The church my family attended in our medium-sized, Midwestern town held an annual mother/daughter banquet. Every woman was expected to volunteer. My mother was a teacher and breadwinner before the feminist movement gave her permission; it wasn’t like her to make a casserole or decorate the church basement. She was a writer and had studied acting in college, so instead of baking a cake or hanging crepe paper she wrote a play for the two of us to perform at the event.
I was five years old, so she wrote a simple piece. A mother and daughter do the dishes. The mother washes, the daughter dries. The daughter asks a lot of questions about God. The mother doesn’t have all the answers.
I learned to memorize lines at age five because my mother taught me how. I learned to project my voice because she took me to the church and we practiced in the basement, where the banquet would be held. Mother stood in the back of the room, and we called our lines out to each other across the expanse until I could hear her and she could hear me. She taught me to breathe from my diaphragm, and to enunciate so I could be understood.
Mother taught me simple stage tools like cheating out, how not to upstage her or to be upstaged by her, even how to hold for a laugh without breaking character.
But she didn’t teach me to work with props. At one point, the daughter breaks a dish and learns that mistakes are part of life. We had dishtowels, but we didn’t have a lot of dishes to waste so we didn’t practice breaking one. We figured we’d just do that in the show.
The church basement had a pale green tile floor and green-painted cinder block walls, with windows high at the top that let in the outdoor light. In the early evening of banquet night, after the sun went down, fluorescent lights gave the cavernous room a sepia glow.
In the stainless steel kitchen, some of the mothers had prepared a meal of macaroni and cheese casserole, green beans and a salad of iceberg lettuce with Italian dressing. We served ourselves, ate our macaroni from paper plates and drank lemonade out of paper cups. Women and girls sat on metal folding chairs at portable tables.
After dinner, Mother and I climbed the three steps to the small stage. I was nervous but not terribly so, because I didn’t know what it would be like to perform for an audience. I wore a tan and black striped shift Mother had made for me. Mother wore Capri pants and a white blouse. Her dark brown hair was in the swept-up do she wore when she was young.
Mothers shushed their daughters until there was silence. Soon, the scraping of metal chairs on tile ceased. Our audience waited. I looked out over pointed eyeglasses, puffy hairdos and red fingernails. I remember Mary Janes, white anklets and dirty knees. The moms and daughters gazed up at us, their fluorescent-lit faces attentive. They knew that even if it was boring, at least it wouldn’t last forever.
Mother said her first line. I answered with mine, too quietly. She spoke again, louder, her voice guiding me to focus. I remembered to enunciate and speak up.
Then something happened that none of us had expected. Mother and I got involved in our conversation. Even though we were speaking memorized lines, projecting and cheating out, we talked to each other. I heard her words as though for the first time, and my responses were new to us both. But the play was only a few minutes long; we didn’t realize what was happening until the dish slipped out of my hands and shattered on the cement floor of the stage.
It shocked Mother. It even shocked me. The audience gasped.
We had believed.
In the moment, my five-year-old self felt the power of holding an audience. Yes, I believed, but it was their belief that hooked me.
Maybe I made it up. Could I have been that young? There are later events in my life that I don’t remember as clearly. Could I have told the story to myself so many times that I’ve created details?
The moment of the broken plate is primal for me. I try to find it again and again. On stage, on sound stages, even in casting offices, I try to break that plate and hold others in my moment.
There’s something more, something my mother knew then that I didn’t know: it’s through our brokenness that we find our art. In glib terms we call it “getting in touch with our emotions.” It means experiencing the love and pain of our lives and allowing ourselves to bring that to our work. Did my mother expect my five-year-old self to grasp that? I doubt it, but she’s no longer here to ask. Her dark, swept-up hair grew silver, and when she died we boxed up her writings along with her dishes and mementoes. Somewhere in my garage is a copy of the little play she wrote for us to share.
Petrea Burchard is a Pasadena photographer, blogger, voice-over talent and author. Her story “Portraits” is included in Literary Pasadena (Prospect Park Books, 2013). She contributes book reviews to Hometown Pasadena, for which we and our readers are very grateful. Find more Petrea doings, writings, and photography at PetreaBurchard.com and LivingVicuriously.
Petrea’s novel, Camelot & Vine, can be bought locally at the Pasadena Museum of History, Hoopla! in Altadena and the Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeeshop. The ebook version is available on Amazon.com.