Theater Lessons

This article appears in The Be Zine. To see the entire issue on theater, click HERE

What has Theater taught me? Ego indulgence and humility. Confidence and neurosis. Teamwork and competition. Empathy and retreat. Deception and honesty. The story of humanity in a microcosm. My story.

When I was a little kid, I learned that I could entertain and amuse my parents and my older sisters and get positive attention. As the youngest of four daughters, I was eager to exercise this talent to my advantage whenever my ego felt bereft. This helped me compensate for having fewer general skills and powers than my seniors. I couldn’t win at games or read or figure or run better than the rest, but I could sing and mime and look cute. I also was the only blonde, which helped.

When I was in second grade, I was very good at reading aloud “with expression”. I remember (and still have a written report about) my behavior when the class did a Reader’s Theater story about a snake. I told the teacher that I had a toy snake the class could use…provided that I got to read the lead role. Mrs. Richie declined my offer.

When I was in third grade, Miss White selected me to play Captain Hook in the musical Peter Pan. I was stunned. “I’m not a boy!” I protested. She told me privately that she thought I’d do a better job than any of the boys in the class. She could tell that I was a ham and would take risks to win attention and applause. And I did. In the final week of rehearsal, she gave me a monologue, a poem in rhyme that she would put into a particular scene if I could memorize it. I worked on it very hard. In the final performance, though, I skipped it altogether because I forgot where it was supposed to be inserted. To this day, I can rattle it off by heart. “Methinks I hear a spark, a gleam, a glimmer of a plan….”

The pirate theme lives on in my legacy.

When I was in seventh grade, I was double-cast as the lead in our pre-Bicentennial musical. I was the Spirit of ’75 for two performances (why the Music teacher and the Home Ec teacher chose this theme a year early is anyone’s guess). So was Kevin Bry. Yes, I played a man. Again. I vividly remember being in performance and feeling sort of bored with the dialogue the teachers had written to link together the songs the school chorus had rehearsed. So I decided to overact. “The sun still rises in the East….doesn’t it????!!” The audience roared. I think they were pretty bored, too.

When I was in High School, I took real Drama classes. I learned to dance, and I gained some confidence singing solos in the Concert Choir and the Jazz Choir. I became a lot more aware of my own vulnerability, too. I will never forget the Talent Show in my Junior year. I was in a leotard and character shoes, posed and ready to dance when the curtain went up. I was listening for our taped music to begin. And I heard nothing…until the audience started to howl and whistle. Suddenly, I felt naked and taunted. Then the music started, and I couldn’t concentrate on it. I was humiliated. My father and mother and boyfriend (who became my husband) were in the audience, hearing those students jeering at me. We all went out for ice cream afterward, and they tried to convince me that the performance wasn’t bad and the audience wasn’t being critical, but I just wanted to block the whole thing out of my memory forever. Obviously, I haven’t.

When I was in college, I was a Music major with Voice Performance as my Senior thesis. I auditioned for a part in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta as a Junior. I hate auditions. I tend to choke when I know that someone is out there in those dark seats judging me. I am awesome in rehearsal – prepared, alert, willing and tireless. I was working hard, getting better at performance in my Master Classes and feeling more and more that my teachers and colleagues were actually rooting for me. But not at an audition. I was nervous, my mouth was dry, and my voice wavered. I could see my choir teacher in the house, talking with the casting director. I am sure that Prof. Lamkin was telling him that I was a very good soprano despite my weak scale runs in Mabel’s aria. I managed to land a part in the chorus.

That’s me, third lady on the left.

After graduating Phi Beta Kappa with my B.A. in Music, I auditioned for the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Worst audition EVER! Oh well. I found out that I was already pregnant. Got the role of Mother at age 22…and 24…and 26…and 28, and stayed off the stage for years. Meanwhile, my husband performed all over the country with a competitive Barbershop quartet and once at Carnegie Hall with the Robert Shaw Chorale Workshop. My children were on stage quite a bit, too. I was their coach. They were in all the school concerts and plays, took dance and music classes, and I watched and cheered and videotaped my heart out.

Then some neighbors invited me to help them start a Community Theater. I was tired of being in the background. I stepped up, and brought my oldest daughter with me. The next summer, I brought three of my children, my husband, and my mother-in-law as rehearsal accompanist. The next summer, it was just me, and my husband told me that he wouldn’t be able to solo parent while I was at rehearsal after this. Meanwhile, he was performing with the Chicago Master Singers and rehearsing every week. A few years later, my youngest daughter started taking theater classes with a group called CYT. The next summer, they did a community theater production, and I auditioned again and got cast. My oldest daughter played in the pit band. One of the performances was on my birthday, and the director brought me out on stage for the audience to sing for me during intermission. * shucks, folks! *

I ended up working for CYT and becoming their Operations Supervisor full time. In addition, I taught Voice classes and Musical Theater classes and Show Choir classes to kids aged 8-18 after work. All of my children and my husband participated at some point in the seven years I was employed there. I watched kids grow up in the theater, auditioning three times a year, growing in confidence and artistry, and questioning their identity every time.

“Who am I, anyway? Am I my résuméThat is a picture of a person I don’t know.” A Chorus Line 

Accessing emotions, improvising with another person’s energy – initiation, response, vulnerability, defense. Mime, mimicry, mannerisms, artifice and accents. Playing in the muck of human behavior. This is Theater. It can be devastating and edifying. You can lose yourself and find yourself or never know the difference.

I wonder if I should regret raising up a bunch of performers and encouraging them in this charade or if I should be proud to have modeled survival in the arena. I don’t know. It’s complex. We’re complex. And maybe that’s the entire lesson.

11 thoughts on “Theater Lessons

  1. I so enjoyed this post, and the photographs were the icing on the cake. I love that you were able to share your art with the whole family. You should never question or apologize for your love of theater and performance. If you weren’t talented, if you didn’t have that to bring into a performance, you wouldn’t have been invited again and again to share your skills.

    When I was a kid I used my dad’s old movie camera to direct the neighborhood kids in little silent movies, but was too shy to pursue my interest in theater. Stumbling into storytelling as a young adult changed my life. I loved choosing, developing, and often writing my own material, depending upon word of mouth, rather than the dreadful audition process. I had plenty of work, but it lacked the camaraderie of working in a troupe.

    I was a professional storyteller, and the mother of two when, on New Year’s Eve we hosted a 2001 Arabian Nights storytelling party. I was surprised and delighted when six year old Beatrice stood up and told a story, a folk tale she had read about in a museum on one of our trips back east, and she retold it in her own words. It so impressed a prolific writer/storyteller friend of mine that she included it in her next anthology, and it wasn’t long before Bea was officially in print. Since then, the four of us have performed in tandem, and the resulting teamwork and camaraderie has not only been a joy, but it has also helped me overcome my performance anxiety because when you are working and playing with your kids, how could you possibly be nervous?

    • You know how much I envy your family collaboration?! It looks like so much fun and so much free exploration from your photos and stories. I suppose with two more egos thrown into the mix, it gets even more complex. My kids’ and my husband’s talent delighted me. We had our high moments…and a lot of other stuff going on as well. To really be able to navigate and support creative autonomy in a group is the supreme accomplishment. It takes a lot of maturity. My kids and I are still maturing together. I often wish Jim could know how we’ve all changed, grown up, and found our voices. Now, if only we could spend enough time together to say something in chorus! Thanks for taking a seat in the audience here and for your appreciation!

      • I love the photos of you and your grownup kids, and the fact that you do much and enjoy each other so. I understand wishing you could share your joy and experience with Jim. I often feel that way, only I wish that my kids could have met my mother, and I imagine the delight she would have taken in them. I tell myself, as you might be able to do with Jim, that some part of him lives on through your children, and in that one way you can feel that you are sharing the experience with him. As for working together, we don’t ever really clash creatively; everyone brings complementary skills and another POV. None of us are sensitive to criticism–we all want our work to be the best it can, and we can recognize a good suggestion when we hear, and figure out how to apply it to the story we are working on. The family troupe has a spot in the Forest Festival in October, and are performing in Tellabration in November, so we will have some rehearsing to do when they come back in September. I do not usually look forward to rehearsal, but this time, I can hardly wait.

      • It is a joy and a delight to see my mother interact with my grown children, I must admit. She surprises me in that she is so open! It sounds like you have some great experiences to look forward to this fall. I wish I could watch you perform – maybe some day!

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