When I was young I liked performing on stage. While now I shy away from it at any cost, then I liked it a lot. I took drama classes, where we did improv games and lowered our voices when our teacher asked us to do Boston accents. I sang in the school choir, and during one of our concerts I cried a little on stage because I was so moved by my own performance. I read and reread a book my parents bought me about acting, and watched television on mute to imagine what the actors were saying from their expressions, just as the book instructed. In grade six I stood up and played When the Saints Go Marching In on my trombone in front of the class and my teacher said it was ‘better than Beethoven.’ Even then I knew that this was a largely uninformed compliment.
The best part of performing was the costumes my mum made me. They were glorious and hodgepodge, reams of Spotlight material sewn up with zips and wool on a small green card table that my mum would unfold in the lounge room at night. She would sit at the card table and push and pull material while the sewing machine hummed low and warm and shone a yellow light. The costumes she made were fun and impressive to me: an affirmation from my mum that what I was doing was good.
I was in a community Christmas pantomime when I was seven or eight. I remember little of it. I remember that there was a racy storyline about Little Bo Beep, which made the adults in the audience howl. I remember that a man played the Phantom Menace, and would pull at his tight purple lycra suit. Best of all, though, I remember my costume. I was a leopard, and although I’m uncertain how my character fitted into a fairy tale or the birth of Christ, I remember crawling around in the leopard costume my mum made me. It was thin material with a leopard skin print sewn into a hooded onesie, with limp material ears and a long flaccid tail. The elastic in the cuffs would bunch at my wrists and ankles. I don’t think the leopard ever had any lines, I just had to growl on cue. I practiced growling a lot.
My primary school library would hold a costume parade each year during Book Week. Every year Book Week had a theme, it was once themed The World Wide Web and our school librarian made us ice cream spiders with cheap lemonade in plastic cups. I don’t remember what the theme was this particular year, but my costume was Elvis Presley. My mum slicked my short dark hair back with strong smelling mousse, and I donned a white t-shirt, blue jeans, and a black leather jacket. My mum fashioned me an electric guitar out of white card and a blue woollen strap. It had Elvis written across the guitar in large cursive red font. I paraded with my class around an undercover area while parents watched and took photos. I ran my hand back and forth across the cardboard guitar as if I were strumming while I walked. That same year my brother went to Book Week dressed as John Lennon. My mum made him a wig made of brown wool, natty and stringy that went to his shoulders. It was an impressive wig.
Phantom of the Opera
At the end of every school year my primary school hosted a concert revue and each class would perform a musical number. When I was six our class performed an amateur reproduction of the music video for ‘Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)’ by the Backstreet Boys. In this music video, the Backstreet Boys are stranded at a haunted house and respectively transform into a vampire, mummy, werewolf, Dr Jekyll, and the Phantom of the Opera. Five boys were chosen to play the part of the Backstreet Boys in our class’s performance. I was AJ, who transformed into the Phantom of the Opera. My costume was my brother’s band uniform pants and a small women’s business jacket that my mum took the large shoulder pads out of, and a face mask that had been cut in half and sprayed silver. Although this mask hurt my face, I thought that it all looked great. There’s a photo of me in this costume that I have hidden. I’m looking at the camera over my shoulder and smiling, shoulders padded and a bright silver half-mask high on my face. It’s a very embarrassing photo, when I look at it I feel bad and good at the same time
Now, I get nervous at any semblance of performance. My hands shake and clam up when I speak in public. I take tablets to stop my heart racing. I won’t go to a show if there’s a chance of audience participation, and I don’t like karaoke or charades for the same reason. I get clumsy if I think someone’s paying too much attention to what I’m doing. It’s strange to think of these costumes and performances and know how much I enjoyed them then, to think of how much I thought that I was going to act and sing and play trombone for the rest of
my life, when now I don’t do any of it at all. Dressing now is hard; I get very particular about the way I look. But sometimes, when I think I look nice, I’ll look at myself in the mirror and smile. I don’t remember it, but I’m sure my face must have glowed when I tried on those costumes for the first time. My mum would have been there, sitting at that green card table, smiling too.
Words from James Butler.
Illustration from Tilly Hutchison. See more of her work at tillydrawspictures.tumblr.com.