On a very late night recently in downtown Seattle, I saw a scene unfolding that looked like big trouble. Farther down the sidewalk from me, two shadowy figures stood on a street corner, shouting back and forth, nose to nose. As I came closer, the argument grew louder and more heated. I started to consider an alternate route, because while the dispute seemed to be worsening, there was no one else stirring, not even a cop.
Then I began to hear the verbal exchange more distinctly. One highly inebriated guy was bellowing at the other, “No, you idiot! It was ten lords a dancing, not eleven!”
“Them lords was leaping, you fathead!” shouted the other guy. “And there was eleven of ‘em!”
“Oh yeah?” yelled back the first guy again. “Then who was dancin’?”
“The maids, you idiot! The nine maids!”
“Wrong! The ladies was the one’s doin’ the dancin’! Them maids was milkin’!”
“Milking what? Them French hens from earlier?”
The discussion was reaching fever pitch as I passed by and walked into the downtown garage where my car was parked. As I drove away, a debate over pipers and drummers was just getting started.
Even if those two guys had invited me to join in their discussion, I don’t think I could have helped them out much. I have never been able to keep that song straight much beyond the turtle doves’ part. I never quite learned it in grade school when there might have been a chance. Instead, my school always staged an annual nativity play, where traditional songs like “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World” were part of the production. Somehow, the story of the Holy Family traveling to Bethlehem never seemed to lend itself to songs like “Frosty the Snowman” and “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”
Not that I was ever selected to be part of the choir. I had a voice like a bird – a crow. That meant that in my fifth-grade year, in order to keep me from singing, I was awarded a speaking part. Not a leading role, perhaps, but one that was certainly pivotal to the storyline. I was to play a wealthy but heartless innkeeper – a 14-carat jerk who turns away Mary and Joseph, forcing them to hole up in a stable outside of town.
I had expectations that my character would deliver a powerfully malevolent speech along the lines of “We have no vacancies here at the Bethlehem Best Eastern Motel. Do you hear me? None! Too bad for you, because this is a great inn, with free HBO and a fully stocked mini-bar. Plus, there’s parking for your donkey in the back. But, like I said, we are all filled up, so you folks are flat out of luck. You might want to try the BethleHilton.” Then, I would burst into a loud, evil laugh and cruelly slam the door.
So I was mighty disappointed when I saw the actual script: Scene opens with Joseph and Mary knocking on the door of the inn. The innkeeper opens the door and says “No room!” Then, he closes the door. End of scene.
That was it. Just the two words: “No room.” It wasn’t even a complete line, just a sentence fragment. It was as if Hamlet was relegated to merely saying, “To be.”
Still, I decided to make the most of my brief on-stage appearance and began going over my line with every conceivable variation of inflection and emphasis. “NO room!” “No ROOOOOOM!” “No … room!” “No! Room?”
Meanwhile, the kids playing Mary and Joseph had lots of lines, and they were constantly practicing them whenever I came around, as if to mock me. Then the girl playing Mary would say things like, “Gosh, my throat is sure getting sore from having so many lines!” And the Joseph kid would say, “Yeah, me too. Sometimes I wish I had a lousy little part like Cashman.”
Secretly, I hoped that on the night of the play, one or both of them would forget their lines, as the audience began to boo and throw vegetables or maybe even shoes. I wouldn’t normally have had such wicked thoughts, but I was simply becoming my character. Stanislavski would have been pleased.
Finally the night of the big Christmas play arrived. Midway through the third scene, I took my place behind the door of the stage flat that represented the inn. A swarm of butterflies were flapping in my stomach. Then, on cue, I swung open the door and stood facing Mary and Joseph as the audience waited in breathless anticipation. With great authority and gravity, I swallowed hard and spoke these exact words: “No … way!”
I’d had two words to say, and I’d goofed them up. The audience laughed. I stepped, red-faced, back inside and closed the door. End of scene.
Afterwards, no one seemed to think it was such a big gaffe, and my mom and dad said they thought I’d been magnificent. Even the Mary girl said I’d done an OK job – which is a nice thing to hear from anybody, but especially Mary.
The following year, I got a part in the Three Wise Men scene. This time I was inside a camel costume with the kid who’d played Joseph. But things were getting better: I was the lead hump.
Pat Cashman is a writer, actor and public speaker. He can be reached at email@example.com