My first entry into the world of theatre was in my first grade production of, The Little Engine That Could. My teacher, Mrs. Mercer dramatically adapted this classic story for a classroom presentation. You probably remember the story—it’s about a really long train that needs to get over a very high mountain. The train asks lots of big and strong engines for help with getting over the mountain, but for one reason or another, they refuse. So, it’s up to the Little Engine to take on the seemingly impossible task. And, repeating, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…” the Little Engine successfully carries the train over the mountain.
The Little Engine That Could is significant to me for two reasons. Number one, it was the first of many casting disappointments in my acting career. Besides the Little Engine and the various other unhelpful engines, the rest of the class played different toys that were being carted in the long train. I desperately wanted to be one of the three “Baby Dolls” who got to wear frilly white dresses and have baloney curls in their hair and rosy red cheeks. Alas, I was cast as one of the three “Gingerbread Men,” and forced to wear brown clothes and a paper gingerbread man face that we painted ourselves and strung around our necks. (I totally understand the plight of Vita, the protagonist of Helen, and her craving to play the beautiful Helen of Troy.)
My performance was clearly impressive though, because in the second grade I was cast as “Mother Nature” in The Lazy Brown Bears and not only got a solo, but also got to wear my white frilly first communion dress, baloney curls, and a crown of roses in my hair that had been left over from the 6th grade production of The Gondoliers.
The other reason why I find this tale so significant is because I think Helen is a lot like that little engine. Though the odds are stacked against her, she keeps plugging along and putting it out there. She may not be as big and powerful as the other engines, or have the same resources or fuel, but she still keeps trudging along, always quietly repeating, “I think I can, I think I can…” And I bet that if she just keeps going, she’ll make it over that mountain and find herself saying, “I knew I could, I knew I could, I knew I could…”