As I’ve mentioned, I was a quiet, shy, unpopular kid. I was always very unsure of myself and yet I participated in some things that you wouldn’t expect of such an introvert.
My sophomore year of high school I was a cheer leader. My junior year I played softball. All four years I also participated in things that put me up in front of people: orchestra and the drama club.
I miss both of these. I have a severe anxiety with public speaking, but with the drama club it was different. This wasn’t the debate team, standing there unscripted, trying to argue points off the top of my head. This was theatre, art, the act of transporting the audience to a different place so they can get lost in the story we were presenting.
I loved all aspects of the theatre too. I participated in all angles of it over those four years. I acted in several plays, once with more than one part in a single play with three different costume changes. I was the lighting and sound director on one occasion, being tossed into that job when the other student was grounded by his parents and couldn’t participate.
I’d done other crew work as well. I helped make the set, staring with the measuring of the stage and designing of the set. We next cut the wood and constructed the frames for the flats, stretched the muslin, set up the flats, and finally painted them. It was a blast. Even just being one of the stage “ninjas” and straightening the set between scenes during the senior play was very enjoyable for me.
There’s something liberating about assuming a new identity for a few hours. Putting on the stage makeup, having my hair done to match the character, and donning the costumes as the final step in the transformation all had a therapeutic affect. It changed me from the social outcast I was to a medieval ruler, a Christmas specter, a doctor, a German opera singer.
One year we performed the play Cheaper By The Dozen, a story of a family with twelve children. During the audition period, my older sister was convinced that they were going to give me the role of the oldest daughter, one of the main roles in the play. She said it so much I started to hope that she was right, even when I’d tell her they wouldn’t. Man, I hate it when I’m right. I got the role of the doctor, come to tell the father he was dying. One scene, seven lines.
It seems even in high school there are the same problems as one experiences later in life. I longed for a bigger, more prevalent role but it seemed that since I’d never had one they weren’t going to risk it on me and constantly went with the students who were the usual leads.
My senior year our drama club got very ambitious and put on an Off-Broadway musical, Little Mary Sunshine. I wasn’t sure about trying out for it. Standing on stage, blinded by lights and speaking lines was one thing. But singing? I wasn’t sure I was that brave. It was the last day of auditions when I finally got the courage to go up.
I heard it first from my orchestra teacher that I’d been given the part of Madame Ernestine von Liebedich, a German opera singer. It was the largest role I ever had. And so I got to work on becoming my character. My sister was taking German in college and gave me pointers on how one from Germany would pronounce English words with a heavy accent and my mother helped me with the singing and trying to learn how to harmonize.
The week of the play arrived, and opening night the total transformation came together. My sister put my hair up in what she called “Gretchen braids” (a couple braids that would cross over top of my head from each side) and with a couple of stops at thrift shops I had what would be my dirndl. Add my phony accent and I was a new “voman.”
As I said, to me acting was so different than public speaking, even if there were more people there to see the plays. You didn’t concentrate on the audience, and with the spot lights you couldn’t even see them. And that let me be free from most of my nerves.
The play was a lot of fun, though if I’m honest the music really sucked. They wanted to use the band and orchestra to accompany the play. In my opinion this was overly ambitious. This was an Off-Broadway musical…the score was very complicated and much more advanced than high school musicians. The review in the school paper was harsh of the music pit, but in the same breath stated that my duet with the character Oscar was the musical highlight.
One of the other girls told me later that she’d told her family there was a foreign exchange student in the play with us—we had a girl from Romania that year—and they had thought it was me. And while at the end of the year I won an award at the school’s annual drama award ceremony, that they had thought I was the exchange student was the greatest compliment I had ever been paid while acting.
It told me that for a while I had been successful. For a while, I had been someone else.