I knew I was destined to play the lead; I just didn’t realize which one.
Cute, giggly Pamela was to be Lady Violetta, the future queen who made the tarts. Actually I was assigned to be King Pompdebile The Eighth, not a lead role after all, because I could sound like someone really old with a cracked voice. Young people always think people’s voices change when they age. Only when we get to be that old do we realize that’s one of the few things that often doesn’t change.
When we started reading the script out loud it became clear that Pamela just didn’t have it to be Lady Violetta. She sounded like she was struggling even to read the words.
“Does anyone here think they can help Pamela?” Mrs. Russell finally asked. Good teacher, huh?
“OK, Gordon,” Mrs. Russell said. “Let’s go back to her first lines. Pamela, read them, please.”
Pamela made a face. I don’t think she wanted help. Especially not from me.
“Am I late?” she began reading. “I just remembered and came as fast as I could. I bumped into a sentry and he fell down. I didn’t. That’s strange, isn’t it? I suppose it’s because he stands in one position so long…”
By now we had all heard those lines often enough that we didn’t laugh. But Pamela read it all in a sing-song voice and missed all the chances to be funny.
“All right, Gordon. What do you think?”
I didn’t want to say that she really stunk; I had a crush on Pamela, not that she was interested. So I said as friendly as possible “Uh, Pamela, you should probably not make every sentence sound the same. Like when you say ‘as I could’ you should say ‘could’ like it’s the most important word. And the same with ‘sentry’ and ‘down.’
“Do you understand, Pamela?,” Mrs. Russell asked.
“No,” Pamela said, pouting.
“Could I read it for her, Mrs. Russell?” I asked.
“Certainly. Go ahead.”
So I pitched my already deepening voice higher and read the speech. I was really good.
Everyone laughed. Including Pamela.
“That’s wonderful, Gordon,” Mrs. Russell said. “I’ll tell you what, why don’t you read the part for now and let’s see how the rest of it sounds.”
I did get a lead role. One I didn’t expect. Lady Violetta. Mrs. Russell thought it would strange for me to dress up as a girl, real boys didn’t do that sort of thing, so we’d perform The Knave of Hearts as a radio play. My medium, at last. I also provided sound effects and vocally doubled as one of the heralds. We set up microphones in the basement under the school auditorium and broadcast the show to everybody upstairs in the auditorium. No one in the class was allowed to tell anyone else that it was me playing Lady Violetta until after the performance.
I was a hit. But it didn’t make Pamela like me any better.
For the next five years I’d be on stage in class plays, plays for the French Club. In French. Plus plays for the Spanish Club; one was Ollantay about one of the great Inca warriors. I played him in a cast that included Ecuadoran Frank Tosi and Venezuelan Leonore Garcia, native Spanish speakers.
I had always gravitated to foreign languages; it was such fun sounding like someone from another country and pretending to be someone more special than who I found myself to be. I specialized in portraying fathers and other elderlies, not romantic leads.
I played the father in J.M. Barrie’s Mary Rose and an elderly priest, Father Hart , in Williiam Butler Yeats’ The Land of Heart’s Desire. One part of a speech from that stays with me still
“Put it away, my colleen;
God spreads the heavens above us like great wings.
And gives a little round of deeds and days,
And then come the wrecked angels and set snares,
And bait them with light hopes and heavy dreams.”
Why does it stay with me? No idea. And the play was such a mystical and odd choice for such a non-denominational school.