How Theatre Broke My Heart

When people ask me why I stopped doing theatre for so long, my standard response is “it made me crazy”, which is the story I tell myself. It’s not entirely true. Theatre was a part of my life that contributed to some unhealthy behaviors and bad mental states, but it’s not the thing that “made me crazy.” That would be brain chemistry and a series of life events. The truth that slipped out the last time a fellow actress asked me why I quit was that theatre broke my heart, and that’s the one that rings truest right now.

Like most things, it started early. Third grade. I’d recently entered my school district’s Gifted and Talented program, and we were preparing for an academic competition that had several parts. One was that we had to rewrite a fairy tale into a play – I think it may have had the specification that it was supposed to be a musical, or have modern elements. In any case, we picked our fairy tale (Rumplestiltskin, for the curious) and started planning out roles and things, and eventually we had auditions. Through a complicated sequence of events that barely makes sense to me even in retrospect, I ended up with the lead female role and then lost it again when my teacher decided to hold a re-vote and called in another teacher to make the final call. I ended up painting scenery and writing half the lines, and crying every day after rehearsal. I remember classmates trying to console me by telling me I was really good at writing and painting, and I didn’t have the words or the self-esteem to express what I wanted, which was Fuck you, I’m really good at acting.

Throughout grade school I kept landing in roles that required someone competent but not lead-worthy; often I had lots of lines, more complicated blocking, more to actually do but less recognition when the applause came. In eighth grade I auditioned for the high school play; junior high kids were allowed in but priority was given to seniors. I was one of three. It was the first time I’d actually won a role over a good number of others. It wasn’t the last. I still never got a true lead until my junior year, in which I actually played two leads in two one-acts at the same time, but I was consistently given good solid roles. People told me I was good at this. It became my thing. The thing I did better than any of my immediate peers. The thing I even did outside of school, through several community theatres. (Strangely – or not? – I wasn’t into musicals. I did a few over the summers, had a few small solo ensemble roles, but was not really a singer and therefore convinced myself I wasn’t interested.) Acting was… I wasn’t an effortless talent, and I wasn’t the kind of actor who gets out there and draws every ounce of focus to me. But I felt at home onstage, and I could memorize an entire script in ridiculously short amounts of time.  I thought I had a really strong chance of actually doing this with my life; teachers told me I was certainly smart and competent enough to give it a try, that I had enough talent to study it in college, certainly.

And then I auditioned for the college I was sure I would be attending; a little over an hour away from my hometown, and renowned for turning out working actors. I was deathly ill with the flu when I auditioned and felt the first hint of audition nerves I’d ever felt in my life. But it went fine, and my interview had gone well, and I thought I was in.

And then the rejection letter came.

Followed by an acceptance letter from the same school, but to a different major — it turned out that since in my interview I’d mentioned that I had wanted to minor in music, they thought I’d be a better fit for an interdisciplinary program in Theatre, Music, and Art. Annoyed, I waffled about appealing the decision or re-auditioning in the spring, but soon after got my acceptance letter to an academically stronger college located in New York City. And they’d let me major in Theatre. The choice was clear. I went to NYC… and for two and a half years, was told that I didn’t have what it takes to make it, with a few small exceptions. I couldn’t act, apparently, though I did spend my first semester being cast as hookers and schoolgirls in the freshman acting/senior directing joint class. I couldn’t write, according to my script-writing professor, who grudgingly gave me a C after I stopped going to his class in despair and frustration. I couldn’t direct, according to the teacher whose junior directing class could contain twelve students but she only really wanted eight. When I asked them why I wasn’t allowed to decide for myself what I could do with my life, they shrugged and told me I hadn’t made enough of an impression. And then were shocked, shocked when I changed majors and took some time off to pick up what was left of my ego and sanity.

I don’t know if they were wrong at the time – certainly I wasn’t dealing amazingly well with my life during all of the above. Maybe I couldn’t have been good at anything just then.  But something vital and important broke then, and I honestly couldn’t paint a coherent picture of what I planned to do with my life after that. I didn’t stop doing theatre yet – during my year off I took some courses at a school in my hometown, got a good role, did some directing, got good feedback. Decided I might be able to go back and just act, forget what my teachers had to say about it. That didn’t really happen. I wouldn’t try out for the main productions any more, and all of the student groups were largely excuses for people to cast their friends – because no one was getting reliably cast in the classes or shows, because the theatre community there was full of people who’d left the department in disgust to do their own thing, but I’d spent three years thinking I was alone and hadn’t connected with those who could have empathized when I needed it. After a year off no one knew me, because I’d spent the year prior to that hiding in my room. In theatre connections are everything and once again I didn’t have them.

So I finished college with three-quarters of a theatre degree, officially labeled a “concentration”, and an English major I didn’t want, and no more dreams of theatre. I knew I wanted to go back to it, but didn’t think I could. I tried every single way to settle for something else and was miserable and intermittently physically ill for years at a time. But I didn’t have the confidence to try again for the dream that didn’t want me. I interviewed for administrative positions at theatre companies; I interned briefly with one show in the city. I tried to stay loosely connected to it, but eventually gave up until the summer of 2008, when I took an acting class at a then-local college with a good acting program, and found a small startup theatre group to work with for a season. We only did one show, and we spent most of our time at our meetings sitting around a piano singing songs from Chess, but the directors told me two things that set me back on the right path: one, that I should be acting again, even if just for myself, and two, I obviously wanted to sing but was afraid of it.

Since then I’ve moved, started voice lessons, become a music major, and gotten tentatively back into theatre. I still don’t trust it, and it’s still breaking my heart a little every season. I think, though, that I’ve accepted that it’s the only thing that can hurt me that badly, because it’s the only thing I love this much. Shouldn’t everyone be doing something that matters enough to break their hearts a little?

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