In my acting debut at age nine, I played Clara in The Nutcracker. Clara’s beloved nutcracker Franz was injured at the end of act one, so I spent the rest of the play pretending to be asleep at the edge of the stage, while the rest of the story unfolded like a dream behind me.
I never stirred, never opened an eye to peek at the story going on behind me, and even resisted the urge to peer out at the audience to see if Uncle George had made it to the show that night. Truth be told, what had gone on behind the scenes before the curtain went up was enough to occupy my brain for the rest of the play, anyway.
It was the first time I’d worn eye make-up. Rather, the first time someone else had applied it to my eyes. Madam Thespian, the director and producer of the play, had recruited me off of the jungle gym and into the theater a mere two months earlier, because she needed a Clara. And there I sat, her bright-eyed protégée, wearing Clara’s traditional German costume and waiting at the make-up table backstage, one hour before curtain.
And while I waited, a hive of helpers buzzed about the room – pinning and straightening, and powdering and fluffing, and spraying and painting, in a rush of last-minute preparations. At the vortex of all activity stood Madam Thespian, trilling orders like a queen bee. Suddenly, she spotted me sitting obediently at the table where she had placed me, earlier in the melee.
She flew to my side, opened up her hand bag, took out a small white plastic case, then flipped open the lid. Inside, a small cake of dark brown color filled the bottom of the case. A tiny valley was worn into the middle of the cake, and I figured that at some point in the past a wave of brown color had spilled out from inside that valley and onto the sides of the case, where it had hardened and dried. A tiny mirror completely covered the inside of the lid. Two edges of that lid showed evidence of former brown color flows, too, now dry and hard.
I had never seen mascara before, and what happened next came as a complete shock. Madam T picked up a miniature black toothbrush that lay at the side of the messy cake of color, spat three times into the color, then rubbed her brush into her spittle, back and forth, till brown color foamed up and completely coated her brush. Then she lifted that gruesome, gooey thing up to my face.
“Look up!” she commanded, and I did as I was told. Then that woman applied her spit-laden goo onto my eyelashes, stroke after stroke, till both the top and the bottom of my lashes were heavy with slime.
“Don’t blink for five minutes, it needs to dry,” she coached, and then she flitted off in ten directions at once. And before I knew it, it was time to take our places for the opening scene and I was standing in the spotlight, reciting my lines like an animated robot, while my brain churned away inside of my head, trying to process what had just happened to me behind the scenes.
I knew that she shouldn’t have slimed me with her spittle. That was unhygienic. And yet, I was fascinated. What a strange world it had been, behind the scenes. There, people were transformed in an hour, from ordinary folks into larger-than-life characters who could command the attention of a room full of people for hours. And be applauded for their efforts, at the end!
Costumes, make-up, rehearsals. Stage left and stage right. Bright lights and make- believe. I had entered the world of the theater and discovered that my DNA was a match. And I can’t help wondering if somehow, part of that DNA was inherited from a miniature black toothbrush full of slime.
Years later, I think I get it. Madam T had marked me for life because she already knew what I was only in the process of discovering – that I was part of her tribe. And in her own unique way, she had given me her private, personal stamp of approval.