My stage career began when I was a little under two months old, when I took the spotlight as Baby Jesus in a Christmas pageant. I’m told that I did a wonderful job and slept calmly through the whole thing, which can only speak to my talents as an actress, because I was 1. the wrong gender 2. a colicky screaming demon of a baby and 3. about as far from divine as it’s possible for an allegedly-human child to be.
I continued to be actively involved in theater as a kid (and frequently played roles of various small animals, because I was tiny for my age). Around the age of ten, I was cast as the lead character in a musical about cowboys that I no longer remember the name of. It was my first real lead role, and I took it very, very seriously. And because I am myself, that means I maaaaybe went…a little overboard.
My character’s introduction was early in the play, accompanied by the crack of a bullwhip. This was more-or-less pre internet (or, at least, our director was not tech-savvy enough to find sound effects online) and we didn’t have a sound effect track for that noise. There were plans to acquire the appropriate sound effect before opening night, but I rapidly tired of making my entrance during rehearsals to the sound of someone yelling “BULLWHIP NOISE!”
This, I thought to myself, is a problem I can solve.
I learned early in life that it’s good to be friends with people who have skills; they always come in handy eventually. After rehearsals one day, I put on my cowboy boots and biked a couple miles over to my friend Grace’s house. I went down to their basement and knocked on her older brother’s door.
“Hello,” I said. “I need to learn how to use a bullwhip.”
“….Okay,” he said. It did not seem to occur to him that he might ask further questions about why I, a tiny horrible munchkin composed exclusively of rage and pointy elbows, needed to be weaponized any further. Clearly, I had come to the right person.
My friend’s older brother would have been an SCA nerd, if SCA was a thing where we were. Instead, he was one of those unsupervised 4H kids with weird hobbies, largely oriented around ancient forms of combat. He was somewhere in his late teens at this time, and he liked to make stuff. It was an urge I, even at age ten, could sympathize with. His name was Aron.
Aron got out his bullwhip (which I had noticed hanging on his wall on a prior visit, and had filed away mentally under a for future use tab) and we went to the backyard.
“Step one of using a bullwhip,” Aron began, “Swinging the bullwhip.”
We rapidly discovered that since I was god’s tiniest, angriest creation, a full-size bullwhip was way too long for me to use. Aron’s shins suffered for my attempt.
“…Step one of using a bullwhip,” Aron said, “Making a bullwhip.”
So we went back inside, found a tanned cowhide (that he just…had? I don’t remember if there was a reason for this.) and some razor blades, and I learned how to cut and braid a bullwhip. It took a few tries, and I wound up coming back for a while, because I kept getting frustrated with the bullwhip-braiding process and Aron kept distracting me with bait like: “Hey kid, wanna learn to make some chainmail?” and “Hey kid, wanna fletch some arrows?” and “Hey kid, wanna try doing horseback archery?”
Obviously the answer to these questions was “BOY, WOULD I EVER!” Some delays are necessary to the artistic process.
(At one point my mom asked me “Hellen, what are you doing over at Grace’s house all the time?” And I, perfectly innocent, said, “Making weapons!” and my mother, who never understood why I was like this, but accepted that a girl has needs and those needs occasionally involve stocking a personal armory, said “Okay! Have fun!”)
Soon, the bullwhip, size extra small, was finished. The lessons on actual bullwhip use commenced.
It should be noted that Aron was self-taught, and really had no idea what to do, so this was mostly an exercise in the two of us standing twenty feet apart and flailing wildly with our respective whips until snapping noises happened. And then we figured out what we’d done to make the snapping noises. And then we kept doing that. Extremely vigorously. So vigorously that at one point one of the bullwhips launched into the air and caught on a tree branch and we hand to drag the trampoline over so Aron could bounce me high enough to grab it. But we persisted!
Eventually we reached a point where we could line up pop cans on a fence rail and hit them off three times out of five.
Feeling extremely accomplished and like I finally understood method acting, I packed my bullwhip into my backpack for the next play rehearsal. Soon enough, it was time for me to make my entrance.
I leaped on stage in my cowboy boots and cracked the bullwhip as hard as I could, immediately launching into the song despite the fact that the sound of five feet of braided leather breaking sound barrier had startled the accompanist so badly she’d keysmashed on the piano.
The director shouted something she probably shouldn’t have shouted in a room full of small children, and then demanded, “WHERE DID YOU GET THAT!”
“I made it!” I declared proudly. “I’m a cowgirl! I can make my own bullwhip noise!”
“Yes! Because we needed a bullwhip sound effect. And bullwhips are where bullwhip sound effects come from!”
This was, of course, impeccable logic.
It is apparently difficult to argue with a gleeful ten year old who happens to be armed with a bullwhip longer than she is tall. After some negotiation, the director agreed that I could use my bullwhip for my opening song, provided that I didn’t pop it while anyone was anywhere near me on stage and I didn’t let anyone else play with it. These terms were acceptable to me.
Somehow, no one was injured and the play went off without a hitch. We can only chalk up these things to the magic of the theatre.
Nearly a decade later, an unsuspecting college classmate asked me, “Hellen, wanna take a class on bullwhip combat with me?”
And obviously I answered, “BOY, WOULD I EVER!”