Stephen Mills’ voice is unusual, and it’s affected his life in ways he never expected.
In the 8th grade I lost the part of Romeo in the school’s production of the Shakespeare classic because of my high-pitched, effeminate voice. Instead I was given the part of Benvolio, a character no one remembers and who actually has more lines than you think, but most directors trim them down or cut them entirely.
My director told me that I was his first choice for Romeo halfway through the rehearsals. It was after a particularly frustrating night of working on a scene featuring Romeo and myself. Frustrating because the boy who got cast as Romeo was having trouble memorizing his lines, and I was already off book (granted, I had less to learn).
During a break the director found me sitting in the nearly empty cafeteria having a snack, and in a moment of weakness or cruelty or lack of sleep, he said, “I wanted to cast you, but your voice is too high-pitched right now to play Romeo.” He said this as if it was obvious, but also with a tone that suggested my voice would eventually change and that someday I could be a great Romeo. Just not that day.
The thing is, my voice hasn’t changed that much from 8th. Here at 31, I still have a high-pitched and feminine voice that has been the bane of my existence. I don’t mean to sound overly dramatic, but one’s voice can create endless problems, confusions, and annoyances. There’s the awkward glances, the frequent requests to repeat myself (not because someone didn’t hear me, but because my voice threw them off so much, they didn’t pay attention to what I said), and, of course, the laughter. I’m often aware of strangers commenting or poking fun at my voice when they overhear me speaking with friends in public spaces. Sometimes friends also become aware of this, which makes it even more embarrassing.
I know all the bullshit about accepting the things that are unique about you and loving yourself and blah, blah, blah. I’ve watched my Oprah, but still I hate my voice. I truly deeply despise it. It’s the one thing I would change about myself if I could. It’s partially
responsible for the mild to severe bouts of anxiety that have plagued my life and then the failed opportunities: I was never Romeo.
In middle school I had a secret desire to be an actor. A desire I told no one about. This desire led to an active fantasy life where I thought of myself as the star of my own television show. In fact, I created a whole world in my head where I not only starred on my own show, but I also won many prestigious awards for doing so. Eventually, I went on to a very rewarding film career. I practiced acceptance speeches in the shower and ran through possible storylines in my head as I fell asleep each night. Perhaps part of my desire for this fantasy was the fact that my real life was full of playing the dorky boy with the high-pitched voice who was clearly a homosexual (though I wouldn’t admit this until my sophomore year of college).
I went to a middle school that was part of the “gifted and talented” program of my public school system in Indiana. The school was for grades 6th to 7th students. Each year, as an extracurricular activity, we put on a Shakespeare play. The school hired a local British man to come and direct, and I thought, for a time, that he was the coolest person ever.
There aren’t a lot of British people in Indiana (surprise, surprise), so for a fourteen-year-old boy who knew he didn’t fit into his Midwest upbringing, nothing was more exotic or enticing than a British director who seemed to know everything about Shakespeare. Again, I was a total dork.
It never crossed my mind what he was actually doing in a small town in Indiana directing supposedly “gifted and talented” kids, nor did I consider that this was quite possibly the low point of his life. He wasn’t even good looking. He had the accent, but was middle-aged, overweight, divorced, and had a girlfriend half his age (his assistant). He was a cliché. But to me, he was someone to impress, so you can imagine the effect his comment about my voice had on me. It was also the reason I never told anyone what he said. I didn’t see the comment as something to boast about: Oh yeah, the director thinks I’m a better Romeo, but I couldn’t do it because I sound like a girl. Even seventeen years later it’s hard to admit.
Benvolio was my first and only real role as an actor. The year before, I had been an extra in the school’s production of The Tempest, which isn’t as lame as it sounds. We did a strange Kabuki version, which required a group of extras to learn various dance moves and to be on stage the whole time (yes, I now realize that sounds kind of insane). But with a speaking role, I could feel my dream start to take shape…and then suddenly my voice destroyed it.
I’d been teased about how I sounded before, but was fairly safe among my friends at my special school, which is why trying out for Romeo and Juliet even crossed my mind. It was my shot at bridging my fantasy life with my real one; however, this bridge proved unstable.
This was one of the first times my voice seemed to stop me from achieving something I wanted, and one of the first times an adult has specifically said something to me about the pitch of my voice. Adult opinions always meant more to me than my peers. This moment also began to shape how I would react to such comments: I pretty much ignore them and act unbothered. Later I learned to laugh a little or make a funny comment.
As my life continued I gave up on my dream of acting and focused my energy on writing. Writing gave me a voice without having to speak. My words were there, but you didn’t have to hear me say them. You could read them and imagine someone with a “normal” male voice saying them. On the page, my literal voice was hidden.
But once I got to high school I was no longer protected by my surroundings. There was just one in my hometown with about 2,000 students. There I learned to be quiet when I wasn’t around people I knew or wasn’t in an environment that made me feel secure, which was any non-honors class.
My biggest anxiety came in classes that did role call. Just having to say “here” made my stomach sink and my chest tighten. I preferred the teachers who could learn our names quickly, but there were always a few who insisted on doing role call each and every time all year long.
The football coach who taught gym classes was one of those people. Having to say “here” is a room full of weightlifting equipment made my anxiety hit all new levels and often made my “here” even more high-pitched and nervous sounding. I was often asked to repeat myself, and my teacher’s head almost always came up from his page as if to verify that a boy had actually just said that “here.” A few of my classmates took notice and often laughed at me. It was in this room that I was first called a “fag.”
For many my voice was immediately connected to my assumed sexuality. To them no straight boy could have this voice. I don’t necessarily talk in a stereotypical gay voice or with a gay tone or use “gay” words like “gurl” or “werk,” but my pitch is enough to label me gay in person and a woman on the phone.
In my teenage years, I talked on the phone all the time. This was before everyone moved to talking online or texting. I’m a teenager of the 90s, so the phone was where it was at, especially when three-way calls became an option. My friends and I thought this was coolest thing ever and spent hours talking to each other even though we lived just a mile or two away. But with time my fear and anxiety revolving around the phone grew to the point that I began to avoid it as much as possible.
I didn’t mind talking to people I already knew, but I hated answering the phone to a stranger or someone who wasn’t expecting me to pick up. I was mistaken for my mother over and over again and called “ma’am” constantly. As an adult, I’ve had to go through great lengths on the phone to verify my identity with companies because they don’t believe they are speaking to “Mr. Stephen Mills.” I’ve had to explain repeatedly there isn’t a “Mrs. Mills.”
Of course on some level, the older we get the less we care what people think. I haven’t become a hermit. In fact, I’m a successful poet, which has led to many public readings and events. I’ve also spent the last eight years teaching college English courses, which obviously require me to speak in front of groups of students. Here, however, I’m put into a position of power, which seems to get me over my initial anxiety.
That’s not to say I haven’t gotten many comments about my voice from students. Recently I had a student on the first day interrupt class to say he couldn’t stand my voice and would need to transfer to another class. I told him I didn’t handle scheduling, but I thought transferring would be a great idea. He did. Another in the same class liked to discuss my voice on a regular basis and used it as an example of something he had to overcome: “When I first came to your class your voice drove me crazy, but then I told myself I needed to just listen to the words coming out of your mouth and learn from you. Now I don’t notice it at all and I’ve learned a lot.” Actually, he didn’t. He failed.
The thing is when you have something “different” about you, people feel they have the right to say something about it. Normal rules of politeness seem to go out the window. Not all comments are negative, but comments are frequent. I’m often asked if I’m sick. After having sex with one guy, he stood in my bathroom naked and said I should do voiceover work because I’d make a great cartoon character. This wasn’t said in cruelty. He was dead serious and thought I could make good money. Another asked me if cold weather made it impossible for me to speak, because he thought I had a medical condition that he had as a kid. People really do love stating the obvious
I try to focus on the positive or think of people I admire who also had or have unique voices like Truman Capote or David Sedaris. But some days I wish I were different. I wish I didn’t have to worry about how to respond to the next awkward comment. I’d love to never have to say, “I’m a man” on the phone again. I’d love to feel more confident when I meet new people in a loud space. Loud spaces make me more anxious because I fear my voice will sound even higher when I have to make it louder. I wish that people didn’t assume to know everything about me from the pitch of my voice. But these are things I’ve wished for since I was that boy playing Benvolio.
The year after Romeo and Juliet I returned to my middle school as a shy high school freshman to see the latest Shakespeare play. I ran into the director in the hallway. He smiled and greeted me. After I responded, he looked at me with shock in his eyes and said, “Wow, your voice still hasn’t changed.”
I nodded, smiled, and walked away thinking, I’ll never be Romeo.
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