on the stage with my kids was wonderful, being backstage with them was even more wonderful. My son camped out in the men’s dressing room with Dad; my daughter camped out in the women’s dressing room with me. And when I say “camped out,” I really mean “camped out.”

She had a little nest in a corner behind a door, and between shows she took a little nap there. But when she was awake, she flitted around the room, admiring people’s hair and jewelry and dresses, and chattering away to anyone who would listen to her. I was a bit worried that she would get in people’s way and make a nuisance of herself, but instead, she became the darling of the entire female cast.

And I hear that my son was just as much of a hit in the men’s dressing room, laughing uproariously at the cheesy jokes the men were telling and chatting a bit himself.

But perhaps the most exciting thing about doing this show with my kids was discovering the interest they both took not only in the process of performing, but in the history of what we were doing. Obviously, at age 4, my daughter doesn’t really understand the historical context. But she does understand that when I put on my plaid flannel shirt and bandana, I am playing a woman who went to work in a factory, and that when Daddy marches across the stage wearing a helmet and a green uniform, he is playing a soldier. She understands that people didn’t always have television but that they used to listen to stories on the radio and use their imagination, like we do when we read a book. It may not be history, exactly, but it is the foundation that will help her understand the past better later on. My son, on the other hand, at age almost 6 (going on 37), understands a lot more than I expected. He asks questions about the songs he learned just from sitting in on a few rehearsals, and we’ve had some incredible discussions about what it’s like when there’s a war going on, and what kinds of things cause countries to go to war. We compared war to a fight at school when two kids want the same toy, and we talked about how it’s better to figure out a way to share or take turns or work together to find another of the same toy, instead of hitting each other and both pulling at the toy and often breaking it so no-one gets to play with it.

Throughout my discussions with both of my children, I was continually reminded of the quote, “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” By beginning to learn history so young, I hope that my children can incorporate their knowledge of human history throughout their lives, carefully choosing what parts of history are worthy of trying to repeat, and which parts they want to work to avoid repeating at all costs. If they can learn that and use it in their lives, then I’ve done my job as a parent.

Who knew that would be the result of having my kids sitting on a stage in their jammies pretending to listen to a radio?

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