Day 8! The Night Helen Keller Almost Spoke

For the final 30 days of my twenties, I am writing one personal narrative a day that has impacted my life until now.  To read more about my challenge, feel free to check out the first post.  

Also, this 30 Day challenge is also to support a wonderful charity, Zara Aina.  Please check out my fundraiser here and if you’re able, please consider throwing a few dollars toward this amazing cause.  It would mean the world!

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Since I’m feeling oddly under the weather today (and hoping it isn’t a repeat of this summer’s madness), I think it’s only appropriate to channel that into a story about feel really really awful once upon a time.

My childhood acting career took me to some pretty cool places, at least in my standards.  I had the chance to play Helen Keller twice as a kid, once opposite my mom…playing my mom.  This particular production was with a great company in Staten Island that used an old church as their performance space. This wasn’t just any old church, this was an old church on the site of an abandoned Tuberculosis Center, and as you can imagine, was super creepy–but for a kid, the coolest thing ever.  I was convinced the church itself was haunted due to the slamming doors and other creepy vibes.  It was also infested with katydid’s–a kind of leaping spider/cricket thing.  But the company was incredible and the people in the show were an amazing family of artists.  Spiders and ghosts were just part of the package.

The only real issue that summer was the heat.  I have never been great in extreme heat, and was much worse as a kid. A few times before that summer, I had been caught off guard by waves of dizziness, nausea and the feeling of pins in my face–probably from hyperventilation–when the heat got a little too much for me to handle. Nowadays I know how to slow down in difficult weather, but when I was little, I was a whirling ball of long, unbrushed hair and crazed actor energy.

If you’re unfamiliar with the show The Miracle Worker, the story follows Helen Keller and her family when they invite Annie Sullivan to stay at their home and help Helen learn sign language.  By the end of the show, Helen is more refined and starting to communicate with her family.  The final scene of the play involves Annie dragging Helen out to the backyard water pump, where Helen manages to say the word “water”–thus understanding the meaning of language.  It’s awesome.  There’s a dog in the show too.  Everything’s great.

As one of the summer weekends approached, the cast prepared for 104-degree weather that had been plaguing the area for a few days. Two rotating wall fans were all that cooled down the space, but we still had a good deal of dedicated audience members coming out in the heat wave.  I began the show in a lighter dress, and though it was still the Victorian era, I had short sleeves and less petticoats than I ended up with by Act 3.

Somewhere during the famous breakfast fight scene during Act 2–a famous six-page show down between Annie and Helen which involved rolling on the floor, leaping over tables, and several laps of the theatre–I started to notice the room beginning to spin.  Luckily I had an intermission to cool down, and took a moment to rest before the calmer third act began.

One of the first scenes of the act involved me sitting on the floor playing with the dog while a rather lengthy scene went on between Annie and my father.  It was one of the longest stretches on stage without movement, and this is when the storm began to brew.  I was dizzy, my face was tingling, and I suddenly noticed that I was no longer sweating.  As Annie is chatting with Captain Keller, she is passively signing words in my hand to show that I have been learning the language.  As the lump in my throat began to grow, my panicked ten-year-old mind realized that this was my only form of communication other than simply leaving the stage.  I began to try and sign messages to the actress playing Annie through her hand, but I knew there was little chance she’d realize what I was doing, or really know what else could be done if she learned of my predicament.

I made it through the scene and ran to the other side of the theatre for a quick costume change before the long, final two scenes of the show.  Here is where I ran into my mother. “I think I’m going to pass out,” I whispered.  I looked in the mirror and saw my cheeks were nearly purple.  My hands were shaking.  With barely a moment to lose, my mom and I doused water over my head and down my neck as our cue line arrived and we stumbled onto the stage.

It was clear to the rest of the actors that something was up.  I was wet, purple, and not looking like a concentrated, of for that matter blind, Helen Keller.  I knew that my moments of consciousness were fading if I didn’t get water shortly.  All I kept thinking was, “If you’re not standing up, you can’t pass out.”  Looking back, I’m not sure that’s remotely true, or why I had this in my head.  I thought about throwing the whole performance out the window, just looking up, saying “Nope!” and walking off the stage, but I was determined to at least pass out gracefully.

Luckily, I didn’t have to.  My mother had the first line of the scene and the last line before I was carried off.  She said both lines back to back without hesitation and the faces of our fellow actors snapped into confusion.  Later, a fellow actress told me that all she could think was, “Oh we’re in real time now!”  What was usually a solid three-page tug of war, became a scene about my mother (both in the show and real life), passing me off to Annie Sullivan saying, “Take her, now.”  Confused, we stumbled off stage and the normal scene continued.

Once through the door, I crumbled to the floor. We drenched my head and back in water yet again, and I tried to get water down without getting too nauseous.  As much as it would have made sense to stop the performance, I had been hard-wired to believe that the show goes on unless you are near death, and seeing that I could stand again, I was not near death. We cut the final scene nearly in half, sprinting from spot to spot with each bit of information that Helen celebrates learning by the end of the show.  The final moment of the play involves the rest of the family running on to celebrate the big moment, during which they did with a quick cheer and truncated hurrah.  We quickly bowed and I awkwardly stumbled off stage.

Embarrassed as all heck, we headed to the doctor and made a game plan for the performance the next day.  In those 24 hours, I have never consumed as many fluids in my life, and I don’t think I’ve ever stopped over-hydrating since.  The other issue was that I was so low on sodium I couldn’t sweat, hence the purple face.  The next night, though terrifying, was completely without event (other than REALLY having to pee the whole time).  I wouldn’t have a poor response to heat for nearly 10 years, when I keeled over in the Mountain Creek Guest Services during a lousy summer job.

With each passing performance that I don’t need to fear for my health, I am grateful.  But I will always have a deep love for the cast that took care of me that afternoon, and never stop reminding my fellow actors that it’s always better to really have to pee than really having to pass out from heat stroke.

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One thought on “Day 8! The Night Helen Keller Almost Spoke

  1. Pingback: Day 15: The Last Day of the Camino | Maybe there will be cupcakes...

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