Disneylönd Exchange Students’ Performance Without a Stage

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I did not get to go to Frost Music Festival this year. At least, not as Jessica.

Frost is one of my favorite events on the Stanford social calendar. I remember attending my freshman year, when the Stanford Concert Network first succeeded in reviving the university’s abandoned tradition of bringing musical headliners to the outdoor arena. Sitting with friends on one of the wide grassy steps of the venue and listening to music under the spring quarter sky, we pondered why the place got used so rarely by the university. We pledged together (“Yo, let’s go to this next year. And the year after that!”) never to miss a Frost concert during our time at Stanford, given the rareness of a divine opportunity to bask in one of the university’s best spots amidst sunny weather and quality music.

This year, I had to break that pledge: Jessica could not go to Frost.

Not as Jessica, at least.

At approximately 4 pm on Saturday afternoon, May 17, a group of us gathered behind Lasuen, the Victorian house on the Row, in full costume. I wore the outfit we’d been sketching out for weeks: a deep blue dress, a romantic pendant around my neck, a crown of fake red roses atop my head. The others, game-faced and right out of a story-book, had similarly dressed themselves with care for today’s event: Eric, shirtless underneath a multicolored vest, a beanie and white harem pants completing the “look.” Adam, in a green boyish getup, a bandana wrapping his forehead with a red feather tucked in. Benina wore a sea shell around her neck and a sexy purple skirt, and Benjy wore a douchey sweater vest and khakis, with the characteristic cigarette tucked behind his right ear.

The group came together as we had done four evenings a week for the past quarter. We shook ourselves out, expelling emotional tension out through the erratic movement of our bodies. We clapped together in a circle, all of us nervous and giddy, feasting our eyes on each other’s carefully picked out outfits. Things start to fall in place once the costume comes on; outer appearances inform inner ones. We didn’t look like Stanford students: we looked like our characters, exactly as we’d hoped they’d look.

“This is going to be fucking insane!” Adam exclaimed to Eric, who was stuffing spliffs into the packet of American Spirit rolling tobacco. Benjy scrutinized his gashy red scar, painted hesitantly by Laura on his face just minutes ago, in the mirror of a makeup compact. Benina pulled on her dark moody sunglasses, and I applied a layer of pink lipstick.

It was time to transition. Jake and Laura, the group’s guides and “transition coordinators,” wearing huge camp counselor backpacks and anxious grins, addressed me, Eric, Adam, Benina, and Benjy in rapid, high-energy spurts.

“This is going to be a long day guys,” Jake proclaimed. “But as always, your mental and physical safety come first.”

“If there is ever a moment when the character is exceedingly uncomfortable or overwhelmed, come and find us,” added Laura. “We will be there every step of the way.”

“If anyone gives you a hard time, just hand them a postcard,” said Jake, thrusting a pile of light purple brochures at each of us. “Don’t feel like you have to explain yourself, if you don’t feel like it.”

At times, Laura and Jake had seemed like overbearing parents, watching us like hawks after we’d transitioned, but that day we nodded at them with respectful enthusiasm, relieved that any difficult situation we might encounter tonight could be handled responsibly by our fearless leaders.

We pulled on our game faces and began our walk to the Venue.

“Think about your character,” instructed Laura, as she did at the start of every rehearsal. “Think about their physicality. How they hold themselves. How they occupy the space.”

We adjusted ourselves, recalling the sensations and mindsets of our characters, breathing ourselves out to let something else in.

“Now take your physicality from a 5 to a 6,” Jake directed.

We responded accordingly, shifting posture, re-orienting body weight. I imagined the carriage of a silver-footed ballerina, as I always do for my transformation process, because Walt Disney’s princesses are always modeled after delicate classical dancers. I allowed my arms to sweep out and trail against the sky. I sucked in my stomach and tucked in my ass.

“Now take it to a 7. An 8.”

It was now 4:30 on Saturday, May 17, and Eric, Adam, Benina, Benjy, and I (as Jessica) were gone. We would not be making it, regrettably, it to Frost Music Festival.

In our place, approaching the welcome area of the Frost Ampitheatre, were Aladdin, Peter Pan, Ursula, Scar, and Belle.

“Alright people. Showtime,” Jake declared, and we the characters moved our way in a unified mass to the Meet-and-Greet area, ready to begin. We the players, with Frost Music Festival as our setting, began to Play Pretend.

I, Belle, am a junior attending Disneylönd University, a prestigious institution located in Orlando, Florida. I study Comparative Literature. I spend my time reading. I prefer, on a Friday night, the lamplit library and the reading chair to the party or the café. I am my Father’s Daughter, hailing from une petite ville de Provence. I have applied and been accepted to an exchange program between Disneylönd and Stanford University, which I’m hoping will provide me with a much needed change in scenery. I have had few close friends at school, mostly due to the copious amount I spend in the library. My love life is complicated (do not talk to me about Gaston).

Our exchange program group is full of characters. There’s Aladdin, moody and poetic, who hangs principally around Peter, a boyish stoner who likes to climb trees. There’s Ursula, a chemistry major who likes to fuck with people, a smirk incessantly dancing on her snarky face. And then there’s Scar: pissed off, brow-furrowing, slow-speaking, scathingly critical of every situation he encounters. These last two – Ursula and Scar- take turns serving as the resident dark clouds over our “study-abroad” experience. They defy Jake and Laura at every opportunity, complain openly about perceived flaws in the way things are run, and enjoy telling the rest of us what they perceive to be our greatest flaws.

“I am sure that I lose brain cells each time I attempt a conversation with you,” Scar snarled at me, Peter, and Aladdin one day as we hiked the Dish for a group activity.

In the beginning, I thought Scar just needed some time to warm up to us happy people. This optimistic impression faded; however, as the weeks crawled along, without a single pleasant word ever emerging from Scar’s sourly grimaced mouth.

Then again, in what universe would someone like Scar enjoy the company of someone like Peter? Scar has told us of his origins: raised by the most wealthy family in Johannesburg, he sits in luxury’s lap, entertaining himself by postulating pretentiously on such things as power and privilege. He tells anyone who listens that “Americans misunderstand apartheid.” When Jake and Laura dragged us to a thrift shop to look for Frost outfits, he paused angrily outside the door: “Is this establishment frequented by the proletariat?” he spat.

Peter exists on the other extreme. He claims to come from an unnamed island, without parents or responsible elders. He never applied to Disneylönd University, nor to the Stanford exchange program with Stanford: he simply came upon it, somehow, and none of us know how he was enrolled. Peter is eternally amicable: he smokes, smiles, savors the moment. Scar and Ursula perceive him as mentally slow, and they entertain themselves by making jokes at his expense.

“He’s retarded,” Ursula once declared while looking venomously in Peter’s direction. I admonished her for it, but she refused to apologize.

Jake and Laura, forever hoping to resolve issues between the characters, once asked a friend to lead us in a group therapy session. Our poor “therapist” sat patiently in her chair as the members of our group rolled their eyes, stared at their feet, and denied requests for friendly communication. Scar and Ursula opened their mouths only to fling insults at the rest of us. “You’re insufferably boring,” Scar said to Laura. Ursula started cackling when Aladdin attempted to earnestly share some feelings. He got so upset that he left the room. At the end of the session, we were asked to find one positive thing to say about each other.

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“You’re decently attractive,” Scar said in my general direction, flinching, as if giving a compliment brought him great discomfort.

Another time, Jake and Laura took us to EBF’s Beer Tasting party- our first social situation in which alcohol would be involved. Aladdin and Peter slung back shot after shot of cheap whiskey in the DQ of Theta Delt, which Jake called “its own sort of haven for lost boys.” Scar refused to partake: “I don’t drink shitty booze.” EBF started off nicely, with plentiful beer, good music, and interesting company. Then things got out of control: Aladdin saw Scar mingling with a friend of his- he confronted him angrily, and Scar responded by flinging Aladdin off of the EBF balcony into the shrubbery below. The rest of us heard the fall, and circled around Aladdin, who at this point was howling manically up at Scar, with Peter loyally at his side.

“You touch me again and I’ll fucking kill you!” he warned, drunkenly swaying on the pavement, middle finger pointing upwards. Scar smirked down at him, smoking a cigarette nonchalantly, unvexed and sort of amused by the tantrum he was witnessing. “You’re so fucked, Scar. You’re done for,” Aladdin bellowed.

Jake and Laura spent nearly 20 minutes trying to calm the group down.

Needless to say, our group dynamics are far from perfect.

But today, Saturday May 17, is the big day: Frost Music Festival. United together by our nerves and excitement, we forget our personal issues for a moment, and find ourselves getting along. Scar, though classically reticent and mopey, has not yet said anything to hurt anyone’s feelings. Even Ursula seems cooperative.

None of us are particularly sure about this Meet ‘n Greet event. We know that the Frost committee has given Jake and Laura money to set us up in front of the venue, to meet passing Stanford students. Most of us would prefer going straight into the concert (Yeasayer is already playing at this point), but we must obey our Coordinators.

“You’re parading us like zoo animals,” Scar remarks, annoyed, at Laura.

“Naw, this is sick,” retorts Aladdin. He has under his arm a book of poetry, in case he feel the need to impress a pretty girl. “It’s what we’ve been waiting for.”

We settle down with blankets on the grass in front of Frost, awkwardly, because we don’t know what to expect with this Meet ‘n Greet business. There’s lots to distract ourselves with: we seem to be in a playground of art installations, all of which, Jake tells us with an infectious grin, have been conceptualized and created by Stanford students. Right beside us: a massive metal skeleton of a whale, which Scar calls “hideous,” but which the rest of us find amusing to touch and walk along, running our fingers over the ridges and the metal cans which make up the spine. Then there’s a bright red, London-style telephone booth labeled “The Glass Case of Emotions.” Ursula attempts to lock Peter and Aladdin in the case; they stand inside the case, smiling, as Scar looks on with a smoldering cigarette. I wander off to the magical staircase which projects loud music when stepped upon; I spend a quarter of an hour stepping on and off, giggling each time a strange sound is made.

Having satisfied our curiosities with the outer venue, Peter, Aladdin, and I sit down on a Sponge-bob patterned blanket. I take out a large red edible lollipop from my purse and Peter starts rolling us a spliff with the supplies that Jake had handed him at the beginning of the day. I’ve never once seen Peter without his rolling papers.

Thus far, very few people have entered the Meet ‘n Greet. We watch people snaking through the line to the front of the amphitheater, where guards are confiscating things like apples and bottled water. Most of these people take a quick glance at the six of us and continue on to the entrance. I’m sure we look silly to them: the princess, the sea witch, the vagabond, the lost boy,the villain. Sitting and smoking on a Spongebob blanket.

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But people do, finally, come. Our first visitor is a smiling, curly-haired boy wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a hat that says “XOX.” He comes right up and introduces himself. He is very excited about meeting Peter.

“What does your hat mean?” asked Aladdin.

“XOX? It’s my home. I live in a pirate ship,” he explains very casually.

Peter responds giddily, and whisks him off to the corner to discuss crocodiles and plank-walking. I go back to my book of Best American Essays on the blanket, sucking diligently on the weed-flavored lollipop.

It isn’t long before Aladdin huffs down beside me. “People keep on asking me about a fucking flying carpet,” he says. “I have no idea where they come up with this shit.”

I try to sympathize. “They must be confused.”

“They must be on drugs.”

He isn’t too far off. The next group of visitors to enter the Meet ‘n Greet confess to us without hesitation, “We’re tripping pretty hard right now.” Peter clamps them on the backs, congratulating them, asking them if they’ve made it to Neverland yet.

“Second star to the right, boys,” he instructs. “Just be careful – there are narcs all over this place.” He looks knowingly over at the entrance guards, with their table full of apples and water bottles. “Gotta always watch out for the narcs.”

Jake and Laura want us to stay at the Meet ‘n Greet in case other people come, but we rise against them in protest, demanding to be taken into the concert.

It’s been established already that nothing Jake and Laura tell us is law. They can’t really tell us what to do, because, with the exception of myself (Belle), the others just aren’t in the style of listening to instructions. Both of them have lectured us, frustrated with our apparent inability to Respect the Rules, but they know that their pleas will have little effect. Peter is a wild child and Aladdin a lost boy; Scar is spoiled. Rules are not Respected here.

Jake and Laura realize this: we’re going to go in whether or not they give their permission. They pack up the blankets quickly to follow us into the line which feeds to the entrance. We’ve left the Meet ‘n Greet area completely flooded with the light purple brochures. The characters have left their mark.

This is the first thing we hear upon entering the big green Frost interior, in a big booming voice: “This is like a Church for music!”

Dispatch has spoken. Aladdin, Peter, and I abandon the others and wade our way from the top of the arena to the crowd of people below. Voices follow us as we fly down the steps: “Look, it’s Peter!”

“Look, Aladdin and Belle!”

Jake and Laura’s publicity efforts seemed to have worked to a magical degree. The light purple brochures are everywhere– and people are recognizing us, calling out at us, introducing themselves. We smile broadly, thrilled and also overwhelmed. When we finally get to the pit, Peter, Aladdin, and I exchange happy glances, feeling the music and the people and the sun, finally inside the concert, uninhibited and lively. Peter lights up a spliff, and we dance among the Stanford students, occasionally screaming over the music to greet those who recognize us.

A few people come up to me as if we’ve already met.

“JESS! HOW ARE YOU!?”

While swaying to the tunes, I extend my hand. “YOU HAVE ME CONFUSED, I BELIEVE! MY NAME IS BELLE!”

Some of them become instantly confused and nervous, searching my eyes to see if I’m joking. I do not break my gaze.

“WHAT’S YOUR NAME?” I bellow.

Aladdin and Peter watch me sympathetically; they’ve been approached several times by strangers who seem to know them as “Eric” and “Adam.” We spend the next two hours adventuring from the pit to the clusters of people on the stairs. Everyone is in a good mood. Everyone is dancing. I meet many people and remember very few names. At one point, I spy Scar in the crowd. He looks analytically at the people on stage, but I think he might be enjoying himself.

“Looks like he’s chilled out a bit,” Aladdin, beside me, remarks approvingly.

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The day has lived up to our expectations: we are high and happy, and at this point, parched for water. Our mouths are stuck into dry smiles. It is all too soon that Dispatch ends their set (though they satisfy the crowd with quite a few encore songs), and we all make our way to the Visitor’s Center to meet up with Jake and Laura, to unwind, and to get out of character.

Transitioning out of character this time feels like a mind fuck. We- Adam, Eric, Benjy, Benina, and Jessica- fall to the ground in exhaustion. It feels like the part in Cinderella when the clock strikes midnight, and the carriage turns back into a pumpkin. The whole afternoon feels unreal – like a long hallucination. Playing Pretend for almost four hours will do that to a person. After an hour or so in-character, your character’s mannerisms and thinking styles become natural; you spend less time premeditating what you’re going to do and just do it. You fall into a groove. You act freely upon your impulses. You forget yourself.

We feel delirious.

“I feel like I just tripped really hard,” says Jake.

We agree with him, and en masse, walk hungrily to CoHo for much-needed sustenance.

On our way there, passing Meyer library, someone who had been at the concert calls eagerly out to us. “Yo, Peter Pan!”

Adam looks up warily.

“Nah, man,” he says. “We’re back.”

We are back. It’s been a long day. We’re getting confused for Disney characters. We push on to CoHo.

Coming to Stanford “as Belle” has been, by far, the highlight of my quarter. Since day one, it’s been all about Playing for me. I’ve gotten to use my imagination in creating this character, just as I did 15 years ago when playing House in the backyard. One day, Jake and Laura literally made our characters sit around butcher paper and draw with crayons. It’s been creative. It’s been incredibly fun.

It’s also been weird. The project is difficult to explain to the friends who ask me about it- what, so, it’s performance without a stage? There’s no script? Are you guys playing real Disney characters, or adapted versions? Is there a point to all this? You rehearse for this every night? Why?

Hey, it feels good to Play Pretend. It feels good to step out of Jessica for a while, and to have the license to play as Belle. It feels good to look at Stanford through the eyes of a stranger.

When people come to talk to the characters, they report that they feel like they’re Playing Pretend too. Every time a Stanford student approaches a Disneylönd character, we are together in generating a reciprocal, improvised performance. It’s theatre in a very untraditional sense of the word: it’s limitless, it’s self-perpetuating. It’s fun for everyone involved.

Just as the people at Stanford got to meet the characters, the characters have gotten to meet Stanford. As Belle, I’ve gotten to look from the outside into something that I know very well from the inside. Stanford Students: you guys are Characters, too. Thank you for playing with us. Frost Music Festival: thank you for being our Playground. I think the characters all felt that it was the Happiest Place on Earth that day: at least, in our eyes, it deserved the slogan even more so than Disneylönd.

The Disneylönd Exchange Project was brought to Stanford by The Freeks, and directed by Jake Friedler and Laura Petree.

It was made possible in part by a grant from The Stanford Arts Review.

 

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