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The Importance of Being ERNEST GOES TO CAMP

           The Youth Drama Class was putting on a short play entitled Films Forever and, without asking, the director had assigned Jerry the part of Ernest Goes to Camp. The movie itself, not the actual character of Ernest. Jerry’s costume was a rectangular box with a poster for Ernest Goes to Camp pasted onto the front. His head stuck out the top and there were holes for his arms and legs.

            There were only four other kids in the play. Jerry could never remember their real names. Their roles were Casablanca , Jurassic Park , Nosferatu, and Do Not Pass Go, which was an independent animated short that the director’s husband had made. Jerry hadn’t seen it due to a faked illness on the night that his director had screened it for the Youth Drama Class, but Casablanca told him it sucked. The kid playing the part of Do Not Pass Go didn’t like it either. Jurassic Park missed the screening because she was in the middle of a big family fight where one of her brothers ended up getting all his CDs thrown into a bonfire one by one for lyrical content reasons. Nosferatu didn’t have an opinion on Do Not Pass Go (the movie, not the actor playing the movie). Jerry wasn’t even sure if Nosferatu was a boy or a girl. He avoided personal pronouns when talking about him or her.

            Jerry hated being in Films Forever and he especially hated being Ernest Goes to Camp. It was embarrassing. His only consolation was that Ernest Goes to Camp didn’t have too many lines. Do Not Pass Go had to babble on and on about manifestations of the creative spirit and the shortsightedness of big-town critics with small-town vocabularies, minds, and regard for deadlines. Jerry was glad he didn’t have to do anything like that, but he wished he could have at least portrayed a less critically reviled film.

            The director tried to convince Jerry of his significance. “There are no small actors,” she said one day at rehearsal. “I know it’s a cliche, but let me finish. First, let me start over, then let me finish. There are no small parts, only small actors.”

            “Mmm-hmm,” said Jerry. “I know that.”

            “Here’s what it means...”

            “I know what it means,” said Jerry, sweating up a storm inside his costume.

            “Then explain it to me,” said the director, crossing her arms and cocking her hip, eyebrows arched.

            “It means,” said Jerry, “that I’m shorter than an adult, but my part in the play is actually pretty big because you have to read between the lines.”

            “Not really,” said the director. “It means that you’re small, yes, but that your role serves a vital and crucial purpose within the context of this play.”

            “Within the context of this play? How many tickets have we sold?”

            “If the internet wasn’t down, I’d check the counter on the website,” said the director. “And I’d let you know down to the last digit.” She turned and walked away with a clattering of high heels, striding over to Jurassic Park and Casablanca to discuss their love scene.

            Jerry tried to remember his first line. He couldn’t. He tried to imagine the theater filled with people. This was much easier, but not inspiring in the least bit. After all, it was only an audience.

            “Mom,” he said over dinner. “Are you coming to my play?”

            “Of course I am,” said his mother. “Did you even need to ask?”

            “I just wanted to bring up the subject of the play,” said Jerry.

            “Why?” asked his mom, spooning some applesauce onto his plate.

            “Eh,” said Jerry. “My role isn’t important.”

            Jerry’s mom wagged her finger at him. “It serves as a contrast, Jerry. It’s important that the whole spectrum of film be represented. You told me so yourself.”

            “Sure,” said Jerry through a mouthful of cornbread. “But I’ve never even seen Ernest Goes to Camp. The play stinks, mom. Casablanca says his mom read through his script when he left it out on the table and she found a bunch of errors in the monologues. It switches from present tense to past tense and back to present tense all the time.”

            Jerry’s mom looked at the clock on the wall. “Do you have your lines memorized yet?”

            “What’s the point?” asked Jerry. “I want to be in my own play.”

            “Oh yeah, smart guy?” Jerry’s mom sneered. “And what’s it going to be about?”

            “I’m going to star in it,” said Jerry. “And I’ll be important with or without context!”

            “This play of yours sounds like a surefire hit,” said Jerry’s mom, scraping casserole residue on her plate with the side of her fork and licking the fork clean. “Better get writing.”

            “Or maybe I’ll start a dream journal,” said Jerry. “Maybe I’ll get into some of that fantasy football.”

            The night of the play, every single actor was late. The crowd was medium-sized. The theater was filled to about 40 percent of its capacity. There were scattered clusters of tired-looking people with large buffer zones of empty seats on all sides of them. The director was not nervous. She was confident in the quality of the play, the preparedness of her actors, and the willingness of the audience to accept mistakes graciously.

            Jurassic Park tried to kiss Jerry before he went on stage for his first scene, but their bulky costumes got in the way and they couldn’t stretch their necks far enough to touch lips. Jerry was moderately relieved. He delivered his lines with as much energy as he could muster, which was not much. Still, he got some good laughs and he snuck a few creative word pronunciations into the proceedings, just to keep people on their toes.

            “Nice work, Ernest Goes to Camp,” said Do Not Pass Go. “You were way better than me.”

            “How could you tell?” asked Jerry. “By what standard?”

            “Calm down,” said Do Not Pass Go. “I was just fishing for compliments.”

            In Jerry’s second scene, he almost passed out because the lights were so hot. Most of his lines were at least partially trampled on by an overzealous Nosferatu. Where had he or she found all this enthusiasm? The scene was about defining success so Jerry improvised a bunch of material, some of which was bound to get him into hot water with his mom, but oh well.

            Jerry’s final scene was the climax of Films Forever, in which all of the characters were on the stage at the same time, arguing about Raising and/or Lowering the Bar. A good chunk of the scene was spent stiffly bickering over whether or not atomic weight was an apt illustration of one of the argument’s key points. Jerry was pretty much just supposed to stand in the background as a visible-but-silent Counterpoint of some kind. He took this opportunity to scan the crowd with his tired eyes. He saw a few teachers from school, some parents, some grandparents, some friends of the director, the director’s husband, some un-cute couples on bad dates. It was as typical as an audience can be.

            During the curtain call at the end of the play, while everyone was clapping politely, Jerry took a two-fold oath with Jurassic Park as his witness, grasping her left hand with his right hand as they and the other actors stood in a line and bowed as best they could inside their clumsy costumes. He swore to know when enough was enough and he swore to always stop while he was ahead.

            “Those are kind of the same thing,” whispered Jurassic Park beneath the weak, inexplicably sustained applause.

            “Encore!” shouted the director’s husband. “Encore! Encore! En-core! En-core!”

            The actors looked around at each other in confusion.

            “We don’t have an encore!” Jerry called back to the director’s husband, who was still chanting. The other actors stood in silence, deferring to Jerry. “We’re all out of lines!”

            “Do the second scene again!” shouted the director’s husband. “As your encore! En-core! En-core!”

            “Oh, yeah!” Jerry shouted. “Big surprise! The second scene? The scene that’s 75 percent Do Not Pass Go’s monologue? This play is trite! Why would anyone want to see more? It’s trite!” Jerry looked at the other actors, gesturing for them to join in his rebellion, but they just backed away from him.

            “We agree with you,” whispered Casablanca . “But we have a responsibility to our parts. They need to retain their dignity.”

            Jerry looked at Do Not Pass Go. “You too?”

            “I’m just shy,” said Do Not Pass Go.

            “En-core, en-core!” shouted the director’s husband, shaking his fist at the actors.

            “You’re in hot water, Jerry” yelled Jerry’s mom from the back of the theater.

            “I’m Ernest Goes to Camp,” shouted Jerry. “And I’m beholden to nothing and nobody!”

            And Ernest Goes to Camp let that audience have it.