Being a Brief Explanation
Of the Writing of "Math for Actors"
(Followed by a Little Bit of Practical Math for Those About to Kiss)
My senior year of high school, I was cast - for one brief, glorious moment - as the drunken slut in an otherwise unremarkable murder mystery play called Par for the Corpse.
For the record, there was 100% of no golfing involved in the show.
There was, however, 100% of me first-time-kissing.
And this is how:
Our school was hardly known for its dedication to the arts. Dedication to the football team, sure. Dedication to threatening to cut chorus every year, you betcha. But one concession they made to those of us who liked a little bit of plot in our high school drama was to host the All-School Spring Musical, as well as the Autumnal Senior Play.
- My Freshman year, the musical was Grease and I was prohibited by my mother to audition. (After seeing the show, I was grateful to her - not in the least of which, the leads couldn't sing.)
- My Sophomore year, I was cast as the humorous old sexaphobe mother, Mrs. Harcourt in Anything Goes. (Really, fun musical. Even if, to this day, I can't remember the plot because half my time was in the wings and popping the occasional high Bb.)
- My Junior year, I was cast as the humorous old (male) blowhard, Senator Jack S. Phogbound in L'il Abner. (Which made me wish we were doing Grease again. Because it's positively criminal that anyone should ever be forced to perform L'il Abner.)
But my Senior year I was finally eligible to audition for whatever Glorious, Wonderful, Profound and Marvellous Play the theatre gods would bestow upon us. In previous seasons, they'd put on the best Arsenic and Old Lace I've seen live to date (I mean, no one's Cary Grant impersonating a chicken, but our kids did pretty well). And I'm sure there was something vaguely classy the year before - and therefore dreams of Hamlet or Our Town swam in my head that whole summer.
When we came to auditions, however, our directrice - blond, young, perpetually tired and defeated, a former actress who never let us forget that she had failed - looked at the few of us who'd forsaken the football game to huddle in the theatre and sighed. "We'll have to cancel the play. There are too few of you for the show we were going to do."
I nearly died. Or at least looked like this:
Everyone fell neatly into place: the handsome rogue who dies first, the tall Equity actor, the nervous old mother, the ditzy ingenue, the put-upon author...and then it came to cast the Drunk Slut vs. the Prudish Housekeeper.
I braced myself for Housekeeper.
After all, much of high school and community theatre casting tends to base age on a complex calculation between the size of a woman's bust to a size of a woman's stomach, and if the ratio isn't exactly the dimensions of an hourglass, the busty gal becomes everyone's frowning aunt - even if she can act up a storm - while the Greek Goddess plays the sex symbol - even if her talents are as pole-like as her shape.
So, I was sure, Dour Housekeeper it was for me.
But our actor-director narrowed her eyes and took in her remaining two victims: myself, and my classmate who later that year would win Prom Queen. (No joke.) And she said, with a ferocity I had only ever heard from her that once:
"You know, ladies. I should cast you to type. You know who you should be."
And then she looked at me, really pierced me through and said:
"So, Emily. You're going to play Hazel. And you should know that you shouldn't play Hazel. You don't look like Hazel. [Prom Queen] over there should play Hazel. But I'm going to give it to you. Because I think you can do it. Don't prove me wrong."
I'm pretty sure, once again, I looked like this:
|Bring me my brown pants!|
Rehearsals began - and within minutes, it became apparent that I not only was playing the drunken slut (joy of joys!), but that within three lines of my entrance, I had to kiss the fellow playing a big time actor.
Who was a half-foot taller than me.
And I did not know well.
And I did not have a crush on.
In front of the guy I actually had a crush on.
Who was playing my husband.
Who was dead by the end of Act I.
For the first few weeks, my entrance went something like this:
EMILY. (Swooping in dramatically from upstage right with her crush in tow.) Hello! Something clever, witty and dramatic!
(Insert additional unimportant dialogue here.)
EMILY. (With a bit less chutzpah.) This is now the line before my kiss - something wonderfully bitchy to the fellow that I like.
(Insert awkward pause here. While EMILY and ACTOR ACTOR stare at each other, before saying aloud:)
EMILY & ACTOR ACTOR. "Kiss."
(The remainder of the scene continues in typically stilted high school theatre fashion.)
Then one day, our directrice sitting wearily, slumpily, with her perfectly straight blond hair spilling over her left hand as she watched the play in agony, called out from the caverns of the audience:
EMILY. (Mid-plebian dialogue.) Yes? What?
DIRECTRICE. Emily. You have got to do it.
EMILY. Um. Haha. Do...what? Exactly?
DIRECTRICE. The kiss. Do the kiss. You've got to do the kiss. You haven't done the kiss. Do the kiss.
EMILY. Um. Oh - ah.
(The world goes into tunnel vision - you know that horrible tracking shot where the camera pulls away while zooming in on the subject so the result is something like this:)
|While you're like this.|
I look at my scene partner. He looks at me.
I immediately start thinking trigonometry.
Which is to say, my first thought is: "Oh, God. I'm going to miss."
But everyone's looking at me: my impatient directrice, my possibly-just-as-terrified scene partner, the dreamy poetic fellow who's about to die in twelve pages - and so I pluck up my courage, swoop up on tip-toe, pray I don't end up snogging his ear by accident, and peck his lips.
They're slightly damp.
Satisfied, I try to go on to my following unimpressive line.
EMILY. Speaking something rapidly so that we can just get past this awkward moment because...
(From the very Mouth of Hell. From the Caverns of the Damned. From the Pit of Despair.)
EMILY. Hm? Yes? What? What's wrong?
DIRECTRICE. Emily. What. Was. That.
EMILY. You said -
DIRECTRICE. (With an almighty sigh that bellowed forth from the Abyss of Disappointment.) Emily. You know your character. You know what you need to do. That was not a Hazel kiss. You need to do a Hazel kiss. You -
EMILY. (Thinking loudly while the DIRECTRICE drones on.) You bitch. You absolute f*cking bitch. You just stole my first kiss from me, you failure of a woman. You just stole my first kiss from me, in front of everyone, you made me do it in front of everyone, in front of the Boy I Like - and with no help from the Boy I'm Kissing - you made me do it, you made me do it, you made me do it like this. And now you're berating me? Do you know how much of my guts that took? I mean, I know - I know - I know you entrusted me with the drunk slut. But, honey, I'm the school librarian. And I've never, never ever ever and...
DIRECTRICE. (Having continued on this entire time.) So. Ugh. Kiss him again, Emily. No. Not a peck. Not a peck. Ten seconds, Emily. No, wait. Hear me: I mean ten seconds. TEN WHOLE SECONDS, Emily. As in "One Miss-iss-ippi. TWO Miss-iss-ippi. THREE." You understand me, Emily?
EMILY. (Bitterly and through her teeth.) I understand you.
DIRECTRICE. "THREE Miss-iss-ippi." I'll be counting, Emily. "FOUR Miss-iss-ippi." Got it?
EMILY. (Brightly, but baring her fangs.) Yes. Yupp. Got it. Good.
DIRECTRICE. And wiggle, Emily. For God's sake, wiggle. "FIVE Miss-iss-ippi." All the way to ten. Got it?
EMILY. (Really strangling furious now.) YES! Got it! Ten seconds. Wiggle. Got it. A Hazel Corlian kiss. I understand you.
DIRECTRICE. Good. Now do it.
I face my scene partner again. Once again, I do some quick trig.
DIRECTRICE. (From Beyond the Veil of Caring:) And climb him, Emily! You should grab his neck and climb.
(EMILY closes her eyes and swallows. Dear God. He's got at least six inches on her. And she's never been a pole vaulter. She opens her eyes and goes for it.)
EMILY. (Thinking.) One Miss-iss-SIPPING-freaky...wiggle, wiggle...TWO Miss-iss-I'm-gonna-find-her-and-murder-her-ippi...wiggle, grab and press...THREE...I-sincerely-hope-I-don't-look-like-a-moron-ippi...hold, drag, move...FOUR -
Ten seconds is a super long time, kiddos.
Moving on, we got to that delightful point in the rehearsal process that found a happy rhythm.
EMILY. (Swooping in for her entrance.) Lines lines lines! Dialogue. Super-long kiss that I Am No Longer Afraid Of Because I Know Where His Lips Are In Space and Ugh Seven Mississipi, EIGHT - REMAINDER OF PLAY! Wherein (***spoilers!***) it turns out the whole thing revolves around me and being adopted and the Prudish Housekeeper is my mother, if I recall correctly, and no one could remember their lines in Act II and I was trying too hard to help and ended up messing everything up and it didn't matter because...
EMILY. (Swooping in for her entrance the following day.) Here I am again, and lines lines lines. Dialogue. Super-long kiss, please and thank you, sir. Nine Mississippi, good grief my arms are tired, TEN. And done and...
EMILY. (Swooping into the lunchroom to sit with her nerdy friends.) My lips are itchy. Why are my lips itchy? I need to kiss someone. That's an odd sensation.
EMILY. (Swooping into rehearsal.) Hullllllloo! Lines lines lines. Kiss. Ooooof - what's this costume? It's off the shoulders. Um, I think my arms are going to fall off or I may rip my dress and I don't need to rip my dress I am not being naked on the stage by accident - Mississippi, TEN.
And we came to performance.
Now, all through high school, I had a fellow who was following me around as I followed around my fellow who mostly followed around the fellows selling drugs in the parking lot. High school's full of the world's bestest choices, kids!
My fellow Let It Be Known To Me in chemistry class that he fully intended to attend every single night out of jealousy. Which was one of the more comforting things he'd ever told me. However, this only made it considerably more imperative that the dress I wore Did. Not. Accidentally. Rip. On. Stage. And. Leave. Me. Naked. Because...
I pondered this dilemma whilst attempting to change modestly in the communal dressing room, just a few minutes before performance. When suddenly, I saw the answer to all my problems:
My Actor Actor was wearing a tie.
I caught his attention.
ACTOR ACTOR. (Tying his shoe.) Hey.
EMILY. So, you know I'm worried about ripping my dress.
ACTOR ACTOR. Hm.
EMILY. Would you be OK if I just grab you by your tie and bring you down to my level?
ACTOR ACTOR. (Looking up at me.) Um. No...no. That should be fine.
EMILY. Great. Do we need to practice or are we good?
ACTOR ACTOR. (Tying his other shoe.) We're good. We'll just do it then.
EMILY OF THE PRESENT. Safety! Safety! You should have rehearsed! It has now become a fight move!
EMILY OF THEN. I feel like I'm hearing something, like a ripple from the future - but I'm just going to ignore it. Because now I am amazing.
The moment arrives.
EMILY. (In the stage left wings, awaiting her entrance.) I feel like we should have practiced. What if I miss? What if he misses?
EMILY FROM THE FUTURE. What if you strangle him?
EMILY OF THEN. That's my cue! Hope it works!
(Sweeping on stage.)
EMILY. Hullo! Hullo! Lines lines lines. Dialogue. Oh, shit. We really should have - what if...well, here we go!
(EMILY grabs her scene partner by his tie and...)
Sadly, by this time though, my thought wasn't one of - oh, Disney Princess songbirds or popping out my leg or sudden outbursts of opera - I wasn't even paying too much attention to my now mechanical thought of: "Twelve-Thousand-Mississippi-Wiggle-Wiggle"...
Instead, most of my brain was doing trigonometry.
No. Seriously. With cartoon diagrams over our heads and everything.
Something like this:
EMILY. (Thinking while smooching.) OK, if I'm 5'6 and he's - say, 6'1 - then the angle of inclination for this to have landed perfectly - wiggle wiggle - must be...
For the record, it's 45°. Which is pretty steep slope. Just sayin'.
At intermission, my Directrice came back stage and ranked me out. But I, being passive-aggressive, kept the tie-pull for the whole run.
After the show, I heard that the fellow who followed me was incredibly upset at the seeming-passion of the kiss, and had already bought his tickets to the following performances - which suited me well and you're welcome bank account of Pompton Lakes High School.
Once the show closed, the Itchy Kissy Lips Syndrome (TM) continued for a few weeks with no particular outlet, since after my heady foray into drunk slutdum, I returned to my cozy tea-drinking BBC-watching ways for the rest of Senior Year. And anyway, the musical was You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. With no kissing. And I wasn't cast.
Many, many moons later - after I became a teacher and director myself - the phrase "Math for Actors" became a thing among my students and I.
"Miss Snyder! I can't find page 60!"
"Have you found page 61?"
"Try turning the page."
MATH FOR ACTORS!
And so on like that.
Then, one summer when I wasn't directing Shakespeare, an opportunity arose to finally write out our little in-joke as a short play.
|Kate explains the angle of inclination to Keith.|
Naturally, my own math-based-acting-incident presented itself as a possible factor (pun fully intended!) in the freewheeling plot. Other incidents - such as one parent who asked how long a green sash is, or the vagaries of how long a scene runs, what the hell a proscenium arch is - really anything I could stuff in there, went in there.
And what came out was a pretty spiffy little two-person play, I think!
With just one minor dilemma:
To perform this play - you actually do have to do some math.
Therefore, for anyone who's about to perform this show, I hereby present you with an easy way to sort out the angle between your actors' mouths. I also highly encourage you not to make them count to any Mississippis. They'll sort it out themselves.
Start by using this brilliant website. (Or get your math teacher. But mostly start with the website.)
Then plug in the following, wherein:
X1 = The height in inches of the shorter person, from the floor to the position of their lips in space
Y1 = 1
X2 = The height in inches of the taller person, from the floor to the position of their lips in space
Y2 = The starting distance in inches between the actors
Press "calculate" et voilà! Trigonomic smooching.
Or, of course, you can ditch all that and just pull the guy down by his tie. Because that is awesome.