Helene Stapinski is a writer with no experience in the theater. Somehow she found herself directing the fifth-grade musical at Public School 29 John M. Harrigan, the elementary school in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, that her son, Dean, attended two years ago. Besides the show, Ms. Stapinski wound up producing an article that she titled “The Munchkins Are a Problem: One Mom’s Struggle to Direct the Fifth-Grade School Play.” SchoolBook has been rolling out the article in installments on Fridays, as a weekend treat for readers. You can find earlier installments here. This week: stage right or stage left?
The tech rehearsals have been nothing short of disastrous. The set changes take so long we could put on a shorter, one-act play between each one.
I have missed each and every one of the cues for the sound effects that I am in charge of — particularly Dorothy ringing the doorbell at the Emerald City, which often comes after the gatekeeper has already opened the door and has said hello.
The red paper poppies, held by the human poppies, have frayed and fallen apart from overuse. Kristen, the school’s art teacher, has created an emergency replacement set.
The sets are too big to all fit in the wings. We leave the wizard’s shower curtain on the floor, stage left. Or is it stage right? I still can’t get that down. The scene will have to unfold from there. Stage left, right, whatever.
There are too many Munchkin houses crowding out the yellow brick road backdrop. I feel like I spread all that yellow glitter for nothing. You can’t even see the darn road.
But I have resigned myself, at this point, to failure and have stopped yelling. I have taken my husband’s speech to heart. These are fifth graders, not professional actors, I say to anyone who will listen. If they mess up, it will be endearing, right?
The wizard’s gondola, made by Todd from tatami mats I bought at an Asian decorating store in SoHo, will also have to stay on the floor. Dean will hop into it from the stage. Also, because of scene changes, the curtains are going to have to close much more than we anticipated.
We have to change stage directions. I’m worried the last-minute switches are too much for the kids, who have trouble enough remembering their lines and stage cues as it is.
Catastrophe is imminent.
“Is it too late to quit?” I wonder. Dean and I could just drop out and go into hiding. I can home-school him for the next few weeks.
The curtain is a major problem. The two Dorothys have been manning the curtain on their days off. Mary Leigh does the curtain when Holly is Dorothy, and Holly when Mary Leigh is Dorothy. But with all the changes, they keep closing the curtain when it should be open, and opening the curtain when it should be closed.
One of the dads on stage crew loses his temper when one of the Dorothys screws up the curtain yet again. He yells — at no one in particular — but Mary Leigh takes it personally and bursts into tears.
I miss the drama because I’m busy laying yellow brick road stickers in the aisles, where the cast will be skipping in and out.
Todd, overwhelmed by the mini camera he’s trying to set up to project the wizard’s head, is yelling that my “bricks” need to be placed more randomly, but neatly. I consider placing one of the brick stickers over his mouth.
Even Gina, eternally optimistic Gina, is in a bad mood. Several kids have told her they can’t be at the dress and tech rehearsals.
“I told the parents that attendance at those final rehearsals is mandatory,” says Gina, in as close to a shriek as I’ve heard from her all year. “Did the parents not get my memo?”
Some parents, whom I’ve never seen in the seven years I’ve been at the school, don’t even call with an excuse. Gina is outraged. And I have to say I’m pretty angry, too. But I’m trying to maintain my newfound sense of serenity (or resignation).
“We’ve been providing free baby-sitting every Friday!” Gina rants. “Don’t they realize we’re not getting paid for this? If they signed up for acting classes for their kids, they’d be paying hundreds of dollars. The least they could do is make sure their kid shows up at a dress rehearsal.”
Most mornings and afternoons, Gina is outside the school, selling advance $5 tickets to the play. (I’ve sold them for a few days, but my husband gets cranky whenever I say I’m leaving early for an Oz-related activity.)
To attract attention, Gina plays the Oz soundtrack from a boom box. One morning, as the Tin Man is singing his signature song, Gina gets into a fight with one of the uncommitted, offending moms.
Gina offers to pick the woman’s kid up for dress rehearsal and drop her back at home. The rehearsal falls on a professional day, a day off for the kids.
“She’s spending the day with her father,” Difficult Mom says.
“But I sent you an e-mail weeks ago saying we have dress rehearsal that day. She’s going to be lost if she doesn’t come. We’re changing a bunch of stuff. I can pick her up if you want. And drop her off.”
This is when Difficult Mom loses it.
“Don’t threaten to throw my daughter out of the play!” she screams. “You think the world revolves around you and your stupid play.”
“I’m not threatening to throw her out. I offered to pick her up.”
“You gave her a crummy role anyway.”
Her daughter is a Munchkin, a poppy and a Winkie.
“She has three roles!” Gina yells back. “She’s on stage most of the show.”
Gina wants to punch her in the nose, but the frightened parents gathered outside school would be even more frightened if she gave her a nosebleed. So Gina lets it go.
Another mom, one of the dedicated parent volunteers, has heard Gina’s tirade about the kids not showing up and sneaks up to me after dress rehearsal.
“My son can’t make it tomorrow,” says the mom. “He has to go to the dentist. I tried to reschedule, but I’ve rescheduled the appointment three times already because of the play. He has to go.”
She is trembling slightly, and whispering so that Gina doesn’t hear her. “What should I do?”
“Just go,” I tell her, waving my hands. “He hasn’t missed a practice all year. It’s fine.”
With all our technical difficulties, he winds up not missing his most important part: he gets there in time for his mean tree sequence.
Instead of going home after the last rehearsal, Gina and I go out for drinks and dinner with the kids, in part to celebrate, in part to unwind because we are so tense and stressed.
Gina is the main breadwinner in her family and has earned very little bread these past few months. She may be in danger of losing her house because of “The Wizard of Oz.”
I tell Gina that the fights at home have continued and I’m worried I am headed for couple’s therapy. I want to drink myself into a coma and stay there through the performances and wake up next week. But that is not practical, I know. So I decide to get slightly tipsy instead.
I call my husband at work to tell him to meet us at the new Mexican place around the corner, even though I’m still mad at him.
“You know I like to come home on Friday nights,” he says.
“Well, we wanted to get a drink.”
“Then go get one.”
“Why don’t you come?”
“Because I don’t want to.”
“Why do you have to be such a jerk?” I say, and hang up the phone.
We drink without him and I tell Gina, with a slur, that I have the wizard to blame for my impending divorce.
Next week: The end of Oz. The show goes on.