Linda Shapiro has been working as a freelance writer since 1995. She has published articles, reviews, and essays on dance and the performing arts, architecture, design, and other subjects in numerous Twin Cities’ publications and Dance Magazine and The Gay City News in New York. She was formerly a choreographer and the co-founder and co-artistic director of New Dance Ensemble. This story represents her first fiction sale.

 

Princess Academy

by Linda Shapiro

 

The girls come to rehearsals with their hair tightly wound in French braids. They wear no make-up, but look ready to be filled in. They are in fact all outline, bones outcropping at various joints as they stand carelessly erect beside the sloping parents who deposit them here daily.

In the first of several informational meetings for parents, the Director points out that contemporary young women are animated flow charts, processing as they go. We are all aggregates of experience he explains, focusing his gaze strategically on the parents who seem most at sea. But in our present unstable world it becomes increasingly difficult to reconcile the assemblage of self, the job these young women face, with the monstrous tide of events that today threatens to engulf us.

Not the best way, perhaps, to reassure mid-western parents who have just paid through the nose to enroll their daughters in this summer theater workshop, though the Director appears to be offering so much more.

He has brought Playmodalities™, his award-winning methodology, to Huntington, this peaceful enclave on the margins of a deeply troubled city. Here he will be able to create the proper conditions for a range of social experiments that will be incorporated into rehearsals and the performance of an original play.

The girls have already been through a weekend of rigorous auditions and divided into what the Director terms cohorts. Once he separates the parents out according to the cohorts their daughters will occupy, what some have described as his oily charm gains a little more traction.

He empathizes with the parents of those he has cast as the princesses, obviously bewildered by the long legs and unsettling sang-froid that seem to have sprung from nowhere in their immediate families. How could these physically faultless creatures be sensitized to, learn to cope with, the “muggle world” the rest of us inhabit? Several parents had smiled at that.

At the same time, of course, they must learn to liberate the power that is locked within them, to dig beneath the shiny surfaces of their streamlined bodies, their candy flavored lip-gloss.

To the guardians of those cast as rebellious peasants, he paints a picture of highly intelligent girls with restless spirits, already looking beyond themselves to issues of social relevance. The Playmodalities™ experience, he assures them, will give their exceptional daughters the opportunity to enter a larger arena than their lives have thus far permitted.

Finally he takes on the parents of the mermaids, the eccentrics whose unsettling behavior may lead (or perhaps already has) to piercings, tattoos, and other forms of what some refer to as body modification.

Permitted to incubate in a carefully controlled environment, these daughters will experience the virtues of transformation from within.

*

Marni’s mother knows (though Marni’s father does not) about the tattoo of a small seahorse that has recently appeared on Marni’s sacrum. Her father nearly exploded when Marni came home with her ears and nose pierced, so her mother queasily anticipates the conversation she needs to have with Marni before she progresses to more tattoos and who knows what else? Her mother had found a website on “body modification,” but could not get past the part on “advanced scarification.”

For now anyway Marni is thinking about other things, like how she will look in her mermaid costume, pants with sequin scales and inserts that flare out into fins. She is kind of critical of the Director, who strikes her as not giving some who have studied dance for years more complicated routines. She has suggested a solo for her character, who could do the splits, for instance, to stand for a mermaid’s options—land or sea—and at the same time the way intense pain the Little Mermaid felt when she swapped her tail for legs so she could dance with the prince. The Director had to gently remind her that she was getting off track and imposing a character from another story onto her own.

Well, she had replied, her solo could make the misery of prisoners in the dungeons below, which is now just represented by a bunch of fake-sounding taped howls and groans, really stick out for people. Some types of suffering could actually be expressed through dance, at least by a mermaid who can do a chest stand with her tail draped over her head. Plus it would give this show some pizzazz.

Eleanor is delighted that her two adopted daughters, Meg and Riana, have been cast, though in different cohorts—Riana as a princess, Meg as a peasant. As a single mother she has struggled to understand these flawlessly aligned creatures that speak to her only in monosyllables. With their American friends they string out monologues (“so, I’m like… and she’s like… and we’re so like…”) in voices that rise and fall in the singsong dialects of unknown ancestors. Eleanor is hopeful that the Playmodalities™ experience will help her daughters develop their natural talents while fostering more varied interactions with the other girls, and perhaps with herself.

Meg has no memory of China. Their mom is always showing Meg and Riana photos of the cities where they were born, which look smoky and crowded with high rises, like a science fiction movie. She often goes outside on her breaks. (only the peasants get to go outside—it’s strictly forbidden for princesses to leave the theater). She sits beneath one of the black walnut trees and gazes up and down the street that runs through the town’s center. She loves this old theater, built in the 1920’s, mostly abandoned now except for their play.

She’s especially interested in early twentieth century American history and imagines how the street must have looked back then—the picket fences, the busy sidewalks, people sipping lemonade on their porches. The beauty shop still has a few of those dryers that women sit under, mostly older ladies who go there for permanents. And there’s a café that advertises lattes, but mainly sells coffee and pie to the retired men who gather there each morning.

Meg lives on the outskirts of Huntington where there are no sidewalks and no houses older than twenty years.

From her house she can see a grey horizon of flat-topped roofs in the distance, a constantly expanding mall where the Director took the girls for a field trip the first week of rehearsal. There he asked them to observe how people moved: which of them had a sense of purpose? Who just seemed to be wandering aimlessly or hanging around? Meg hadn’t been to the mall since her mother said it was attracting too many people who, while sadly less fortunate than themselves, might make the girls feel uncomfortable. But going there with the Director had been interesting because he’d given them specific things to look for.

Meg sort of envied the aimless ones, even followed some girls about her age as they tried out round brushes in Sally’s Beauty Supply and made each other up with the cosmetic samples, screeching and sort of clogging up the aisles. What she admired about these girls was the way they were simply there, so easily in the moment as the Director would put it. Not worrying about everything locked down in the past or held back, snarling, somewhere in the future.

*

Today in rehearsal the Director says that the princesses need to access their inner resources, to develop more authority. Yes it was their father the king who decreed that certain people disappear from their royal sight, which in turn incited the populace to revolt. But now that their father is no longer really in the picture, it is the princesses who must restore order.

At the same time they must also develop humility and take responsibility for their actions. He tells them stories of medieval noble women who, out of guilt for their sins, starved themselves, crawled on their knees over rough stone, cleansed the sores of lepers. It was only by touching bottom, literally and figuratively, that they could achieve transcendence.

Riana opens the door to the Green Room carefully. This is a very old theater, one that hasn’t been used in some time, at least for plays, and all the doors stick. The theater smells a bit moldy, which has some of the girls’ allergies acting up. Parents are not allowed into rehearsals at any time, as the Director explains he is trying to create an optimal situation in which all can flourish while each is encouraged to develop her own character. For instance, the Green Room is off limits to peasants, only princesses can go there. And of course there are separate dressing rooms.

Actually Riana is surprised to have been cast as a princess. She is no beauty, though the Director told her that she was chosen for her natural dignity and her work ethic, as demonstrated in the audition process. Also, she suspects, because he needed someone to keep the other princesses in line.

Inside the Green Room princesses are sprawled about on the floor, or on the several abused couches donated long ago by theater supporters. Riana is worried about their morale; they seem worn out and nibble on bits of food—sweet or salty, each according to her taste—without pleasure or commitment. Perhaps she will need to talk to the Director about the increasingly intense rehearsal process that does not allow for much fun or enough fresh air. The Director seems to favor the peasants, who get to run around outside during their breaks.

Riana reminds the princesses that they have assigned homework—looking through the packs of laminated pictures that the Director has supplied of the martyrdom of various female saints. The girls like the way that the saints are depicted as medieval ladies with high headdresses and plucked eyebrows, wearing elaborate gowns, while the symbols of their martyrdom are made into wallpaper or floor tiles. In one St. Catherine stands calmly reading a book while a miniature tormentor with a tiny wheel hovers behind her. It reminds them a little of Game of Thrones, forbidden to most of them at home, but viewed in the family rooms of friends with less vigilant parents.

Meg and the other peasants are actually glad they have been banned from the Green Room. They think of themselves as having more at stake. They are the play’s social conscience, the liberators of the kingdom, if you read the script in a certain way. This is what they’ve adopted as their motivation, so that they at least have some clear direction. Sometimes the Director seems to be uncertain of what the play is about, or maybe he’s just hung up on the princesses and mermaids, who get a lot more attention. Not in an icky way though… the girls have discussed this and decided he is definitely not a perv.

In several years Meg will become a civil rights lawyer. Riana will change her name to Zian and return to the province where she was born to work with an international adoption agency. On the few occasions they get together, they will remember this phase of their lives differently: Riana as a revelation of her agency in the world, Meg as a mish-mash of third-rate sociology run amok that made her eventually opt for law school.

*

Kelsey has the lead princess role, and she has hardly had a moment off for a month. She carries her script with her at all times, trying out various voices. During the breaks, when the other girls trade snacks and whisper together, Kelsey is certain they are making fun of her.

Kelsey does not have time for breaks. She has too many lines to memorize, for she is the king’s eldest daughter, the one who commands the army in his absence and controls the other princesses. Her personal regime must be a strict one, to set an example. She keeps her makeup, all the little containers and brushes she has purchased for the actual performance, neatly organized. Every day she wipes underneath the things she has already wiped and thinks about how she is the one who holds the fate of the entire production in her hands.

*

At the daily discussion groups that the Director has instituted, the girls are encouraged to talk about the play and any problems they may be experiencing. Today Kelsey insists that the mermaids, who mostly lie around swishing their tails, will detract from the seriousness of the play’s themes.

The Director explains that it is necessary to have mermaids, who are protean beings (he tells them what that means and asks the girls to add it to their vocabulary lists). At times they can symbolize the suffering of the disenfranchised (another vocabulary word), as Marni so aptly suggested. They certainly serve as a representation of the sea, which stands for the idea of freedom from tyranny.

Kelsey says nothing, but notes that “freedom from tyranny” does not take into account all the hard work the princesses, especially herself, have been doing to manage the unacceptable behavior of the peasants. The play’s theme so clearly reveals what happens when people lose respect for authority. And she deeply resents the fact that no one, not even she, has received the script for the second act. The Director explains that this will add a sense of anticipation and, ultimately, revelation to the rehearsal process.

But Kelsey feels better now that the set is being installed, piece-by-piece. So each day the imaginary stairs they have been climbing, bridges they have been crossing, corpses and ruins they have been pretending to step over become a little more real. Not that there is fighting or violence of any kind onstage, of course, but the Director has explained that dummy corpses and debris of various sorts will give the audience markers for the progress of the civil war.

*

One day out of the blue the Director asks each girl to tell a back or future story about her character. Just say what comes to your mind, he urges, right here on the spot! He will record the stories and transcribe them, so that each girl can incorporate hers as subtext.

Meg points out that since the play takes place mostly in closed or cramped spaces—peasant huts, royal chambers, crowded squares—maybe each story should have something from the natural world in it: a forest, an ocean, a garden. Of course, the Director replies, commending Meg’s out-of-the-box thinking.

She leads off with a description of what happens when the rebellion is over and the kingdom becomes a democracy, or maybe even a socialist state, and they have to decide what to do with the former princesses. She explains that after a fair trial, they will be exiled to a remote forest. Each will have her own hut, but will need to forage for food. Before being exiled, the princesses will attend a special academy set up by the new government where the peasants will teach them to cook and sew, hunt with a bow and arrow, and perhaps how to fish.

Riana takes off from Meg’s story, which appeals to her for the way it gives the princesses some sense of power. She imagines walking through the forest, having acquired various survival skills. While the other ex-princesses creep around on the lookout for something moving that they can shoot, she will go totally vegan surviving on the nuts and fruits that grow abundantly there, as well as the produce from her garden. She would definitely plant a small garden, surrounded by a sturdy fence. She would hum to herself while working, so that any person or animal that happened to wander by could see how productive and fearless she was.

Marni rattles off a story about an ancient tribe of women who, pissed off because everyone just wants them to look pretty and get married, sort of gave everyone the finger by getting lots of tattoos and piercings. Consequently, they were kicked out of the village and allowed to live only on the shore of an ancient sea. One day one of the women tries to save a swimmer from drowning and almost drowns herself hauling him in. But some Sea Goddess or other takes pity on her and rewards her courage by transforming her thrashing legs into a tail. The women right away realize that glitter scales and see-through fins are the best makeover they could possibly get—better even than surgical augmentation. So the other women from the tribe start hunting down swimmers who need saving in order to get tails. Even better than the way they look is the way they can move around anywhere in the water, and knowing that they are finally in control and actually in charge, instead of just putting out for some guy.

Kelsey tells about a time when she had accompanied her father on a royal visit to a neighboring kingdom. She had gotten separated from her father’s entourage and found herself lost in the woods. (At first she had said “abandoned” in the woods, but then corrected herself.) She decided that she would not give into her fear. So she strode boldly with a loud crunch that felt both regal and brave. Not like sneaking around. She stuck to the paths, not feeling the need to wander into the deeper parts where hunters’ huts or animals’ lairs might be hidden, places where she might be in danger of being martyred. The Director had nodded approval at Kelsey’s rather poetic rendering of the things that, clearly, scared her and asked her to go on. But she simply insisted that eventually, of course, her father and his retinue had returned to rescue her, and fortunately, one of the servants had an extra gown so that she did not have to return home in tatters.

*

Finally the Director says that rehearsals for Act II will begin on Monday. When the girls arrive, however, eager for the script that will tie things together, each is handed a copy of her own back or future story.

But what really gets Marni is that they are asked to sit in a dumb kindergarten circle while the Director explains all whispery that Act II will consist entirely of their stories. They will wear regular clothes and deliver their own narratives of what was and will be. Segments of their individual stories will be layered choral style to evoke a universal experience, while honoring each girl’s unique artistry.

Now, as the Director knows, the real work begins, the task of melding the fractious groups he has so carefully cultivated into a unit while maintaining an uneasy, one might almost say queasy, balance between the individual stories and the collective unconscious of the group.

He’s often illustrated what he is aiming for in journal articles with the image of a mermaid displayed in a child’s inflatable pool over a deep chasm: an enchanted, divided creature, one half splashing innocently around while the other gestates in subterranean waters.

If the innocent splashing is Act I with all its fairy tale clichés, then Act II is the deep dive where each girl finds her own cave while connected by guidelines to the others.

He has devised a series of theater games for this process.

He begins by having each girl shadow another while she moves blindfolded through the group. The shadower can’t touch her partner, can only whisper directives that will keep her safe.

But Marni moves so fast that Riana barely stops her from slamming into a wall.

Then he asks each girl to apologize for some wrong she has done to another girl during the rehearsal process. Rather than say the apology directly to the one she’s offended, she must chant it to the group. Then she needs to create a laminated card with her apology drawn as an abstract symbol.

Kelsey breathlessly announces that she’s not sure why the others are offended by her playing the role of the lead princess, but she’s sorry if she’s been snooty about anything.

Her card displays a carefully drawn unicorn with a gaping wound where the horn had been.

Finally, the Director initiates a sort of air guitar contest where one girl sings a part of her narrative, while another has to practice mouthing the words in perfect synchrony.

Riana and Meg win that one hands down.

*

The play opens to a full house. At intermission the audience buzzes about Act I in the lobby. Some (especially fathers and uncles) view the play as a melodrama with interludes (or olios as one father, a drama teacher, points out) of gyrating mermaids. Others latch onto its gothic spirit, which especially ignites the girls’ younger brothers who yelp and holler at any hint of violence or carnage. Still others (mainly mothers) choose to view it as an emotional journey in which each character must make her own choices and then deal with the consequences of her actions.

Act I ends in a sort of détente between the princesses and the peasants. Marni represents the possible easing of hostilities as peasants lift her by one leg, princesses by the other, and she opens out into a total air splits.

But Act II throws almost everyone for a loop. The curtain opens on darkness. There is a rustling sound, as of tiny rodents (actually the girls rubbing their hands together). Individual voices can be heard as stories unfurl in fragments, some lines delivered as plaintive group chants. A spotlight pins a girl’s face, seemingly floating in mid air, as she silently mouths the words of another, who remains invisible. Some audience members become disoriented as the voices of girls they cannot see coil around the silent ones they can.

When the lights go full up, the audience sees a stage cleared of corpses and debris, the girls in jeans and t-shirts standing at various levels on the bridge and staircases. Linked in a chain that undulates back and forth across the stage, they sing a repetitive chorus in eerie ostinatos: Triumphant in spirit, united in kind, our power unleashed by the mysteries that bind.

During a discussion among parents after the performance, Kelsey’s mother, an amateur psychologist, suggests that a rare instance of collective disassociation during Act II might be the cause of the physical discomfort experienced by several observers (one five-year-old even wet her pants).

But there’s also a sense, she continues admitting that she is “a card-carrying Jungian,” in which the girls did seem transformed onstage. No longer the Disneyesque appendages of familiar fairy tales, no longer somewhat awkward amateur performers, they briefly cohered into a pulsating organism that embodied the female archetype as subject, object, historical site, and evolutionary work-in-progress.

*

The jury is still out on the Playmodalities™ experience when the Director leaves town and the old theater is finally boarded up for good, condemned by the local authorities. A few weeks later, most of the girls have moved on to the excitement and drama of the new school year. Their parents are caught up in trying to get the town council to do something about the possibility of increased crime in their neighborhoods as more and more homeless people fan out from the city, sometimes taking up residence in the public library all day.

Still, some have noticed decided changes in their daughters. They seem somehow more vigilant, as if their narrow focus had widened and softened to include more of… well, the world, perhaps, or at least things they have spectacularly failed to notice before.

For instance, several girls have taken an interest in the down-and-out people holding up signs for help. Not necessarily giving them money, but sort of hanging out with them for brief periods, talking and laughing, completely at ease.

Marni even brought a scruffy looking man back to sit on the screened in porch where, as far as Marni’s mother could tell, she seemed to be asking him questions. When her mother brought out a couple of glasses of lemonade, Marni had quickly stopped talking and introduced the man as “a former software programmer who kicked it all to be, like, a free spirit.”

Other girls seemed to fold into their own private worlds, reading historical novels or the lives of the saints, which the protestant and Jewish parents find mystifying.

There have been more serious repercussions. Kelsey dropped out and is being home schooled for the semester. Some of the girls try texting her, but she doesn’t answer. There are rumors of some kind of breakdown, but no one really knows because that December her family moves out West somewhere.

The following summer Kelsey and her parents travel in their Winnebago to all the national parks in America. Kelsey quickly learns to recognize the flora and fauna indigenous to each, the habits and habitats of every animal. Her parents tutor her, of course, but mostly they let nature be her teacher. Kelsey wears a t-shirt that reads, There’s No Crying in Hiking. They make sure that she eats at least something at every meal and is properly hydrated.

The theater has been boarded up for a few months now, but the homeless people who have been arriving from the city often break in for the night. They feel safe among the scattered set pieces: cardboard and plywood in the shapes of bridges, a castle, and trees, stuffed dummies lying around that the people use as mattresses and bolsters. They sleep peacefully tucked into this little village, camouflaged by the surrounding debris.

 

Copyright 2017 by Linda Shapiro