High School Theatre- My Island of Joy in a Sea of Misery
I’ve mentioned before that I was not cool in high school. Please refer to Tales of a Gym Class Freak for the overwhelming evidence. After attending a private middle school, I started public high school not knowing anyone (sorry mom, I still can’t let it go). I was skinny, deformed, and overall a pretty big weirdo. I tried to compensate for my awkward appearance by being overly friendly, funny, and energetic. My efforts did not translate well and I believe most people thought I was a bit of a loon. Looking back on high school, I know I suffered from low self-esteem, poor self-concept, and a myriad of other issues to which I’m sure many can relate. I did not feel smart, pretty, popular, or cool walking down the halls.
In an effort to fit in somewhere, I tried out for the fall student-directed musical production of Fame just weeks after high school began. There were three parts of the audition: singing, dancing, and acting. I sucked at singing. It’s no surprise that I sucked worse at dancing (I’m pretty sure the student choreographer even pointed and laughed during my audition). Scleroderma does not lend itself well to getting down and funky with my big, bad self. Then came the acting portion. I was randomly assigned to do an improvisational scene with an incredibly talented senior, Pascale. She was beautiful and exuded tremendous confidence. I could tell she was not pleased to have had the misfortune of being paired with some scrawny freshman who was obviously a loser. Somehow though, when it was our turn to do our scene, something magical happened. I. was. Good.
A few days later, I called my mom from the school pay phone to tell her I had made the chorus of the play. My mom thinly veiled her shock when I told her that I would be singing, dancing, and acting in the production. With great excitement, I went to my very first play practice.
I had found my people.
The drama department at my high school was the most bizarre mixture of kids from every race, ethnicity, and social status. There were druggies and drinkers, nerdy bookworms, misfits, jocks, popular girls from Poms, closet gays and lesbians trying to be straight (it was 1988), underachievers, overachievers, band geeks, the sexually experienced and the virgins—you name it, they were represented in the magical melting pot that made up our proud Thespian troupe. It was the closest I will ever get to living out my fantasy of being in a real-life version of The Breakfast Club. I became friends with people who otherwise would never have spoken to me.
From the first rehearsal my freshman year to my final performance four years later, theater was the only place I truly felt comfortable in my thick skin. I got slightly better at singing, continued to blow chunks as a dancer, and became a decent actress (relatively speaking). I won coveted roles such as Yenta the Matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof, Lori in Brighton Beach Memoirs, and the princess in the children’s theater production of The Prince Who Wouldn’t Talk. I worked crew, costumes, assistant directed, wrote original material (it was riveting stuff), and became president of my Thespian Troupe. My senior year I climbed the rafters and made it snow on stage. I painted sets, used a hammer and nails (gasp), worked the lighting booth, and sewed costumes (I lied and said I knew how to sew, which nearly sent my sister to the nervous hospital).
Our beloved theater teacher, Mr. Johnson, was far and away the most influential educator I’ve ever had. He made me feel “normal” when nothing in my life was. Mr. Johnson was always screaming crazy things like, “That’s a pregnant idea, let’s give birth to it!” or, “I could have had a baby in the time it just took you to get on stage!” He cast me in shows that required talented dancers, even though he knew I would screw up every dance move and taint every routine. We were all special in Mr. Johnson’s eyes. He put up with my ridiculous shenanigans and absurdly immature behavior. I still squirm when I think about how I went to him and cried because I didn’t get a lead in Peter Pan. (“It’s my senior year and this is the last musical I’ll ever be in!” I lamented.) I must have been pathetic or relentlessly annoying enough for him to throw me a bone and double cast me as Jane (Wendy’s granddaughter who flies away with Peter at the end of the show). I recently saw footage of this incredible opportunity he afforded me:
Nothing else before or since has matched the excitement I felt before going on stage or the pure adrenaline that rippled through us when the curtain went down on closing night. We would all scream, hug each other like we were the cast of SNL, and head off to the cast party. Never had I felt so accepted by my peers. Few people in theater commented about my odd appearance. They pretended not to notice that I screwed up every dance move and couldn’t sit on the floor cross legged, much less do the splits or even a jazz square. We were all strange in our own unique ways. I fit in well in the land of misfits.
My own children are now 8 and 12. In the blink of an eye they will be embarking on their own high school journeys. I can only hope that they will derive joy and meaning from being a part of something bigger then themselves. I don’t care if they shine on the basketball court, in chess club, choir, dance, or, dare I dream, their high school theater. I just want them to feel that same magic I did. I fear that education today, with its focus on high stakes testing, data driven instruction, and heartless budget cuts, is robbing this generation of genuine learning.
I learned more in theater than any academic class could ever have taught me. That high school auditorium was my safe haven. I could proudly fly my freak flag and nobody would even notice. When I was on stage, I got to be someone else. Someone who was confident, funny, had something to offer, and wasn’t embarrassed by her appearance. It’s ironic that all I wanted to do was conceal my disease and the way I did it was on stage with 2,000 of my peers watching.
- If you were in the drama department with me, I mean no disrespect with my chosen adjectives describing our Thespian troupe. I think I’m spot on with my stereotypes. I double dog dare you to private message me on FB and challenge any one of them!
- For the record, becoming the president of my Thespian troupe senior year was a hard fought battle. No, it wasn’t an uncontested election! I actually beat a guy who was way cooler than me. It was probably because the geeks and freaks outnumbered the popular kids the day of the election.
- My mom, sister, and stepdad will never forgive me if I don’t mention my most famous dance mistake. On the opening night of Fame, I was practically trampled to death by other dancers because I was so far behind on the routine. I thought maybe no one noticed until I looked out into the audience to see my family crying because they were laughing so hard!
- I know I mentioned that I did not feel smart in high school. I’m actually not a complete academic disgrace. It’s just that my older sister is a genius and I had a major Jan Brady complex going. Thankfully, I no longer have to ride on my sister’s coattails. Although she’s a successful doctor, wife, and mom, she spends most of her free time catching up on all the 90s television shows she missed during medical school.