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BWW Blog: Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (Part 2)

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II. The Fear of the Spotlight
BWW Blog: Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (Part 2)

I get PTSD whenever I talk about my experience being a performer. I'm embarrassed to even call my middle/high school self an actor. Calling me an actor is a huge middle finger to the people who do this profession well.

What made a child with a speech impediment think he can hang with the "bigwigs" (or the people that can afford theatre summer camp) who spent their summers at the Stagedoor Manor? I don't know, but youth and the naivete that comes with it makes anyone feel invincible.

My unshakeable youthful confidence came crashing down when I was cast as Jack in Into the Woods JR. This was my first production where I was the lead and I was so excited that I skipped the part of being in the company as I know a lot of performers spend their germinal years as a "background person." (I was actually a "kid" in Bye Bye Birdie, but I was barely a part of the company as I was only in two numbers. Looking back at it, I assume the music director and director only invited me and other younger kids, to de-age the cast because I remember most kids at the high school could pass for grown ass adults evident from their full beards and formed breasts.)

Having a stutter, although it is classified as a "disability," I don't view it as one, but there are sometimes where people just don't understand. Most days, I wish "handicap" would blink above my head in big marquee lights so I could avoid the onslaught of negative sides and under the breath comments, because having this isn't as obviously physical where it would be taboo to discuss it in a public forum.

During one of the one stage rehearsals, I couldn't say one of my lines. There was a moment of fear as I saw people confused because they didn't know what was going on. They probably thought there was a glitch in the matrix or there was a scratch on my vinyl record. This happened because I hid my so called "disability" for some time as singing (or in this case talking in rhythm) doesn't trigger my stutter at all, but the stage brought out a fear in me that manifested itself in the physical.

Silence.

One of the directors threw his books and paper on the floor. The subsequent slap on the floor reverberated throughout the auditorium despite it not having the best acoustics.

"DO YOU KNOW THE WORDS!" his voice verberated. He thought he could treat theatre people the same way he could talk to his soccer team he coached. I wonder why they never won a game.

"I do, I...I...I... it's just not coming out" I bit my lips and slightly pushed my fingernails to the flesh of the palm of my hand to avoid tears. I have already been called a "cry baby" by one of my music teachers telling me:

"...that's what you will always be known here by the teachers and students...a big cry baby." I knew I couldn't cry. Goddamn it, it was so hard not to.

"WHAT DO YOU MEAN IT'S NOT COMING OUT...WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT..." his tirade went on for a few minutes, but I don't remember what was said next as I left the auditorium to cry in the custodian room/loading dock, which was always conveniently left open. When I was crying my eyes out, I remember seeing teachers walk by, stopping for a second to see if something was wrong, them realizing it was me, then moving on.

I eventually came back into the auditorium, but from then on, theatre left a bad taste in my mouth. I thought doing another production would get that taste out as I deduced my Into the Woods JR experience as a fluke. Boy, was I wrong.

After Into the Woods JR, I was in my high school's production of Anything Goes and that's where I finally learned how to tap dance at a very basic level. I'm not sure about anyone else, but high school theatre brings out the worst in people. I had experience playing in the pit in Molloy's summer musical theatre "experience" and some of the actors kind of treated me like shit, and with my previous experience I thought I built up a strong enough exterior to go through theatre as a performer another time.

In my high school, the music director who also doubled as the school's music teacher, hired this awful director who justified his disrespect with his track record and "getting results." Him and I never got along and any time I tried talking to him he would just shrug me off as if I was insignificant. One time on stage when he was giving the backstage actors lines to say during one of the scenes, he pointed to me and I struggled to get words out. He looked at me confused and pointed to me again as I still struggled to get the sentence started. One of my peers, annoyed by my difficulty, told me that: "[I'm] wasting [their] time..." That was when I learned to stay quiet.

Trying to reach out an Olive Branch to him and trying to find a way to leave the toxicity of my musical theatre peers, I asked him if I could back away from acting and learn about directing by shadowing him. He chuckled and told me "you can perform and watch me," in this monotone, demeaning voice, as there was already a dearth of boys in the cast. In the grand scheme of things, he was right that observing was the best teacher, but I just nodded and got back in line ready to take another onslaught of comments that got too personal from him and my peers. I thought theatre was supposed to be fun, but every day after school I developed this fear going to rehearsals.

After that experience, I developed a fear of the spotlight, but there is this one girl that seems to thrive in it. When she got the role of Reno Sweeny, I congratulated her saying that she is going to be like Sutton Foster. She spoke back at me, in this bitter tone saying, "I know," and walked away from me. Confused, I nodded as I too-at that point in my life-would be very confident to the point cocky if I got a lead role.

In our first rehearsal on stage, when the adults left room, she gathered the cast and gave a speech:

"...There's a reason why we are called leads...we lead the show..."

I retorted, in my 9th grader naivete, that "without us, the company, you would be nothing and there would be no show." Silence. No one said anything. She stared down at me on her imaginary pulpit; made a silent vow to destroy me and she did. I find it interesting as she gave me the same stare down when she ushered me into my seat when I saw Head Over Heels, the Shakespearean Go-Go's jukebox musical years later. That stare down was quite different. I saw a hint of dejection as she realized she was pursuing a career where it was legal to discriminate.

In the Act I Finale of Anything Goes, there is this tap dance break section in the titular song. Even though I never tap danced in my life, I was chosen by the choreographers to be a part of the trio that broke out into dance amongst the company due to my ability to pick up steps somewhat fast. She didn't like that at all and one day she re-did the choreography, without their discretion, and made it impossible for me to keep up and do. I will always remember the embarrassment I felt as I did the original steps, which looked wrong next to their overly complicated Savion Glover-esque steps and I was immediately removed from the trio at the director's request. I learned that day how to smile through tears-a skill that I sadly honed over the years especially in college.

From that day forward, I vowed to never perform in a production ever again and to only play in the pit orchestra which I have done when my school performed The Wiz and Legally Blonde. I wanted to play when we did In The Heights, but the music director told me I wasn't good enough.

Some people aren't cut out to be a performer, and perhaps that true, but some people are bullied and pushed out of the spotlight into the periphery. For me that is the case, and I'm happy for it as I find joy being behind-the-scenes and a writer/composer supporting the spotlight that rejected me.


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From This Author Student Blogger: Michael Bailey