45 Seconds of Terror Onstage

Our son (with dagger drawn) positively killed in "Macbeth" last weekend. But an unscripted moment proved to be the most satisfying.

Our son (second from left, with dagger drawn) positively killed in “Macbeth” last weekend. But an unscripted moment proved to be the most satisfying.  Photo by Mike Rosenzweig/MDR Images.

Our son played a killer during his middle school’s recent production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” You might think I’m crazy but it was the best thing that ever happened to him.

Perhaps Shakespeare’s darkest and bloodiest play, Macbeth tells the story of how ambition drove a formerly respected Scottish general to murder and madness. He’s encouraged by his scheming wife and three scary witches, who tell him that the throne is his but just might also belong to his friend Banquo’s sons. It includes scenes of utmost terror, such as when Macbeth’s evil henchmen ambush and kill his rivals.

John played “Seyton,” Macbeth’s sinister right-hand man and one of those henchmen. So our 14-year-old got to dress in a scary black cloak, grease back his curls into a slimy hairdo, hollow out his cheeks with dark makeup and carry a (harmless) rubber dagger. His chilling lines included telling Macbeth: “My lord, safe in a ditch he lies…with 20 trenched gashes on his throat.” Check out the photo here; John’s the one with the raised dagger. Not your typical student of the month.

But yet…playing a badass was enormously freeing. The black villain’s cloak became a superman’s cape and enabled John to do something he had never done before.

A little about John: since he was a three-year-old he has always wanted everything carefully scripted. He does not like surprises. We remember play dates when he and a friend would be playing with action figures and John would be telling the friend exactly what to say for his part of the dialog. We always joked (and hoped) that he would grow up to be Steven Spielberg. His drama teacher once told us that he takes direction very easily because he is intent on knowing exactly where he needs to stand, what to say and what to do.

But he gets flustered and anxious when he’s surprised or when something doesn’t go according to the plan. As any parent of children or teens can imagine, this happens every day.

And that’s exactly what happened the opening night of Macbeth, when Seyton had a scene with Lady Macbeth, who missed her cue. For about 45 agonizing seconds John stood onstage and waited for her to arrive so that their scene could begin. He stood alone and looked out on an overflow crowd of about 800 students, parents and teachers.

The show had thrown John a curve ball, something that typically would upset and derail him. It didn’t take long for the audience to know that something was amiss; that John wasn’t supposed to be onstage by himself. More than 800 pairs of eyes were upon him, quickly wiring into his predicament, ready to be kind and offer polite reassurance. Even if he had become flustered he would have been OK.  They would have understood.

But something else happened this time. Staying in character, John mused aloud in his confident, stage voice: “My lady must be late. [seconds pass] I will wait for her here.” The audience, appreciating his quick-witted response, chuckled, then broke into applause just as Lady Macbeth arrived.

After the scene, John’s fellow cast members surrounded him backstage to congratulate him on his coolheadedness. A few even kowtowed. Several high school students — the drama club’s cool kids when John was in sixth grade — sent him adoring notes backstage. One wrote: “If that had been me, I would have sat down on the floor and cried — just cried.” Another wrote: “You, my friend, are a scene-stealer.”

What was different this time? How did he pull it off? I asked John afterwards if he was nervous and he said no. It seemed that he had thought quickly and surprised even himself. So I asked him what he learned from the experience and he said that he knew now that he could trust himself and improvise when things don’t go according to plan. What a breakthrough!

Under the gun, somehow John disconnected from his fears and broke through the electric fence of his perceived personal limits. I am grateful to the young actress who played Lady Macbeth — a good friend to John who was brilliant in her role — for giving him the opportunity to test himself.  Not sure I could have handled this with John’s aplomb, but we never know until it happens.

How about you? Have you ever faced a situation that forced you to transcend your limits at a moment’s notice and surprise yourself? Judging from John, who has been smiling a lot more since his famous ad-lib, it’s a transformative experience.