When Jay Met Ray (Bradbury)
I Learned Storytelling from Theatre.
Settings. Dialogue. Character motivation. Three-act structure. I learned all of these vital storytelling aspects because I sucked at baseball when I was eight. It’s true. My parents didn’t bother to take me to sign-ups after the last season– I don’t think my team ever won a game.
So I auditioned for a play instead.
Fast forward to age twelve. I’d performed in well over a dozen shows and traveled around the South performing children’s theatre for schools and other stage productions. One Saturday I received a phone call from one of my favorite directors. There’s going to be a collection of short plays performed based on the works of Ray Bradbury. Ray himself will be in attendance. Only one question crossed my mind:
Who the Heck is Ray Bradbury?
Like most pre-teens, I was terrified of asking simple questions. Who wants to sound ignorant? I walked in to the first read-through with every bit of confidence and swagger my five-foot-two inch frame could convey. I acted like I was so excited to play the role of “Skip” from the Third Landing, an adaptation of the story from Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. The character in the book was a young adult but the director decided to de-age him to an 11 year old. That meant I got the joy of playing a very creepy martian child and murdering an adult on stage. Side note: I later murdered the same actor over ten years later on the same stage in a production of Frankenstein. If I’d been in charge of casting for any of the shows, you’d think I had it in for the guy.
Meeting the Master
After a run of performances, Ray came to see the final production. I heard him make a speech that I found interesting, but I still didn’t grasp the importance of who this man was. A few hours later, we talked in person at the Green Room. Like most prepubescent smart-mouths meeting new adults, I had no clue what to say. I fumbled for dialogue and repeated some variation of “I enjoyed bringing all this to life” no less than three times.
It didn’t take me long to realize I’d blown it. I’ve been a Sci-Fi junkie from day one, I spent my days on the playground with Steve Perry novels instead of kickball. I had no idea I’d been in conversation with the author of books as significant as Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dandelion Wine and more. When Bradbury died in 2012, the New York Times called him “the writer most responsible for bringing modern science fiction into the literary mainstream”. Wow.
Luckily, I hadn’t realized his significance too late. Shortly after the performance I wrote an e-mail (via modem connection and AOL) and sent it to our director, asking him to forward it to Ray for me. I talked to him about the Third Landing and his work with the Martian Chronicles. I also told him how much I loved watching The Halloween Tree on cable TV every Halloween. I couldn’t believe he’d written one of my favorite films. I hoped he’d reply.
Ray did more than reply. He was generous with his replies. He told me he loved how our directors chose to make his character younger from the original book and stage script. He said, “When I saw that kid (me) run across the stage with the ball glove, I thought, hell why didn’t I think of that?”
We continued in some exchanges but not many. Ray was busy and I was concerned with completing the eighth grade and moving on in to high school. Even after the play, meeting in person, and e-mails, it still took me years to recognize his true significance.
If I could talk to him one more time, I would say: thank you. Thank you, Ray, for leaving the world with a lasting legacy and continuing to inspire others long after your death. What more could anyone ask for?