I recently got caught up in my local school budget election. I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say that the whole thing was a suckfest, just like it was a suckfest for most school districts across the U.S., and will continue to be for a while. Or longer. Funding for public education in America is a twisted, broken thing and I can only hope that folks are finally angry enough to spark some fixing. I’m just thankful to the people in every community — the school boards, the administrators, the teachers and staff and parents — who are doing the best they can under challenging circumstances.
There have been many cuts to the extracurricular activities at our well-rated high school (Top 4% in the country according to Newsweek! Hollah!). Each one hurts, and each one hurts differently to different people. For me, the one that pierces deepest is the Drama Club. They spared the annual spring musical but the fall play is gone-o. If you sense another one of my stories coming on, you’re right.
I’ve spoken often about how I’ve always been a writer, a little kid pounding out poems and short stories on an IBM Selectric and then, later, a TRS-80 computer. When I talk to students at school visits, I show them my old journals and discuss how writing gave me a voice when I could barely summon the courage to ask someone for directions. Writing was The Thing that made me feel unique, shaped my dreams for the future, and helped me figure out who I might possibly be. But it didn’t happen without the help of some other experiences.
I was totally okay with playing a leper in my camp production of "Jesus Christ Superstar." Really, I was.
I was also (and still am, proudly) a theatre geek. I loved watching it, performing it, creating it. As a child, I was always pretending to be someone else. I could sing well and liked being onstage, but when it mattered, my lack of confidence always betrayed me and I never got any of the roles I auditioned for in school productions. I settled for being in the chorus and getting an occasional solo. The summer after 8th grade, I went away to performing arts camp and came back a little louder and braver. I started high school and found my way to the Drama Club, a group of kids who, like me, hovered on the fringes of social radar. We were neither popular nor persecuted, but all had that “there’s more to us than meets the eye, if you’d bother to know us” thing going on. When we did a production of “The Crucible,” I had a few lines as Mercy Lewis, one of the girls who pretend to be victims of John Proctor’s witchcraft (yes, just like Meg in “The Beginning of After”). I didn’t think I wanted the lead or even a big part. I accepted the roles I’d been given, the roles that said again and again, “You’re good, but you’re not special.”
Then, in the spring of sophomore year, something happened. Our Drama Club adviser decided to stage a pair of one-acts by Harold Pinter, one of which was a deeply weird play called “The Room.” The main character, Rose, is nervous and insecure, conflicted and full of repressed emotion. In other words, she was me. For whatever reason, our adviser saw that and gave me my first leading role. Rose carries that piece and I worked incredibly hard on it, so grateful to finally be center-stage-special. I believe I did her justice, in my 15-year-old way. The following fall, I got cast as a lead again, as Martha in “The Children’s Hour.” Martha is nervous and insecure, conflicted and full of repressed emotion. Okay, yeah. There’s a pattern here. But I killed that part.
As Martha Dobie. Please excuse the bad suit.
Playing these two roles, crawling inside the words written by the playwrights and finding the cores of these women, helped me see some new things about myself and what I was really afraid of. I became less afraid of it, and opened up. I relaxed and got out of my own damn way. I knew what it was like to finally be part of a whole and exist in a group that’s working toward the same thing. I became friends with people outside my little clique, people I never would have spoken to otherwise. This confidence spilled over into my writing and the subjects I tackled. The rest of my high school career looked quite different after all that.
When I got to college, too many new things tempted my time and I never circled back to drama. Which makes me very sad, in retrospect. But I honor those Drama Club years by recognizing how they gifted me skills I’ve relied heavily on in my professional and personal lives. As in, the way I hear dialogue in my head and can write it to sound natural. Being able to really build a character and live in his or her skin. Getting up the nerve to speak in large groups and not die of embarrassment. I could go on, but I’ll just say that I believe the research about how being involved in a theatre production helps students get better at creative problem-solving, social interaction, and cooperation. There are times when I honestly don’t think I could have become a working writer if I hadn’t also been a performer at one point.
Here in my town, the Drama Club is not going gently into that good night. There are efforts afoot to raise the money needed to keep it going, along with many other arts programs. Because people Get It. This stuff Matters. My story is far from unique and actually, relatively dull, if you look at how significant and even life-changing an impact the performing arts can have on a young person. But I tell it as part of a promise that I, for one, will continue to fight to make these opportunities available to those who want them. Those few years are forever a part of me and everything I do now.