When I think of the phrase “first of May” I think a little of May Day, the international labor holiday, a little of my college roommate’s birthday, but primarily, for reasons that don’t even make sense to me, of the circus.
When you’re a lover of lost slang, it’s hard not to let it creep into your bones, be it Elizabethan, vaudevillian, or carny-speak. And to those who work in carnivals or the circus, a First of May is what we now a little less poetically call a noob, a greenie; Firsts of May (which I only realized while typing must be the proper plural, if things like that matter to carnys, or carnies, though spelling doesn’t seem to matter to them so surely this doesn’t; I just like the way it sounds) are novice workers starting their first season, which at some point in the pre-air-conditioning, agrarian world of the touring circus was around that date.*
The first of May this year also marks the beginning of summer rehearsals for Kentucky Shakespeare. I’ve been editing scripts since, oh, November**, and the other elements of pre-production have been happening for a while, but tomorrow marks the day the cast, crew and directors all gather in one surprisingly chilly room with gaff tape in strange formations all over the floor to sit around a couple of rectangular tables and read a couple of four-hundred-year-old plays aloud in that weird way of all actors at first read, the initial “let’s just read it and not worry about the acting” phase lasting about fifteen or twenty pages until the acting kicks in regardless, along with weird reading errors and self consciousness masked as total unselfconsciousness and inappropriate laughter and awkwardness where the fights and kisses will come later and all that jazz.
And despite the wide expanse of professional experience, for a while we all feel like Firsts of May who don’t really know how the hell any of this works. No one will be cowardly but we’ll all kill the poor script many times before it tastes valiantly of some well-rehearsed death once we’ve choreographed all the stabbings (though that won’t be for a few rehearsals yet – we’re starting with Much Ado and the stabby plays are later in the summer).
I’ve packed the old valise I found for $15 at a thrift store with the Crystals’ Shakespeare’s Words, Logan & Coye’s (oft-conflicting) books on pronouncing said words, the Ardens and Freeman’s Applause Folios of all three plays, the full scripts I annotated, the sides I printed out for myself so I don’t have to carry the whole schmear around when we start staging, two scribbly, battered notebooks, a couple of green pens and pencils, an old pullover (again, surprisingly chilly room), a twenty-year-old mug for summer tea (Daffy Duck in various stages of being un-beaked), and my official dramaturg hat. Oh, and lunch. I have to remember lunch. Don’t let me leave here without lunch.
You have to watch getting too precious and ritualistic with actors because half will immediately parse for superstitions and the other half will inwardly (at least) mock the preciousness and the ritual, but I love that big, lumpy first read, the optimistic smell of all those sharpened pencils, new photocopies, and coffee. We get to do something honorable for a living** as long as we do it honorably. I’d say “with the very bent of honor”, but that would only remind me that instead of waxing obnoxious here I should be working on my lines for the second half of the show. So I won’t.
* This year the sixth of May will be the simultaneous running of the Kentucky Derby and the running of me from the Kentucky Derby. I don’t like crowds, traffic, or price-gouging quite enough to want to do anything but hide in our house here in my lovely-fifty-weeks-of-the-year hometown. I am tempted by another event that day – my last chance ever to see Ringling Bros. circus, six hours away on my last day off for almost three months. The jury is still out.
** The wisest of all theater truisms has long been “NEVER try to figure out what you’re making by the hour; it will only lead to weeping.”