What I Learned in the Theatre

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Kyle Head on Unsplash

have always been a storyteller. As a young child, I regularly drew my favorite characters and envisioned new stories for them — one might say “spinoffs.” I emulated the funnies that I read in every Sunday newspaper and laid out my drawings in comic strip panels. I also started my first book at age five. It was a flip book.

I had an overactive imagination, launching myself over the couch to escape an invisible villain and leaping among the furniture to avoid the lava-soaked floor. (Much to my parents’ delight, I’m sure.) On Halloween, I gleefully dressed up as a number of characters that were … unusual for a young girl, such as King Arthur.

So, I guess it was obvious to most observers that I would become a theatre kid. Yet despite my performance proclivities, I balked at any opportunities for training and suffered stage fright. Because I didn’t start ballet at the age of three, I was way behind my peers and was put in the beginner class, where I was a giant among toddlers. Although my teacher said I’d catch up soon, I was tired of being mocked by the girls my age. And so I resigned myself to being a mouse every season of The Nutcracker. Eventually, I quit ballet.

I was taking voice lessons and impressed everyone at our recitals, but when I auditioned for a production of “Annie,” my nerves got the better of me and I barely squeaked out my song. They needed a warm body who could at least sing the chorus, and that’s how I ended up rehearsing “It’s a Hard-Knock Life” for hours while jealously gazing at the lead, who looked ridiculous in a red wig. Theatre, to me, was for big personalities with big voices, not meek mice who were one squeak away from racing off the stage in terror. Still, I knew that if I could overcome my fear, I could wow the crowd.

It would take me years to achieve stage confidence. Through the lessons I learned in the theatre, I transformed myself from the mouse into a performer who had one simple goal: to tell a story.

High School

Despite my performance foibles, I was still interested in theatre, and upon entering high school, eyed the drama club as my extracurricular. I’d been heavily involved in both my church and school choirs for years, so I was no stranger to being on stage. Still, I’d shake when I was onstage auditioning for a play. Somehow, the confidence I’d won while singing solo didn’t translate to the theatrical sphere.

The drama teacher, Ms. Gale, lived up to both her name and profession as she devised a Chorus Line-esque game in which we were pitted against each other. Through the constant swirl of rivalry and non-constructive criticism, we all learned to tough it out. To her credit, Ms. Gale prepared us for a career in an industry that’s infamous for diva behavior and bullying. We learned to take rejection in stride. I’d venture that we internalized it to the point that we all developed imposter syndrome and couldn’t believe it when someone actually accepted us.

My first speaking role was in an original monologue play called Us, which was designed to support our school’s fledgling diversity initiative. As the Polish girl with olive skin, I was cast as the Native American girl, and I performed a monologue about racism. Although such casting would not fly today, I realized that I made an impact on people through my performance: For years, I had classmates tell me how much the scene moved them. In a mostly white school in the Deep South, I hope that changed a few minds for the better.

Still, I had a hard time convincing Ms. Gale that I was a good performer. Too often, I was assigned to a backstage position and once again found myself sewing my fingers into numbness or getting covered with gaffe-tape residue while jealously watching a Type A personality stumble over her lines. When I was given one singing line in a production of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown, Ms. Gale was blatant in her criticism. “You’re not a strong singer,” she said. When opening night came, I somehow summoned the confidence to belt my single line. I saw Ms. Gale’s painted eyebrows nearly fly off her face at the back of the auditorium.

My truly transformative moment, however, came when I finally won a secondary role in Our Town as Mrs. Webb, the protagonist Emily’s mother. In one performance of a scene in which Emily comes to ask her mother for advice, my classmate forgot her lines. In a moment of Pirandellian magic, I immersed myself in the character and imagined what Mrs. Webb would say. I let the character come alive and use me as a vessel, and she spoke. It was a profound experience in which my own consciousness gave way to the character. As a storyteller, I had one job: to let the character shine through. I ad-libbed my dialogue and saved the scene.

In high school drama club, I learned that rejection isn’t necessarily the end and that often, it’s not personal. It doesn’t really matter if someone turns you down, because perhaps it was just that they were looking for something else or they weren’t willing to look beyond the bold and brave ones. I learned that personal drama can always be overcome in the pursuit of one’s passion: Despite all of our rivalries, broken hearts, and teenage hormones, we always pulled the show together. As they say, the show must go on.

I let the character come alive and use me as a vessel, and she spoke.

College

By the end of high school, I was a red-blooded theatre kid itching for a career in the industry, so I instantly chose theatre arts as a major. College theatre is like high school theatre but with a lot more wild parties. For years, I immersed myself in superficial friendships, documented through hundreds of beer-glazed photos featuring Ben-Nye-caked faces. I had few true friends; we were all simply performers, performing our roles, performing our friendships.

Looking back, I realize how socially unhappy I was. However, the productions were fantastic. I’d embraced my backstage role after departing a couple of fumbled auditions with my tail between my legs. I worked primarily on properties and sound design. As the properties manager for an original production by our alumna Debra Fordham (producer of “Scrubs”), I became such an integral part of the crew that I was invited to join the touring production. In college theatre, I learned that my skills were valued and that there are no small parts in a production. I learned how it all hinges upon each other to make the magic happen, and that attitude is everything.

On that note, unfortunately, the relationship soured. After my advisor, a tremendous biker dude with a heart of gold and a passion for technical theatre, died in a motorcycle crash, I was assigned a new “mentor” — a lascivious properties designer who ogled the more attractive theatre majors. He once watched one of our gorgeous lesbian students walk by, then announced to a group of her classmates, “What a damn shame she doesn’t like men.”

After I had to call out of a shift due to a 104-degree fever, he told me that I didn’t belong in theatre. “You show up unless you’re dead,” he said. Later, when I actually worked in professional theatre, I learned that this wasn’t entirely true. At the time, though, I felt completely kicked out of something I loved. All my extra hours in the scene shop, all my hours spent on class projects, all my late nights at the theatre, didn’t matter because I hadn’t shown up one time.

His words destroyed me, and I spent years wrestling with my anger at the program. By the time I got up the nerve to write an angry letter, the department leadership had changed and I realized it wasn’t worth it to complain. I learned that I shouldn’t pin my worth upon a flawed premise. I learned to suss out my true champions in the professors who appreciated my efforts, and I learned that just because someone pretends to be a mentor doesn’t mean that they’re actually beneficial to you.

In college theatre, I learned that my skills were valued and that there are no small parts in a production. I learned how it all hinges upon each other to make the magic happen, and that attitude is everything

Post-Graduation

Working on high-caliber productions was immensely inspiring, and I sought out opportunities to build my portfolio after graduation. I joined a local community theatre as a stage manager, and I quickly grew into other roles. Because we had so few resources, I ended up becoming the Wearer of Multiple Hats: stage manager, director, properties master, sound designer, costume designer, producer, you name it. I was thrilled to see the work of local playwrights being put on stage and amazed by the talent we had in our community.

In time, I joined the board of the theatre. It became my second home, to the point that the decrepit building and thick layer of dust became comforting to me. I didn’t consider that there was something better, so I threw myself into every production with all my theatre-school know-how.

Unfortunately, my passion wasn’t appreciated by the hobbyists. As I tried to grow the reputation of the theatre and start compensating our cast and crew, I was met with a lot of resistance. The treasurer of the board tried to show me documentation of our nonprofit status as proof that we were forbidden from paying anyone. (That’s not how that works.) I heard whisperings that they thought my degree in theatre made me a “snob” and that I was “just in it for the money.”

Yes, in this twisted theatre, we were somehow above being paid, because “we do theatre for the love of it,” not for money. I heard mocking of people who wanted to make theatre their career, as well as those who spent 40 hours at the theatre and expressed that they were tired. “They must not really love theatre, then,” they said with an arrogant shake of their head.

I learned that people with little ambition will always attack those with a lot of it, and that there’s no limit to how many insecurities someone will project. I learned that I was meant for something more and that I couldn’t stay in my comfort zone.

In volunteer theatre, I learned the value of being adaptable to different conditions, and despite the setbacks, I did gain a deep appreciation of how theatre can inspire people and unite communities. I learned that there is nothing to be gained by diluting your passion to appease others’ insecurities, and that you must trust your ambition.

Professional Theatre

Eventually, my dream came true, and I landed a position in the costumes department of a professional theatre (which, incidentally, was a 501c3 as well). I got to work with equity actors and stage managers and get a taste of the real workings of the theatre. Instead of wearing multiple hats, I was given the chance to spend time developing my sewing skills, designing costumes, and running wardrobe for shows. While the pay wasn’t great, it was enough to support myself.

While that particular theatre began to struggle due to massive state funding cuts to the arts (thanks, Republicans!) and my position was eventually eliminated, I look back fondly on the incredible shows that we did and the lovely people I met. I felt appreciated, especially by the actors who were grateful to have someone there to help them with quick changes and do their makeup, and I was overjoyed to be part of the theatre magic. People who aren’t involved in theatre don’t understand all the little things that happen prior to and during a show to produce the entertainment that you see. As a theatre person, when I watch a show, I know too much — a bit of the magic is spoiled because I know how that special effect was achieved or how the quick change was orchestrated. Sometimes, I envy those of you who only see the end result. Still, it’s worth it to see your smiling faces in the crowd.

In professional theatre, I learned that there is no shame in earning money to do what you love, and that in fact, you’re more likely to produce great work when you’re not fretting about how to pay the bills. I learned the art of working alongside brilliant — but sometimes challenging — people in a well-oiled machine, as well as how to add grease when things got squeaky.

Vaudeville Theatre

A few cabaret-style shows that I did at the community theatre stoked something deep in me, something that hearkened back to my love of “Gypsy” and “Chicago.” The cabaret is a place for breaking social norms and digging into sociopolitical issues, as well as being sexy or weird. All of that appealed to me. I decided to produce my own shows.

For the past few years, I’ve regularly produced and participated in vaudeville, burlesque, and circus shows. While most of the theatre conventions applied, the cabaret has retained its underground feel. It’s powered by pure passion, with audience participation and ad-libbing all being part of the show. At times, it’s been hard for me to break out of my years of theatre training and get used to the organic, order-out-of-chaos approach to cabaret shows.

Sometimes, I envy those of you who only see the end result. Still, it’s worth it to see your smiling faces in the crowd.

Still, there is nothing quite like stunning a raucous crowd into silence with a stunning aerial act or stirring them into a frenzy with a wild burlesque act. While you wonder sometimes if the audience understands the social commentary or appreciates your tribute to Gypsy Rose Lee, you’re always amazed by people’s dedicated attention. In fact, I’d say that cabaret crowds are much more likely to be off their phones and present with you. There’s nothing like the cabaret to tap into people’s deepest desires and love of entertainment.

In vaudeville theatre, I learned to abandon my preconceptions and adapt to the demands of the show. I learned that people can be united by their weirdness. And I learned to celebrate all the quirks of humanity, as well as my own.

heatre has been a part of my life for so long that it’s hard to imagine living without it. It hasn’t always been my day job, but I have had some sort of theatrical production on the horizon for almost 20 years. I’ve learned most of my “life lessons” through the theatre: the quirks of people, the nature of hard work, a semblance of a greater purpose. It’s truly a place of magic — and not just the illusions we create for your entertainment. Theatre provides an opportunity for the misfits to come together and give a piece of themselves that plugs into something greater. As Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” I would argue, though, that the word “merely” belies the truly transformative power of theatre. We can go beyond our daily grind and find something extraordinary in a shared experience. That’s what I learned in the theatre.

Before you go…

Want to have VIP access to my secret stories and get my weekly musings on writing, as well as free writing advice? Join my mailing list! My weekly newsletter gives you exclusive content, including productivity advice, musings on creative flow, and tips for going pro as an artist — and much more!

Written by

Writer by day, circus artist by night. I write about art, media, culture, health, science, and where they all meet. Join my list: http://eepurl.com/gD53QP

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store