I was a child actor.
No, not in movies.
Not on television.
Not commercials (well, actually, there was that SuperValue Supermarkets spot I did my junior year in high school but good luck finding a copy of that!)....
No, I got my start where many of the classically-trained began their careers - in the theatre (or, theatah, if you will). Granted, it may look like a decrepit barn to the unknowing, but believe me people, this was a bona fide summer stock theatre in Syracuse, Indiana, with a paid company and everything. Unless, by everything, you were expecting air-conditioning. Because in the summers of '84-'86, there wasn't any. Nothing says, "sweatin' my ass off" like pancake make-up in August. I know. For the love of the craft, baby. Anyhoo, as I said, EHP did have a paid company of actors and musicians and the like. And then they had "the others." Local, young kids who came to fill bit parts and beef up the chorus. (Enter me)
My journey to the stage began when my dance instructor told me and a few other students about an open audition for the musical Carousel. They were looking for a 14 or 15 year old to dance a ballet solo (Julie and Billy's daughter). I remember the audition vaguely. I told them my name and how old I was. I was taught a dance by the choreographer and performed for the director. And I sang. "Happy Birthday To You." That's right. I came to an audition with no prepared music, therefore sang "Happy Birthday To You." No one ever called me a triple threat, but if they had, the order would look something like this:
3. Big smile ("singer" would have been more like number twelve on the list)
Anyway, I did not get the part. None of us did. The role of 15 year old Louise was played by the 25-ish year old choreographer Leta (who reminded me a lot of Joan Jett with her mid-80's bi-level cut - which was a good thing back then). Whatev, "Low-Leta." I did, however, get a chorus spot, which led to playing Don Quixote's horse, Rocinante, alongside my more petite, waif-like friend (and Sancho's donkey, Dapple) in one of my all-time favorites, Man of La Mancha. That was it. I was smitten and bitten and all things thespian (read carefully, Big Daddy...Thes-pi-an). There was The Music Man and 'Lil Abner, West Side Story (I had to play a Jet. No "I Want to be in America" for me. Boo). My last role at EHP was as one of the title characters in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Here's a company photo from 1986. I'm the one slouching by the guy who thinks we're taking the wrestling team photo.
Now, to fast forward...there was high school theatre and a minor in theatre at Indiana University (as a theatre minor, the closest I got to the stage was seating people in the front row as I fulfilled my twice a semester ushering duties). I was stage-less for years after college and as a newlywed, but fell into a local civic theatre in Grand Island, Nebraska after Big Daddy was transferred for work. Who knew I'd be reculturefied in the middle of corn country?!? Several years later, we're back in central Indiana, I'm a stay-at-home mother of three, and I'm wondering what ever happened to my Broadway career? Are there any casting agents in my playgroup? Will my kids give me a standing ovation after a well-delivered reprimand or a gracefully prepared snack? Well, time to start living vicariously through my children! (enter ZuZu)
I remember taking ZuZu to her first ever show. It was a children's theatre production of Charlotte's Web. She was almost 4 years-old. I remember keeping one eye on the performers, and one on ZuZu's face throughout the first act. Her big brown eyes were fixated on the stage. She was completely engaged, and I was thrilled at her response.
When intermission came, I was hoping she didn't think it was over and expect to leave.
Me: Now there's a break and they'll come back and finish the story! Do you like the show?
ZuZu: (smiling, energetic) Yeah!
Me: Isn't it fun? Do you think maybe, you might like to be in a show like this someday? (nervous nodding and crazy stage-mom smile on face)
ZuZu: (smile gone. face looks serious) No.
Me: (backpedalling) I mean - not NOW....not like, right now, but when you're older...like the girl that's playing Charlotte? (again with the nodding)
ZuZu: (complete straight face so as not to be misunderstood) No. (short, reflective pause) But Deuce could be the pig.
Me: Yeah....he is a ham. (settles back into seat defeated)
My ZuZu went on to be a somewhat reserved girl for several years. Never wanting to stand out too much. Shying away from the limelight (seriously, if she didn't look just like me, I'd wonder where she came from).
And then it happened. Out of the blue. During a school project. She was bitten by that same bug that got me when I was just a couple of years older than her. Long story short (what? too late?), her school's drama club asked a couple of students from each class to be recorded answering insightful, subjective questions. Things like, "what makes a person beautiful," and "what qualities do you admire in your friends?" Apparently, my little ZuZu gave some impressive answers. She was told by her friends in the drama club that the director raved about her on-camera antics.
Those accolades spoke volumes to my daughter, and something changed in her overnight. Her smile was brighter and more frequent. Her stride was bouncier, and more graceful. Her comments were more forthcoming and wittier. I'm not writing this to brag about my daughter (although, that is totally allowed. it's my blog). But my point here is this. Most of us can think back and remember an authority figure (a teacher, a coach, a mentor) that uttered just the right words at just the right time in our lives. The words that gave us our confidence. Our belief that we could do something we loved doing. For me, that was my dance instructor. She had me believing I could go anywhere and be anything. No, I'm not on Broadway. Or a topless showgirl in Vegas. But, the confidence and skills Miss Marcia gave me followed me through many, many activities and stages in my life. I think the first person to do this for my daughter is Miss L.L., and for that, I am eternally grateful. Unless, of course, she becomes some Drama Diva Divine Miss Z. Then I'm suing.
If you play a part in an adolescent's life (not as a parent...that doesn't work in this scenario. Remember? Charlotte's Web?), go be that spark for them. They'll be a better person for it. And so will you. Maybe one day, Miss LL will get a shout-out at the Academy Awards. Or at least a bouquet of roses after this weekend's performance.