Of course, the music had decided to die during this song. The song that we barely knew. The song that was mainly mumbling and spinning and hoping it would end. The speakers crackled once more, attempting to spit out the lullaby-esque backing track, before sputtering to death. I wiped the sweat off my forehead. It was too hot for this. As I spun around wildly in my makeshift penguin costume, I made eye contact with my fellow castmates, who were now my friends, and exchanged a pained look. Meanwhile, I avoided the gaze of the confused second graders in the audience like it was my job and tried to sing.
It was all very on brand for the whole experience. With just over a month to prepare, a lack of budget, and our concrete courtyard as a stage, my school had been led to choose Madagascar Jr the Musical to perform to end the year of online learning. Madagascar Jr didn’t exactly spark excitement in me. To be fair, as a ninth grader, I wasn’t the target audience. Neither were any of my classmates. But after sitting on my computer alone for hours every day, I was starved for something new. So I threw together a video audition and took my role as a penguin and a fossa. It wasn’t going to make up for the canceled Beauty and Beast production from the year before, but it was something.
I barely knew anyone. For some reason, my grade had decided they did not care for a children’s musical about zoo animals, so there was only one other person from my grade. Not that it mattered much, I raced to get to rehearsal after closing my computer on my biology class. I bonded with the other penguins and lemurs over the pain caused by the safety pins that secured our tails and the plastic leaves that stained our hands green when it was hot. I was overjoyed just to see people every day since most of my social interaction for a year had been through a screen.
By the time the audio decided to inconveniently break, we had already performed twice, once for some first graders, and once for the few people who were at school for hybrid learning and apparently had nothing better to do. We had perfected, or at least polished, our costume changes and microphone handoffs. We had the feeling that we were only getting better, that with every performance things would fall into place. I would learn my cues like the back of my hand and finally figure out the perfect speed for me to run to get onstage on time. Maybe we would even get a few high schoolers in the audience to laugh or show any emotion besides utter boredom. This performance did not line up with this theory in any way, shape, or form.
From the first second, the speakers made it clear they would not be cooperating. I froze in place in the muggy greenhouse that was serving as our “backstage.” The rest of the penguins even stopped trying to hide my oversized pink shovel between the rows of plants. We held our breath, hoping it would somehow fix itself, that we would be able to hear the next note or next line clearly, but it only got worse. The microphones wouldn’t come through, the songs kept glitching, and the volume was a wreck. We couldn’t hear our cues and the audience couldn’t hear our lines. Worst of all, this was the performance we were recording, in case someone somewhere felt like they were missing out by not seeing Madagascar Jr. the Musical. Yet slowly our nervousness began to fade. This would not be our best performance by far, so we stopped obsessing over nailing every dance and song and instead turned our focus to entertaining ourselves and the overheating second graders.
Of all the performances we did that week, this one jumps to mind first; the chaos, the heat, the laughs that we had about it afterward (and continue to have). The kids kept dancing along and we stopped caring, for the most part, that our audio was broken. We knew that this whole experience was crazy and that this show was probably our worst one, but it didn’t matter. It wasn’t about the quality or the audience or the fact that everything was going wrong. It was about having fun, singing, and dancing with our newfound friends. It was about enjoying ourselves in the middle of all the mess.
I still do theater at school, which thankfully no longer takes place in the baking sun of the courtyard. Even with the location change, we still have our fair share of tech disasters and mishaps. Now I laugh when I think about how nervous I was to perform in front of elementary schoolers because now I hardly worry about the audience. For me, it isn’t about impressing them anymore or attempting to make high schoolers laugh at dancing penguins. It’s about sharing these moments, especially the crazy and stressful ones, with my friends. When something does go wrong, when we mess up a dance or the audio breaks, I still get stressed for a moment before I remind myself it isn’t about being perfect. Besides, perfect moments don’t leave you with as many stories to tell.