In the theater, we can set aside our differences and be united in the power of our stories.
Ten minutes to curtain, our Director says to the small group gathered backstage. I’ve come home to the theater where I first performed as a ten-year old, now a full twenty years older, wiser, and more than a bit rounder. I’ve been asked to sing as part of a Mother’s Day celebration in my hometown. Ten short minutes later, I take a breath and step into the spotlight. It’s showtime.
As a toddler, my parents would let me sit in front of the TV, watching “Fantasia” on a loop. We went through two copies of the VHS, from constant rewinding and replaying. I was fascinated by the music, the sights, the tiny stories told too well. In a film with almost no real spoken words, my parents were surprised that the movie could hold my attention for so long. In my bones, I could feel the power of storytelling, of theatrics, even if I didn’t understand why the resonance within me was so strong.
On a snow day in middle school, nestled in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, I found myself in Rececca Hoover’s bedroom. She and her friend Molly had invited me over to have tomato soup with crushed crackers. Needless to say, I was all in. A fat-kid-in-waiting, I wasn’t saying no to soup. When Rebecca and Molly turned and said “I know what we need to do now”, I was pumped. When they said, “Let’s watch the Royal Albert Hall 10th Anniversary performance of Les Miserables”, I was, let’s say, deflated. And then the first two notes of the prologue hit, and the rest of my life became defined by the depth of the feels created by those two notes. Amidst Goldfish crackers swimming in a Progresso pond, birches bent low by an unrelenting snow, and with Ruthie Henshall and Colm Wilkinson in charge of my intiation, a theater kid was born.
In subsequent years, I was involved in theater productions at the community and high school level. I continued to play the viola, was asked to play in a professional symphony orchestra for four seasons. I sang, and traveled to Europe for three weeks to tour with a regional choir. I performed in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, and France. I was a Big Fish, and I was swimming as hard as my tiny farm fins could carry me.
When I started at Seton Hall University, having come from my tiny pond a few hundred miles away, I knew I had the ability to do anything I desired. Being at Seton Hall, a private Catholic University, just be sure that your list of desires doesn’t include other boys. That’s a no-no. And that’s also a story told on another day.
I joined the University Choir. I sang in our nation’s capital. I was able to perform, and through that performance I could escape all of the distractions, blot out all the noise, and wipe away everything that kept me from being the me of whom I’d dreamed. On that stage, under those lights, and with that applause to lift me up and away, I was invincible. I was that little boy in the snowstorm, validated and whole and happy.
In college, we’d sometimes travel into New York City, where there were nights of Broadway shows, certainly, with all their accompanying provocations of genuine human emotion. The emotional self-destruction when Aida’s Princess Amneris steps out from behind a pillar and reveals the depths of the loss of her love. The sad inspiration when a young Carrie takes bullying into her own hands and stands up to her classmates, her mother, and a world ill-equipped for her strength. The validation of love and individuality spread out over the course of 525,600 minutes, where I Rent’ed a theater seat, and finally saw an onstage kiss that my heart could understand. And the rejection of labels that a very Wicked witch helps us all to understand, that being different perhaps ought to be the goal for which we all strive, if it means living an authentic life for ourselves.
Lessons, yes, and lessons that in some ways rivaled those taught at our University. But also constructs and fundamental pillars of self-discovery, survival, and happiness, played out scene by scene in a theater of hundreds, for a crowd of one. When the lights came up onstage, they also came on inside.
But then real life happens, with its expectations and responsibilities, its forms and fumblings. And, for the most part, it takes us away from the boys and girls who still enjoy playing pretend. But there’s always that hunger inside, to create and share and tell fantastic stories, like the ones told to us as children, and perhaps as Bigger Children.
The author Christopher Noxon refers to the concept of people who “cultivate tastes and mindsets traditionally associated with those younger than themselves” as rejuvenile.
Well, I’m a big Disney guy. I love theme parks, and decorating for Christmas, and cannonballs into icy pools. My favorite notebook was given to me by my husband and its cover bears the words “I love you more than French fries.” And I am still captivated by the theater, by movies, by art. So if my thirty years of age amount to an adult best defined by the term rejuvenile, then I’m pretty content with where my path has taken me.
But at some point, there’s a desire to send the elevator back down.
It should come as no surprise, then, that I found myself with more than two or three tears on my face on the closing night of my husband’s Drama Club production of Shrek this Spring. A transgendered student had been selected for the role of Donkey, one of the leading roles, and as I sat in my seat listening to high school students sing the line, “What makes us special makes us strong”, my heart and mind conspired to fly me back to the vividly wonderful pictures of my own childhood theatrical experiences. Theater had created an opportunity not for a transgendered student to soapbox about equality, but for a lovable barnyard donkey to take parents and grandparents gently by the hand and to win their love and support through witty banter and catchy melodies. Theater is the vehicle by which a student was truly able to belong, in a world not apart but fundamentally together. A world not defined by its differences and transgressions, but by the power of storytelling and honesty.
I had worked on the set, painting and carving, making last-minute runs to Home Depot for more supplies. I had held the hand of a nervous husband who wasn’t sure if it would all come together in time. I myself had transitioned, from the boy who plays pretend to the man who didn’t have to, able to live openly and authentically, sharing my husband’s success with his students, with his Director, with his family.
So when it came time to return to my hometown, for Mother’s Day, there was only the briefest of hesitations. My mom had lost her battle with cancer two weeks earlier, and I didn’t know if I’d have the strength to stand onstage and be the performer I needed to be, if I could adequately convey the messages I needed to. My husband was in the audience that night. Seven of my former high school teachers had heard about my Mom, had heard that I was performing, and had shown up for the show to be the safe and supportive ears I needed.
I know you remember swimmies, the inflatable arm-bands that would keep you afloat in the pool as a kid. The audience that night was every bit the buoy I needed to navigate the emotional white waters of an incredibly difficult performance.
When I stepped into the spotlight to sing, it wasn’t even a question that I’d be singing a theater song. Nearly twenty years and thousands of bowls of soup later, my friend Molly, now a mother herself, joined me onstage, to sing a duet for Moms who were present, and those who were not.
I had found my place in the world, and I knew who I was. And when that hometown curtain rises, I know I am the me I am supposed to be. Smart, yes. Chubby, well yes. But also inexorably molded by the thousands of hands that have shaped the inside of me to be the strongest. And so we live each day, start to finish, as big as we can, with as much star-power as we can muster.
Life is fantastic, it is amazing, and it is filled with stories worth telling. This has been my story. And from one grown-up theater kid to another, I think you ought to tell yours.
Photo: Shehal Joseph/Flickr