They say everyone experiences fifteen minutes of fame at some point in their life. I experienced mine in an unlikely place—a middle school.
Recently I was involved with the Coterie Theatre in their production of the S.E. Hinton stage adaptation of The Outsiders. I played Johnny. You remember the story. The Greasers and Socs, Tom Cruise played Steve in the movie, Ponyboy and Johnny are bff, Johnny kills Bob to save his “bestie,” and the two run off together. Eventually Johnny is badly burned from a fire that breaks out in the abandoned church where they are fugitives, and, in the end, Johnny doesn't make it.
And so I died (vertically) some 50 times uttering the famous last words, “stay gold, Ponyboy,” to mostly tweens and teens who attended our daily matinees for field trips. Now, I have serious reservations about calling myself a "professional actor" or an actor in general, even if it is true. I’d much prefer to be called Brian—who also happens to act. Moreover, I am the last person to think I would be, in anyway, famous or even well known outside of my immediate friends and acquaintances, but when I came to substitute at this middle school you can imagine my surprise when the entire class and several kids in the hall shouted, "it’s Johnny!" What a bizarre amalgamation of my two worlds. I wasn’t really sure how I felt about it. After all, I was here to teach—not be that one guy from that one play.
During the first class I was spotted by a couple early students and I held up my finger, "Shh! don't tell everyone! Please don't spoil my fun!" and I winked at them. They hardly had time to keep their secret as several other kids in the twenty-something class instantly recognized me. What did I get myself into? Now I know how Justin Bieber feels. Poor kid.
I started the class in the usual fashion by introducing myself as Mr. G and then reassuring them that I was not, in fact, the shape-shifted new form of their normal teacher. I outlined my expectations for their behavior and I began to take role. After all that nonsense was done I admitted that the rumors were true and that some of them had probably seen me before. I asked, "can someone tell me how you know me?" In unison they shouted, "You were Johnny in The Outsiders!" Sharp kids these ones.
After I answered a few questions about the show, the art of acting (pretending to be another human while standing where someone tells you to and saying words that someone else wrote which may or may not be based on reality all as if it were really happening for the first time), and that, yes, the actor who played Darry really was that buff in real life. After all that, I told them I did plan on teaching them and that I expected them to do their best even though they were being taught by a "celebrity" (tweens will believe anything!).
Class went fairly normal and we accomplished all that their teacher wanted us to cover except, right before the bell, I was rushed by about half of the class demanding my autograph. I could hardly stand it. I laughed and said, "only if you can promise me to get to your next class on time!" I made sure they knew that my signature was worth literally nothing. (Even though our signed poster at The Coterie was worth $3.00. So technically, after you divide the cost by the number of actors who signed, plus the cost to print the poster, mine was worth about half a penny). Movin’ on up!
It was all pretty cute, ridiculous and flattering. Who doesn’t like being recognized for work they’ve put in?—especially actors. For the most part, it made me appreciate my time with The Coterie and to see how our show impacted our young audience members. Yes, I could have easily made this day about myself. I could have taken the focus off the kids and turned into the Mr. G power hour. For some reason I didn’t. What really hit me was how my being there affected them. I was there for them. I was giving them a special memory and connecting them to the content of their learning in a unique way. This is the goal of teachers who care. Think about it! I was a magical emissary from a literary reality! If I were them I would have pooped my pants!
The character they had read about, talked about, and thought about was now right in front of them. It must have been so weird, but good that they knew I wasn’t really dead. I mean Johnny was. A fictional person, yes, but very burned and very dead. But I wasn’t really Johnny. I was acting…you’re confused. You see I was only pretending to be Johnny. But don’t get me wrong, I went to college to study this stuff. Okay? I have a state issued certificate that says I can teach kids all the many reasons why acting is much, much more than pretending to be another human…seriously… it is. Cough. I am not being sarcastic. Cough.
Even after all the fanfare of that day, my favorite part was just getting to be with the kids and be a teacher again. I can’t outrun teaching more than I can outrun my own skin. I’ve grown fond of getting to have smaller, dumber versions of myself listen to me and maybe care what I have to say. Perhaps make a difference just by being with them for a brief moment in time. I have missed that dearly. And to make this awesome day even more special, I got to read to them and take them into yet another story. Jackpot! I make magic—they pay me to do this?
So even if my acting career continues and I have other experiences like this in Kansas City, I will always remember this day fondly as my official fifteen minutes of fame. And then my second fifteen minutes came that following Tuesday at another middle school in my district. Holy crap. What did I get myself into? This experience was far more intense than the first. I signed a lot more autographs and crashed three English classes for an impromptu Inside the Actor’s Studio with Brian Gehrlein. Maybe I am on my way to becoming the next Mr. Rogers. I really wouldn’t complain.