Nativity by Amanda Yskamp
West Coast Eisteddfod Online Short Story Competition 2018
They actually drew lots in the teachers’ lounge to see who would direct this year’s Nativity play. Rachel tried to assert the division of church and state, saying “Come on, you guys, in this day and age, you’d think,” but she was cut off by the sharp edge of “tradition.” Nor did her Jewishness save her, though she tried to play that card. Roger countered that he’d organized the latest bake sale, and he was gluten-free. Rachel said, “that is not even remotely the same thing.”
Now here she was, in the multi-purpose room, standing before a gathering of K-6 children, deciding who would play each role.
“Give me your best donkey bray!” She said. “Come on, now. Hee-Haw! Heeeee-Haaaaw!”
The assembled group brayed. Some of them also got down on the floor and kicked their legs back, knocking their neighbor.
Rachel had no idea what she was doing. She was, by title, the reading specialist, but what that usually meant was she came in to relieve teachers for an hour at a time, making the rounds through the school, so everyone had a chance to do their laminating, or whatever. The students knew her as “The Fun Lady” because she brought activities that tended to be colorful, often messy, revving the kids up so that, teachers complained, they were nearly impossible to calm, after. She was young, just out of grad school, and believed kids needed plenty of hands-on lessons, that silence and restrictions limited abstract thought and experimentation. Most of the kids ran up to her, when she came, “The Fun Lady’s here!” and if she was simply “Miss Rachel,” it didn’t bother her much that she didn’t rank a last name.
“Okay, let’s hear the bleating of sheep! Baaaa. Baaaaaaaa!” Rachel had the most ovinely adept students step to one side. By the time she got to the principle roles, The Innkeepers (one child would voice the repeated rejections), Joseph, and Mary, three of her most challenging students remained. How did that happen? Leon, who was prone to random rages, Enrique, who was all but mute he was so indrawn and sullen, and Maeve whose disfigured face caused her so much shame and bitterness, she trusted no one -- all cast her furtive looks, wondering what fresh hell she might have in store for them.
“Now,” Rachel began, unsure of how to proceed. “Now. We have just three more parts and lucky for us, there’s the three of you!”
They shifted under scrutiny like the accused. She had just to say it: “Leon, you’ll be the Innkeeper, Enrique’s our Joseph, Maeve, our Mary,” but she hesitated. It occurred to her that she would be responsible for the creation of these children’s memories, that ten, twenty years from now, who knew, maybe their whole lives, Maeve would say, I was cast as Mary in 4th grade, or Enrique would have echoes of identification with Joseph, with unanticipated meaning resounding. She was going to ask these young people to take on key roles in Christian civilization, and what might that mean to a future reckoning?
“Miss Rachel,” Eddie, one of the Wise Men, said.
Jogged out of her reverie, Rachel assigned the last roles, handed out scripts, and dismissed the group.
At the first real practice, Rachel faced the difficulty of keeping the nonspeaking characters occupied while she worked with the others.
“Good afternoon, young thespians. We are about to embark on a dramatic adventure together, one based on the illusion that you are not who you normally are, not Renata or Rain or Stanley, but the characters of an entirely different time, more than 2,000 years ago, in an entirely different place, more than 7,000 miles from here.” She knew from experience that kids were impressed by large numbers.
“How do we do it? Now I know this may be a bit much for you to understand, but there are several different schools of acting.” She’d read up on this the night before. Might as well treat her actors with respect, right? “There’s the Chekhovian method, invented by Michael Chekhov, we’ll use that for the manger animals. It says that your physical expressions and actions should always come from an inner state.”
Rachel was met by stares. The children had stopped mooing and neighing and stood there, heads cocked like confused retrievers.
“What I mean is, you guys are animals on a winter night in Bethlehem. What are you thinking? What are you feeling? How does that make you stand and move?
One of the donkeys raised her hand/hoof.
“When I’m cold, like when I’m at the bus stop waiting, waiting, waiting, I sometimes like to dance to keep warm,” and she showed the group how.
“No, no, don’t do it now! Oh boy,” Rachel said. All of the manger animals had launched an impromptu ungulate dance party.
“Hold on guys. Wait a second. This is Bethlehem, remember. It doesn’t get that cold. You’re animals, used to living outside or in a barn. What I want you to imagine is how it might feel when these humans come into your barn and lie down on your hay. You don’t know it yet, but maybe you get a hint that something amazing is about to happen. How does an animal, a goat, a donkey, show that?” But the kids were still dancing. Rachel realized it was a lost cause.
“All right, all barnyard animals move to the back of the room. I’ll be sure to work in a dance number, so figure out your moves, okay? Angie, you’re in charge. But quietly. Quietly.”
The group moved to the back and worked on a kind of 4-legged cancan.
Rachel asked the three wise men and Clive -- who volunteered to be the star of Bethlehem because he had the perfect costume at home -- to go to another corner to practice their lines using the method acting technique.
“Try to connect with your experience. Have you ever seen a newborn baby?”
Rachel spoke through the many voices piping, “I have!” “I have!” “Teacher, I have!” “My baby sister’s a baby!”
“And what a miracle they are, right? Try to get into that state of mind.”
When she was alone with Leon, Enrique, and Maeve, she had them sit on the floor in a circle.
“For you guys, we’ll use the Stanislav method. Now don’t worry about the name. It’s just a name. The trick with this is to climb right inside your character to know what motivates them, so you can live them.”
“How am I supposed to live a bunch of hotel guys? What does that even mean?”
“Hold on, Leon. Give it some time. Before anybody says anything, I want you to think. Go deep. Consider, now don’t answer out loud, just consider these questions: who am I? where am I? when is it? what do I want? why do I want it? and, maybe most important of all, what do I need to overcome?”
“Oh, man, what the--” Leon groaned, but with a stern glance from Rachel, he made a show of closing his lips, of pressing his fingers to his temples in intense concentration. Enrique stared down at his hands in his lap. Maeve closed her eyes.
“Okay, have you had a chance to come up with answers for each of your characters?”
“I’m done Stanislaving. No room is no room, you know? What am I going to say? I’m not about to let a couple of stinky hobos sleep in my lobby,” Leon said.
“That will work. Okay. You, Enrique? What do you want and why?”
He pulled the neck of his jersey up over his mouth and mumbled his answer.
“I can’t hear you. What did you say?” Rachel asked.
Maeve answered for him.
“He says he wants to know how God got his woman pregnant and what he’s supposed to do with that.”
Rachel tried to catch Enrique’s eye, but he stared at his hands.
“Damn straight,” Leon said. “And she a virgin right? What’s up with that?”
Oh god, Rachel thought. Of course the kids would fixate on the details of Mary’s pregnancy. What could she possibly say? She didn’t want to disrespect anybody’s religion, but nor would she say anything she considered not fully factual. Why was she, one of the few Jews on staff, tasked with directing this play, anyway? The whole immaculate conception thing had always struck her as either a kind of retroactive whitewash of original sin, following the birth of the “savior”, or an example of a simple man’s utter gullibility. Enrique might be quiet, but he just wasn’t buying it.
Before Rachel could summon a response, Maeve said simply, “I was hailed by the angel, fool. Gabriel, and he’s not any angel, he’s a full-on archangel, that means he’s got an even higher rank than your regular angel. Archangel Gabriel renamed me “full of grace,” get it? FULL of grace. Do you even know what grace is?”
Rachel stared at Maeve. She was constantly surprised by what her students knew. Maeve spoke with such authority, the Innkeepers and Joseph were struck silent.
“And what do you want, Mary?” Rachel asked.
“I just want to have this baby somewhere safe and warm. I am the ark of the covenant, the ARK. That means I’m like the boat for salvation. I don’t need anyone’s love. I’ve got Jesus inside me,” and with that, her snarled features did indeed seem illuminated from within.
“Okay, now, Mama, breathe, breathe,” Enrique said into his collar, and Leon gave him a soft smack on the shoulder.
“Is it cookie time?” a sheep called from across the room, so Rachel broke up the practice for snack.
The costumes alone would carry the performance, Rachel thought with relief. A group of moms and Tricia’s two dads had designed and sewn fake fur, eared pelts for the animals, resplendent gowns and crowns for the wise men, a modest smock for the innkeeper(s), and rustic elegance for the holy couple. Clive arrived in an iridescent spandex jumpsuit spangled with dime-sized silver sequins.
“I’ve worn this pretty much non-stop, Miss Rachel,” he said, his mother affirming the truth of it with an indulgent eye roll. “You told me to connect with my stardom.”
“We could hardly get him down from the ladder or to stop singing ‘The Prettiest Star,’” Clive’s mother said. Which is an unusual choice for a Christmas play, I must say.”
Rachel had allowed herself some latitude with the musical numbers. She figured it was the least she was due. And they could get Mrs. Kelly to do the play next year, if they didn’t like Bowie, Lennon, or The Pretenders.
“All right, thespians, say goodbye to your folks, and… places everyone.” To her ear, Rachel sounded like a real director.
She stepped into the wings, ready to prompt her players, should they miss a cue or forget a line, but she needn’t have worried. Every step and misstep was adored by a proud and purring audience.
With Clive’s sidereal scintillation spot-lit above the stage, the 3 wise men, astride their camel headed broomsticks, crossed the desert bearing boxes with block lettered labels: gold, frankincense, myrrh, toward Jeremy’s baby brother who miraculously slept, silent through his big scene, cradled center stage. And if Enrique and Maeve went off script in the final scene, Rachel didn’t blame them. They were only following Stanislav’s directives and they did bring down the house.
“I am baby Jesus’s one and only mother. I’ve had to overcome homelessness and crazy contractions, but just look at him. Isn’t he wonderful? Just wait until you see what he’s going to get up to.”
Enrique stepped closer to the cradle, looking down to where the baby slept. Rachel heard him, but she wasn’t sure anybody in the audience did. Maeve linked her arm through her husband’s and said, “He says, he’s happy to be stepfather to such a great kid. He’s going to raise him like his very own.”
Enrique turned his head and spoke into Maeve’s shoulder.
“Huh?” She asked.
“I said,” and his voice rose, loud enough to be heard, “Sorry, I doubted you, Mamí.”
Rachel joined the group on stage for a few overlapping rounds of Dona Nobis Pacem, because, she figured peace was an ecumenical sentiment everybody could sing about. And if a couple of donkeys and one sheep reprised their cancan, Michael Chekhov would have approved the physical gesture of the internal dynamic. The children were only expressing an animal sort of joy.
updated by @ceri-shaw: 02/17/19 02:57:52AM