Maria was the Pirate King. She was five. She was tall for five and she was dauntless and she was swaggeringly piratical. She wore a red bandana, a black felt pirate hat, and an old terry-cloth bathrobe of her father’s cinched around her waist with an orange scarf. We’d made an eyepatch out of black construction paper stapled to a shoelace, but it bugged her so she yanked it off. Louisa, Maria’s little sister, tried putting it on the dog, but it bugged him more, so she chucked it into the notional ocean, Penzance harbor, the parched and patchy grass of our back yard. We’d rigged the house’s back deck to be a pirate ship: a white bedsheet for a mainsail, a Jolly Roger painted on cardboard nailed to clapboards, and, for life preservers, inflatable pool floaties lashed to the deck railings with clothesline. With apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan, it looked awesome. Maria strode across the deck of the ship, slashing at the air with a wooden sword, and singing:
And it was, it was.
This exclusive, one-time performance of a radically abridged adaptation of “The Pirates of Penzance” was held on a Friday afternoon the week before Maria started kindergarten—the end of preschool, the beginning of school. I have exactly ten lousy photographs of the show. There were no iPhones then and most of the grownups held not cameras but babies and toddlers slathered in sunscreen, slipping out of our arms like seal pups. The audience sat on wooden benches and borrowed chairs. Two sisters, Charlotte and Phoebe, aged five and eight, sold tickets and popcorn and lemonade—a quarter each or a dollar for everything—from the window of a wooden puppet theatre, and no one complained that the math didn’t work out. A boom box blared out a D’Oyly Carte Opera Company CD, but the show was mainly pantomime plus dancing: spinning, wriggling, the occasional cancan.
That year, there were eight kids in our madcap back-yard summer-theatre camp; seven years later, there were eighteen, not counting house dogs and stray cats and pocketed frogs and whales we built out of black garbage bags, blown up like balloons and duct-taped to broom handles, for a world-première production of M. T. Anderson’s “Whales on Stilts.” I still have my favorite prop: a painted plywood sign from “The Princess Bride.” On one side it says, in red, “THE PIT OF DESPAIR”; on the other, in blue, “MIRACLE MAX, QUACKERY 25¢.” I keep it in my study, flipped to one side or the other, depending on how the day goes. I like how there are only two choices.
If it rained, we’d make a giant pile of pillows on the floor and flop down and watch the Marx Brothers on DVD: “Duck Soup,” “Horse Feathers,” “Night at the Opera.” You can get to know a kid pretty well by finding out which Marx brother he likes the best. (Harpo. I love Harpo.) “This is casting research,” I’d say if my husband wandered by, raising an eyebrow at all of us. “Casting research? But you let everyone have whatever part they want.” Nights, he wrote the scripts. “Disappointment shouldn’t start before you learn how to tie your own shoes,” I told him. Reading skills, learning disabilities, talent, ability to carry a tune: irrelevant. “Rule No. 1,” I’d say to the kids, “anyone can be anyone.” As if this made sense, as if this were an actual rule, as if growing up isn’t about being trapped in one role, forever, and forgetting that it’s just a part, and that you’re the one who made it up.
The Playhouse started because two things happened at the same time: Charlotte and Phoebe’s mothers decided to get married—same-sex marriage had become legal in our state that spring—and the local Gilbert & Sullivan Society, which regularly held a milk-and-cookies matinée for the under-ten set, announced that its fall production would be “Penzance.” To get ready to see the play, I bought the CD, and, for the wedding, I bought my little boys cheap polyester three-piece, bow-tied suits, in which they thought they looked like pirates, although in truth they looked like Vito Corleone’s great-grandchildren going to a christening. They’d put on their suits, I would play the CD, and they would dance, stomping and shouting and being nautical, not to mention historical, mathematical, and quadratical.
It started for a more practical reason, too: there’s no day care or summer camp in the last week of August, which is also the week college begins, and I had to teach. So I said I’d have a bunch of kids over to my house for the week and organize some kind of pint-size production, because that was the kind of thing my mother would have done, and because my next-door neighbor, Liz, volunteered to cover for me when I had to run to campus for a class.
Mostly, it was the usual drill. Drop-off at 8 A.M., pickup at 4 P.M., bring a hat and a swimsuit. For snacks: orange juice and goldfish, baby carrots and sliced apples. At noon, everyone went to Liz’s for lunch: cheese quesadillas on green plastic plates on orange paper tablecloths. Afternoon naps for the under-fours. I clipped a baby monitor to my back pocket. We’d rehearse, paint sets, make props, mess around. I’d take everyone to the playground or set up the sprinkler in the back yard or we’d head out to the basketball court and play Fishy, Fishy Cross My Ocean. We ran through a lot of Band-Aids and bug spray and self-adhesive mustaches.
For the kids who were old enough to read, I’d print out scripts and put them in colored folders. The kids decorated them with their names and the usual doodles: rainbows, hearts, race cars. Simon kept his folder by his bed, and read through it every night before going to sleep; in the morning, in the shower, he would sing all his songs. His breakout role was Leo Bloom, in “The Producers,” when he was eight. “I have a secret desire / Hiding deep in my soul / It sets my heart afire / To see me in this role.” He wore a buttoned white shirt, black pants, and suspenders, and carried a blue flannel blanket. “Look out, Broadway!” he belted, doing his best to tap-dance in sneakers. Eat your heart out, Matthew Broderick.
We never went to Broadway. But the kids made posters and tacked them to telephone poles and notice boards all around the neighborhood, and it got to be a thing, these back-yard plays staged in front of curtains made of paint-spattered drop cloths stitched to torn plastic shower curtains and stretched between pitch-backs. Grandmothers came by car. Elementary-school teachers took the subway. We had to borrow more chairs. We ran out of popcorn.
My permissive approach to casting meant some characters were played by more than one kid. Our “H.M.S. Pinafore” had Buttercup, played by Liz’s daughter Zoe—and also Cutterbup, played by Louisa. If you were in the audience and didn’t know the story, watching the action wasn’t always much help. Hence the scripts relied rather heavily on narrators.
Rackstraw was Ben, six, missing four teeth, up on the balcony, hoisting a sail topped with a Union Jack, and trying to look at once wistful, lovelorn, and patriotic. His little brother Daniel only watched that year; he later got his big break in “The Princess Bride,” when he played the Albino and got to rasp, at Prince Humperdinck’s prisoner in the Pit of Despair, “Don’t even think of trying to escape!”
Trying on roles is what little kids do every day; they’re always playing parts. In “Pinafore,” Rayne played an able seaman dancing a hornpipe, the natural two-step of every toddler. Maria, a swashbuckler, liked parts that required a sword; she was Dick Deadeye. Year by year, kids perfect their parts; that last week of summer, they’d get to play outsized versions of themselves. In “Pinafore,” Rayne’s brother Emerson, eight years old and born to command, wanted to be Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty. Every year after that, he’d twirl a cane, with cornstarch graying his hair. In “Oliver!” he was Mr. Bumble, Master of the Workhouse; he was, inevitably, also Captain von Trapp. Gideon had every firstborn’s tendency to tyranny. “It was good,” he’d say. “I got to be bad.”
But then there were the kids who wanted to play anything except the selves they were becoming. One of Gideon’s brothers, when he was five, had a hand-me-down Flash costume: a red polyester suit with a yellow lightning slash on the chest, and a mask.