S1: My oldest daughter’s a freshman, which means that this year is the first year that she’s gotten all kinds of advice from adults telling her how important her choice of college will be. Everyone’s like, better start thinking about it now. And she sees older kids, like sweating their extracurriculars or touring campuses, and they’re all waiting her league admission or regular admission. There’s a lot of pressure about this where we live. This is the story I will tell her when she seems totally overwhelmed by the weight of the college decision. It’s the story of how I ended up at the University of North Carolina.
S2: The day I first saw Shirley Valentine, she was reclining on a sun dappled Mediterranean beach in Milwaukee. It was October 1991.
S3: I was a senior in high school and my mom’s boyfriend, who was on the board of a small local theater company, had got me a job as a non-union stagehand for a production of the play.
S2: Shirley Valentine, who was the first afternoon of Tech Week, and Johanna Morrison, the actress playing Shirley was running through Act to. Shirley Valentine is a one woman play by Willy Russell.
S4: First performed in 1986 about a Liverpool housewife who frees herself from the shackles of matrimony for a holiday of sun, sand and sex in Greece. The space was empty, but for the actress on stage, the director and his assistant in the seats, a small crew in the booth and me. I came in just as Johanna has. Shirley spoke to the empty seats, kissed with stretch marks.
S5: You know, he didn’t, he said. He said they were lovely because they were part of me and I was lovely, he said. He said stretch marks were to be taken, to be hidden away. They were to be displayed, to be proud of, he said. My stretch marks showed the tide was alive and the times survived that they were marks of life.
S6: Men further shit.
S7: The director called out Hope, please join. We need to work on this Q. She stopped talking, stopped acting. You could see it happen and introduced herself to me. She asked if we were going to be working together.
S8: I’m Dan.. I said hi.
S7: Yes, we will. I’m gonna be a stagehand on the show. Surely. Can we have you back on stage, please? Well.
S9: That was it. I realize now that my mom’s boyfriend was probably trying to demonstrate for me the drudgery of an actual day to day commitment. The theater was not glamorous and starry, but hard work, but any less than he might have hoped I’d learn. Vanished the instant they restarted the rehearsal. When Johanna and her frumpy one piece bathing suit shifted her focus to me, hungry for an audience in the middle of a dull tech through nearly thirty years later, I still remember the force of that actally attention, like the moment when the lamp in the Pixar logo turns and looks right at you.
S7: The second best thing about Tech Week was the rehearsal started at 3 o’clock, so I got to leave pre-calc early. Every day I would fidget in my desk for 10 minutes before collecting my things. And Mr. Young would say, Oh, I guess Kayce has to leave for his play. He believed that to be belittling. I found it so rewarding. Of course, a buffoon like that wouldn’t understand what was valuable about an experience like this.
S10: Mr. Young clearly thought I was an entitled little shit, which I was even in subjects I liked. I rarely worked hard and precalc. I basically did nothing. I gravitated to teachers who exhibited that crucial willingness to look past a teen’s demeanor to see who he might become if steered in the right direction. Mr. Young must have had that of other kids, but he did not have had with me. He met my distain with antagonism, a response that even that I couldn’t say I didn’t deserve revelled in the dislike of a math teacher and baseball coach with a blond mustache and short sleeved button down shirts. I thought this is the exact kind of person who should hate me. I was hyper and hectic. I had a girlfriend and a group of buddies, but I was lonely all the time. I was young for my grade and didn’t drink and never went to a single party. I had inarticulate ideas about the world, but that didn’t stop me from loudly articulating them all the time. I was insufferable. Understand now that I was searching for some clue as to the kind of person I might be. When I finally was a person and I dream that someone would reach out a hand and touch me and say This is who you are. I would never have articulated it this way, but I hoped working on this play would help me make sense to myself. I hope Shirley Valentine would help me figure it all out.
S11: And she did.
S12: During Tech Week, I learned I like the work silently moving around the stage in a black T-shirt, black jeans, setting and clearing furniture like ninjas, but much more than that. I simply liked being in the theater hearing. The stage manager and the ESM telling jokes to each other over the intercom, noticing that adding single Fornell to a light wash. Change the way the stage looked, and listening to Joanna and the director talk about a certain line speaking a kind of shorthand to each other. I liked that the drudgery and panic of tech had us all a little bit on edge are most alive selves. I like that we were solving problems in the service of making art, and I like that everyone treated me as a partner in making that art. A junior partner. Yes, but a partner, especially Joanna, who is exceptionally kind. The show had been mounted first and an outdoor theatre in upstate Door County and transferring it to Milwaukee required some last minute redesign. So the designers and the director had to fix endless technical staff whose during tech week. The first best thing about Tech Week was that during that time I sat in the green room upstairs and talked with Johanna Morrison, with Shirley Valentine. As far as I was concerned, they were the same person in the years afterward.
S10: As I told and retold this story to everyone I met, I could not remember, for example, whether Johanna Morrison, the actress, was from England. When she spoke to me, was it in Shirley’s working class? Liverpudlian accent Plummy Royal Academy of Drama Voice or in a flat American tone? One afternoon in that upstairs lounge, Johanna asked me where I was planning to go to college. I said I hadn’t decided yet. I wanted to study theater.
S13: I was applying to four or five schools, but I hadn’t fallen in love yet. Johanna was an acting professor. Turned out North Carolina. North Carolina. She said, doing the accent perfectly. And she told me I’d love it there. Oh, it’s grand. You can act in direct shows from your first year, she said. Or maybe it’s great they’ll let you act and direct as a freshman. I don’t know. I know. I told her excitedly how much I always wanted to do that. How directing plays that I wrote was my real dream.
S7: But I remember clearly is not her exact words, but the way she treated me as someone worth giving advice to someone with a future worth talking about.
S13: I was invited to the opening night party, but I didn’t think to bring a change of clothes. So I remember sitting on the stairs in the audience bank and my stagehand blacks. I watched Shohat and her husband surrounded by well-wishers, holding forth like theatrical royalty. Her husband was also a theater teacher. She told me and the director in my memory, he wore an ascot. I think it’s very unlikely that was actually the case. But looking at them, I realized that was what I wanted. Not her. I mean, I had a big crush on her, but even in the full bloom of 16 year old lost, I knew that was patently absurd. She was old, for starters, which is to say younger than I am now.
S9: Her? No, what I wanted it was to go someplace far away and do amazing things so that when I came back to Milwaukee, it would be as the person at the center of the circle drinking wine, not the kid on the edges drinking a coke.
S11: I wanted a big life.
S10: Shirley Valentine is a two act play, Act one is set and Shirleys Kitchen in Liverpool in the first scene. She makes chips, an egg for her husband’s dinner. She really cooked in our production. We had a little gas burner embedded in the fake range.
S9: Every night she actually fried a couple of eggs while she talked to the audience. Well, she talked to Wall. The kitchen wall. The only person she talks to and other children are gone. Shirley tells Wall about how her friend bought tickets for Greece. And she wants to go. She doesn’t have the guts to ask her husband, Joe, in the second scene.
S7: It’s the day of her flight. Her bags are packed, but she’s agonizing to wall over whether to leave. Act Two is set on the beach in Greece or a tan. And a happy Shirley reveals all that’s happened to her new friend, Rock. Joe isn’t a bad guy. Exactly, not as Shirley describes him. He’s just absent and inconsiderate and extremely set in his ways. He’s stopped loving Shirley, stopped seeing her. Really? I would sit in that lounge upstairs during every show doing my homework or trying to read a book. But really, I would be listening to Shirley Valentine. I grew to love that play.
S10: It was a storehouse of wisdom about how to treat a woman. For one thing, Shirley is very funny on the way. That guy’s never really listened to women and how they drive conversations where they want them to go.
S14: Most men really, they’re no good at coping with women. They don’t know how to listen what else they feel. They they have to take over the conversation. Like most fans, if you said something like like my favorite season is often. Well, most folks that go it my favorite season in the spring see what I liked about spring in spring.
S15: And then you get ten minutes of what he likes about spring and you won’t be talking about spring. You were talking about autumn.
S4: I had a lot of time to listen. It was really a very easy stage and gave much simpler than other jobs I’d have later. And other theaters we had that set the eggs and the onstage fridge and arranged the other cooking stuff before the show. At intermission, we had to switch out the kitchen set for the Greek beach set. We only had one change to make under time pressure between those scenes and act one. We had to go out in the dark and clean up the kitchen, collecting the fried eggs, the pans, the fake styrofoam chips. While backstage, a dresser quickly changed Shirley into her traveling clothes. We had two minutes and 37 seconds to accomplish this change, which is the running time of the song that played during the blackout. When I’m 64 by the Beatles. By the third week of performances, we had the changes down me and the other stagehand.
S10: The union guy, I remember us giving each other five backstage done with the change while the song was still in the bridge and we’d look at each other backstage and sing in unison with McCartney. We’re a Chuck and Dave. I can remember that stagehands name calling Chuck.
S9: So now it is sometime the third week of the run. We’ve got this down to a science. Me and Chuck, we do our presets. We tell Johanna, break a leg and we head up to the green room and I pull my homework out of my backpack and we hear the audience quiet as the lights go down. And through the intercom speakers, we hear Shirley say her first lines of the show.
S16: You know, I like a glass of wine and I’m doing the cooking.
S17: Then tumble down, down like a glass of wine when I’m preparing the evening meal.
S1: And then I realize, oh, my God, I forgot to set the eggs.
S4: I completely panic. I lose it. I drop my homework and run to the reading room fridge where we keep all the eggs in between shows. And there they are just sitting there. The four eggs that in just about 15 minutes, Shirley is supposed to start cooking onstage, but she can’t because I screwed it up. That is the whole business of act one, scene one. She makes fake chips and real eggs, but she can’t make pretend eggs because what is she supposed to do? Mime the eggs? Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God.
S3: And Chuck, who is an adult, calmly rips a page out of my AP English notebook, finds a magic marker and writes in big letters. Eggs in pantry. And he says basically, Dan, stop it. Stop freaking take the eggs and wait backstage behind the door to the pantry. Stay where the audience won’t see you. When she opens the door and he walks out of the lounge with the sign, I take the eggs, I carry them carefully down the stairs, into the wings. I sort of stumble for a second and imagine the eggs flying through the air. But I keep it together. I pick the record home and see Chuck sitting halfway down the aisle and the audience bank holding the sign he made down by his feet where audience members can’t see it, but where Johanna hopefully can. So I crouch in the dark behind the pantry door. I hold the eggs and I wait, sweating and terrified, wondering if I ruin the show, wondering how I will explain to my mom and Mr. Young.
S4: If I get fired from a job as a non-union stagehand halfway through the run, wondering what Johanna is gonna think of me, the dumb kid who screwed up the one job he had. Will she see the sign? Will she get what Chuck means by the sign? Will she be able to? But then the door opens and she comes through it in the middle of a line. And I got up and hold out the eggs. And she takes them and she looks right at me. Still talking.
S18: And she winks and closes the door. It’s as if as if we were in cahoots or something. As if this was just another lark.
S4: A funny story to tell. Another opening night party while sipping a glass of wine. The next morning, I went to the guidance office at my high school and use the phone to call the admissions office of the University of North Carolina and asked them to send me an application, please believe me, in the admissions office had the kind of southern accent you hear in movies. She sounded like an actress.
S19: I got in. I applied to Carolina late, but I was a good tester and I got in.
S20: It was 1991, not 2020. When a kid with my academic record would need his parents to donate like a business school. I think I wrote some damn essay about how being a stagehand on Shirley Valentine changed my life. But the time u._n._c accepted me had already done all my college visits. But somehow I talked my dad into driving me to Chapel Hill during spring break. On the way down, we stopped overnight and still remember this Beaver Lake, Kentucky, just off I-75, right down the road from Big Bone Lake State Park.
S21: We laughed for like a week about that.
S20: When I got to Chapel Hill, I took a tour and saw the outside of the theater building. Students were gone for a break and everything was locked up. Tight beat up by the student union was a billboard for the drama department’s big show for the spring Crimes of the Heart. I knew that play on the campus campus was about the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. Bear in mind, I was comparing it to Syracuse in January. My parents and my friends couldn’t believe I was heading south, farther south than anyone in my family had ever been. Farther south than any one of my high school is going. My girlfriend went to Madison like maybe 40 percent of my graduating class. She in particular couldn’t believe I wasn’t going to Madison with her. But that August I said goodbye to her and to my friends and to Wisconsin and drove down to North Carolina again with my parents. We all laughed a big bone lick together.
S21: Could that possibly be right?
S20: They’d only been divorced three years at that point, and they weren’t on the greatest terms, but they were both at orientation with me. So I guess that is what happened. Memories of that time consist of vivid and sharp moments with long detail, free feelings, and between them the moments are things like my parents riding the elevator up to my dorm room with me or meeting the woman I would eventually marry on a volleyball court. The first day of classes or my my mortifying interview to become a deejay at the super eclectic college radio station. Even though I only ever listened to R.E.M., those were the moments. But the feeling was the sense that the world had indeed opened up, that I was someplace big, far bigger than me, a place that could swallow me whole unless I worked hard to make myself seen the feeling that something was beginning. I was gonna play it cool with Johanna Morrison. Obviously, I was both a little embarrassed at my previous crush on her and also deep, deep down thinking, well, this was fate, although of course I was very devoted to my high school girlfriend and we were gonna make it work anyway. I didn’t want her to think I was a stalker. I wasn’t. I had applied out of Samay infatuation, but I was here for myself, not for her.
S22: What would she do when she saw me?
S10: Of course, probably she wouldn’t even recognize me. I was at a tiny blip, the second best stagehand on a show she’d done half a year ago. Just just one show in a whirlwind of acting and teaching and parties and marriage. But wasn’t it possible that I had meant something to her that she remembered this kid she told about North Carolina all those months ago, but the fun and excitement of those weeks in Milwaukee would come back to her when she saw me in the halls of the theater building.
S4: Then she would say, maybe with Shirleys. British accent. Love. Yeah. Yeah. She’d take me under her wing, introduced me around, tell the story of the eggs. I’d refer to my cool headedness under pressure without being braggy. Of course, the other faculty would nod give me parts in their shows. I didn’t understand that there was no Johanna Morrison until the first day of classes when I mentioned her to my drama 10 professor and he said, Who?
S10: He didn’t know or had never heard of her. I don’t know, maybe she teaches somewhere else. He said she doesn’t teach here. Was she in the communication studies department or English or something? I went to the library and found the faculty directory and looked her up. No Johanna Morrison in any department.
S18: Who was she?
S10: Where had she gone? Whose life was she living? I confess that in that pre-Internet era, I had not done much due diligence looking into u._n._c theater program before I arrived. The school had a brochure about its various arts programs which didn’t list individual faculty. I applied late, had rushed my decision. I never actually talked to anyone from the drama apartments. It was a series of idiotic mistakes that I like to imagine no one in 2020 would ever make. A bit of simple googling would answer the question Is this amazing actress actually a professor at the school she’s talked me into applying to it, checked out a copy of Shirley Valentine from the University Library and re-read it. I heard every line in her voice and I thought of her sitting in the bright lights in her bathing suit.
S23: Considering her life until that moment, what I kept thinking about was how I clefts to live to life a long way or another. Even that would be over pretty soon. I thought to myself, my life has been a crime, a crime against God because I didn’t fully and allowed myself to live this little life living inside me. Was so much.
S10: Her name isn’t Shirley Valentine for most of the play, it’s Shirley Bradshaw. Shirley Valentine is her maiden name, who she used to be. But then by the end of the play, it’s who she is again. She embraces more. She stays in Greece and gets a job as a waitress. She lives. I didn’t know where my Shirley Valentine had gone, but I like to imagine her on that beach, talking Iraq, living the big life. She taught me was a possibility. The big life I was setting out to live. I did finally find Johanna Morrison. Twenty five years later, we met in Hartford, Connecticut.
S24: She still taught theater and acted when we met for lunch at a cafe in town. She wore a brilliant white pantsuit.
S6: I’m a monochrome person, she said in her British accent.
S24: Her face was the same as I remembered her vivacious actor’s face that worked hard and conversations responding to nearly every word I said with a raised eyebrow. Her smile, her twinkle. I’d e-mailed her that as a teenager, I’d worked on that Milwaukie production of Shirley Valentine before our spinach salads arrived.
S25: She said, Will you please forgive me for saying that I don’t actually remember you?
S24: I told her, No, of course there’s no reason she would. As I recounted the disaster of the eggs, she laughed.
S25: Oh, I do think I remember that.
S24: I worried that I’d traumatize her. But she said that after the torture of Daw County, where raccoons peed on the stage mid show, nothing we could have done in Milwaukee could have faced her in the least. When I told her the story of my college decision, she smiled and I saw the actor inside her switch on. She gave me a tiny gift.
S25: I’m beginning to remember you a bit more. You were very kind and well-mannered. I do remember that. I truly do. And you did have stars in your eyes.
S24: She sipped your tea fondly.
S10: It was a wonderful lunch during which I learned just how much I’d never known about her. And that show how the nature of memory was such that I didn’t even truly know anymore. What I remembered wrong, what I subconsciously changed all the times I’d retold the story and I’d never even known in the first place. But I already knew the answer to the most important question of how it was. I ended up a u._n._c, and she wasn’t there at all.
S26: My sophomore year in college, the World Wide Web finally came to Carolina and at some point in the computer lab in the basement of the undergrad library, it came to me that I should search for Johanna Morrison. The Internet was still in its infancy, but her name had to come up for some theater company somewhere, right? So I went to Altarpiece TED.com and typed in Johanna Morrison plus North Carolina. And there she was, a headshot first show with the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival. I clicked on the page and read her bio. Johanna Morrisson teaches acting at the North Carolina School of the Arts. It turned out for all those years, Shirley Valentine hadn’t been in Greece. She’d been 75 miles away in Winston-Salem. My daughter will be applying to colleges someday. And I’ll tell her the story course, because it all worked out fine. I loved school and found friends and a wife and eventually the big life I dreamed of. Even though I made my college decision for the absolute stupidest possible reason, you can imagine what I think of this story. I don’t think of that lesson. I still think of her. Here’s to you, Shirley Valentine. Thank you for your patience and your kindness. Thank you for that week, which send my life spinning in a direction I never could have anticipated. I’m sorry I blew it. I guess I wasn’t listening as carefully as I thought. I was sitting in that green room in 1991 with stars in my eyes. You weren’t talking about spring at all. You were talking about autumn. Shirley Valentine was produced by Roseberry Bellson.
S10: Thanks to Joe Morrison for reviving her role as Shirley Valentine and well as herself. This story appeared on Slate’s parenting podcast. Mom and dad are fighting. Find episodes at Slate.com. Slash Mom and dad.