A while back, FOX presented "Grease: Live!". There was a bit of a hubbub because Vanessa Hudgens, who played Rizzo, lost her father the day before the broadcast. She announced her intention to fulfill her commitment, and of course the Interbuzz had opinions galore. "How could she possibly go on?" "This is disrespectful to her father!" "No, this is the best way to honor him!" "She made a commitment, she's following through!"
While it may be impossible to imagine singing and dancing when your heart is breaking, that is sort of the beauty of theater. The audience doesn't care what YOU are going through--if you're doing your job right, they care about your character and the story you're telling.
It made me reflect on multiple times in my life when theater has provided a safe (if temporary) haven from real life. It sounds a bit crazy, but theater has been my therapy.
Guys & Dolls (1989)
7th grade was the absolute worst. (I think it's a prerequisite.) Friendships changed, hormones were wreaking havoc, we moved from my childhood home, and I was always, always in trouble for one reason or another. In the midst of everything, my Pop-Pop died. It was the first death I'd ever experienced, and it was brutal.
And then, I was cast as Adelaide in Guys & Dolls--pissing off the 8th graders who felt that I somehow "stole" the role from one of their own. Great--more social drama! I threw myself into rehearsals with a passion bordering on psychotic. I studied old videotapes of a high school production my dad had produced. I practiced my songs and dance routines in my bedroom well after "lights out", whispering my lines so as not to wake my 2-year-old sister.
The show was a modest hit (by middle school standards). Standing ovation, baby! Right after curtain call, a group of former friends rushed backstage to tell me how great I was and how they weren't mad at me anymore. Being 12, I graciously accepted their apology (instead of telling them to piss off), and I proudly entered 8th grade as "the actress", once again surrounded by friends.
This ultimately led to a complicated relationship with my acting self--both loving and resenting the attention it garnered. But honestly, it was one of the things I loved most about Nick when we first started dating--he knew me completely devoid of "the acting thing", which was incredibly freeing.
Dancing at Lughnasa (1994)
Senior year of high school, I received an acting scholarship to a small college renowned for its theater program. It wasn't a lot of money, but I felt proudly validated. Unfortunately, I would have to major in theater to accept the award, and that was just not okay with the parents. I gave it up and attended my second choice--a much closer school that I would have to commute to. By bus (two, to be exact).
The first few weeks of college were tough. I had all 8:30 classes, a mind-numbing work-study job restocking books at the library, and an exhausting commute (I often nodded off on the bus while trying to study). My high school friends all shared news of their roommates, parties, and freedom, while my weekends were spent babysitting my sister or hanging out with my high school boyfriend.
So when Cap & Bells (the student-run theater program) announced auditions for their fall play, I jumped at the chance. It was a tiny cast, and I knew my chances were slim. To my absolute delight, I was cast as Chrissy! Suddenly I had something to look forward to after classes! I quickly made friends with the other theater nerds, and enjoyed the reputation of being one of only two freshmen in the cast. A very sweet senior in the cast took me under her wing, letting me crash in her dorm after late-night rehearsals and encouraging me to run for vice-president of the organization at the end of the year.
Cap & Bells became my home for the next four years.
No More Sundays (2001)
After college, I had the typical quarter-life crisis of "who am I? Where am I going? What do I want out of life?" (Nobody told me that you never really grow out of this!) I jumped feet-first into two years of service with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, teaching in inner-city schools and living in community with other volunteers (while receiving a whopping stipend of $85/month). It was an entirely different world from what I was used to--and I loved it.
But by the end, I was burned out and ready for a change. I decided to stick around New York for a while, teaching and toying with the idea of grad school. But after a few weeks, it was clear that I was homesick. I took the train back to PA almost every other weekend. I clung to my wonderful boyfriend and started becoming That Annoying Girlfriend. Teaching--while wonderful--was tiring and left me exhausted by the end of the day. I needed a creative outlet, stat.
Acting (which I had proudly turned my back on for two years) was starting to nip at my soul again. But was I still good? Maybe I'd been a big fish in a little pond for four years...now I was a minnow in New York. I was NOT up for cattle calls and competing with a million other 23-year-olds who had all been special little stars back home.
I discovered a lovely little theater in my downtown Jersey City neighborhood--the Attic Ensemble. I attended a few of their shows and was impressed by the quality (as well as the friendly welcome I always received). I screwed up my courage to audition for one of their shows, and was cast as Gina--a tuff-tawkin' hairdresser from New Jersey--in a new play called No More Sundays.
From the first rehearsal, I knew I'd found my new home. I would rush from my apartment to rehearsal every night with a newfound purpose and energy. The other actresses and I spent hours rehearsing and laughing with our kind, supportive director. And when Nick finally saw me perform on opening night--after dating for almost two years--I was nervous but ready to show him a huge part of myself that he'd never seen.
Guys & Dolls (2001)
At a rooftop barbecue one night in August 2001, a friend told me about a production of Guys & Dolls he had just been cast in. It was being put on by the St. Vincent's Players--a group of doctors, nurses, and friends--to raise money for the Pediatric AIDS unit at St. Vincent's Hospital. "They need some more dancers," he told me. "Didn't you do this back in high school? You should join us!"
A few weeks later, 9/11 happened.
I went to the first rehearsal. We were all numb. Vinny, the director (who also happened to be a surgeon) said that after a lot of discussion, they had decided to move forward with the production.
Thank God they did.
I taught in midtown-Manhattan at the time. Many of my students and co-workers had lost people in the attacks. I tried to be brave for them. I tried to be brave for my family back in PA, who were terrified for me. I tried to be brave for myself.
Every evening, I would pass the rows and rows of "Missing Person" posters on my way to St. Vincent's. We threw ourselves into rehearsal. We laughed. We sang. We danced.
On opening night, after the curtain call, we sang a haunting arrangement of "Grand Old Flag" a cappella. I remember trying to hold onto the harmony through tears, and the silence in the theater when we finished. The following year, most of the cast reunited to put on "Voices of Hope", a memorial concert for the 9/11 victims. We reprised this song in the beautiful church of St. Francis Xavier. When we finished, we all broke down--singers and audience alike.
Sorry, Wrong Number (2011)
Years ago, I didn't get a job that I really wanted. With time and distance, it's funny and a bit embarrassing to think how much it destroyed me. But at the time, it really did do a number on me. I spent the summer not sleeping well, losing weight, and obsessing over why I didn't get it with anyone who would listen. I tried to throw myself into being "Happy Mommy", but it felt fake and forced.
Again, I knew I needed an outlet.
I auditioned for this play at a theater in my hometown, Celebration Theater. It wound up being one of the biggest acting challenges I'd ever faced. I was onstage the entire time, bedridden, and having to go through an unbelievable range of emotions.
By closing night, I was proud and triumphant. Even better, I was glad to have free time back with my family. I felt at peace with not getting the job, as I realized that I was much more than that. My family was thrilled to have "Happy Mommy" back.
Short Stack (2016)
This winter, I decided to take an acting class. I hadn't been in one since grad school, and while I knew I didn't have time to do an actual show this year, I thought an acting class would be a great way to scratch the itch for a bit.
We were supposed to end the class with a simple staged reading of a few plays, but it quickly morphed into something much more. Our director decided to put on a full production on the theater's mainstage. The one-act I was featured in, Blood on the Knockers, was an insane Victorian farce in which I cursed, seduced, and killed multiple people onstage. It was a physical and emotional challenge for me, but I gladly embraced it. I also noticed that my teaching and directing during the day was changing and evolving based on my previous night's rehearsal.
And then, just days before the show, my brother-in-law died suddenly. Everything shut down as my family tried to process this horrible news.
Nick and I discussed what to do. The funeral wasn't until the following week, so he urged me to go ahead and do the show. "This has made you so happy," he said. "And I really want to see you perform. It makes ME happy. It will be a good distraction."
So for the next few nights, I escaped to rehearsal. I turned off my brain to reality and focused on fantasy. The show was a hit, everyone laughed and applauded, and then we headed back home to face the tough task of grief. Together.
On the drive home, I could feel myself quickly, quietly transition from actress back to strong, supportive wife. In a way, the brief escape of the show had helped clear my mind and heart in order to deal with the sorrow at hand.
Theater as therapy? I'm finally okay with that.