photo by Jane Bell Goldstein
My Life as an Ant
by Evalyn Baron
I stand eight feet above the stage, dressed like an ant.
It’s Fall, 1969, my first grad school show at the University of Minnesota and instead of wearing pretty costumes and speaking immortal Shakespeare or poetic Chekov, I am the “Head Ant, Leader of the Colony” in the scintillating Czech classic The Insect Comedy. I’ll never get a chance to thank the authors—Karel and Josef Capek. They’re long dead. At this moment, I wish I were too.
Acrid odors of fresh scene paint and chemical stage fog fill the auditorium.
“Okay everybody, take a long ten. Don’t return ‘til I call you. We’re getting fans from the scene shop to clear the air,” Marshall, the stage manager, announces.
The cast exits stage right, but I remain in my spot high above, hands moist from the heat of the knitted “ant mitts” I’m required to wear. The designer thinks these mitts make us look like we have feelers. Feelers? Really?
I don’t join the others in the cool green room downstairs. I must use the break to solve a problem. I hear the “ka-chunk” of the heavy stage lights being turned off and, though it brings relief from the heat, I’m in the dark. I’m sweaty, itching, and now blind. But I don’t need to see to do what I need to do. Nonetheless, I take off the “ant hood,” leaving bits of frayed material in my mouth—but at least I can breathe. Despite its extreme discomfort and ugliness, that hood, as long as it stays on, means that audiences may never have to know that it’s me up here. Such is not the case for my other role in the show, “Mrs. Butterfly.” A hell of a lot more than my face is on public display in that costume, but at least it has the advantage of being well ventilated; in fact, it’s goose-bump chilly. In this show, I’m either drowning in body liquids or look like I’ve got a skin disease. I remove the hood.
Concentrate, Susan, concentrate. Focus on the problem.
As “Head Ant,” it’s my duty to keep my fellow ants moving at a set pace and, as the scene builds, speed up that pace by beating on a large “ant drum” the designer has placed exactly at center stage—but eight feet above it. (Heights make me nauseated.) The problem is I need to keep a steady rhythm, consistent and dependable, but a fatal combination of vertigo and sweaty hands from the cheap mitts makes it impossible to keep a firm grip on those drumsticks; they keep slipping and so do the steady rhythms on the ant drum.
I peel off the mitts, tough to do since they‘re so wet inside they stick to my hands. I dread the thought of putting them back on again since I know they’ll still be wet. And, god forbid, a human hand should be revealed in this “highly realistic” scene of ant industry. My bare hands feel terrific in the cooler air now floating up my way. My energies are renewed, so I begin to practice my ant drumming, mitt-less.
BOOM, boom-ba-boom, boom-ba-boom, boom-ba-boom! BOOM, boom-ba-boom-boom! BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!
For a solid two minutes.
I stop long enough to stretch my fingers in praise of myself.
Hey, I can do this! At least without the mitts. Hmmm . . . maybe if I practice enough, they won’t matter! Yeah! Just get the rhythms into my hands and arms, and maybe . . . yeah . . . I can do this! So, more “Boom”-ing. Lots more “Boom”-ing. I then slip the clammy mitts back on, and it’s slightly easier for me to keep a steady pace. I am so proud of myself. I raise my arms to BOOM again.
From below, I hear a gentle, deep voice: “Hey, how’re you doin’ up there?”
Looking down, I see a dark-haired guy in a saw-dusty work shirt climbing up the scaffolding. He holds a Tab, and it looks nice and cold. The can is sweating as much as I am. He extends the diet soda toward me. Is this a dream?
“Thought you could use this,” he suggests. I put my drumsticks down, remove the heinous mitts and take the icy drink, gulping half of it at one go. I then hold the can up to my forehead to cool off. The wire-rimmed angel grins, and then climbs back down to the stage floor. He sure knows his way around scaffolding. I’d learn later that he built this one. I toss him the empty can.
And that’s how I met Phillip.
He later told me that he had no real concern for my thirst—he just wanted me to stop the damned drumming.