Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Flowering Forward

At the Williamsburg, VA Unitarian Universalist Congregation.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Price of Admission

...He saw the golden slipper filled with blood.
 "Was it for me you suffered this abuse?"
"It is the price a woman has to pay, 
If ever she should hope to wed a Prince."
––  Cinder Girl, Novak

So I'm 14 and and I decide to join the high school Key Club - a youth service club affiliated with the local Kiwanis Club. My older brother had been in the Key Club for years, our father was president of the Kiwanis Club, so I felt I should join. I did not realize that I would be required to submit to a week of humiliating initiation at the hands of the senior club members, culminating in a brutal late-night hazing on the beach. Even so, I wanted in. So I spent the week ducking and dodging as best I could, but when it came to the final night, I skipped out altogether. I had a get-out-of-torture-free card: I had rehearsal. (Most of my high school years were spent in rehearsal for some play or another.) I dodged the big ordeal and became a probationary member of the Key Club. Probationary because it was not to be official until I submitted to the hazing. That threat hung over me for weeks until I finally had the nerve to resign. It wasn't that important to me. Sour grapes, perhaps, but in truth I had a passion for another, greater, membership. I was a Thespian, and I wanted to be in the theatre.

I had been on stage since age 7, working backstage, acting, writing and directing as a student in our local children's theatre school. The theatre school regarded everyone as essential. There were no small parts, only small actors. Ego was not allowed. Lead players worked their way up the ranks, taking on more and more responsibility. We were expected to be true leaders supporting every member of the cast and crew. There, I learned how to walk and talk and live in community. There, I found my heart's desire: to be a real player in the theatre world.

At high school our drama club produced straight plays. But there was also a choral group, Contemporary Music, which produced musicals. After running spot for their production of "The Fantastiks," I knew I had to get out there and sing. But, after all my years on stage, I had never really learned to sing or dance. But I auditioned anyway and hoped for my chance. I got it. Sort of. Our choral director, Mr. Hill, was very enthusiastic about my joining the program. But, he said, I needed to improve my singing. He suggested I take private voice lessons and recommended a friend of his, Robert. Robert was a professional pianist; a short man with muscular technique that made Chopin sound like Rachmaninoff.

Mom set up a series of lessons and we began. Robert taught me to read music, to sing arias and to appreciate opera. He was also a fan of Johnny Mathis and soon had me crooning pop ballads as well. I learned the "y buzz," mask resonance and deep breathing techniques. Eventually I could belt out show tunes.  He treated me like an adult and I liked that. Soon he was picking me up after school for my lessons and driving me home afterwards. He started teaching me to drive, allowing me behind the wheel of his Cadillac. We'd stop for coffee and he'd lecture me on Romantic Idealism. He brought me to openings at the local playhouse to see Broadway shows and symphonies.

And he propositioned me. Repeatedly. He was gay and believed that I was too, but that I didn't know it yet. He'd say "don't knock it until you've tried it." When I declined, he withdrew. The friendship cooled and he became the dispassionate teacher, talking down to me. Back at school, I still waited to join the inner circle of our chorus group, to be given a shot. I learned that my choral teacher and my voice teacher were members of a larger community of friends in the arts. Robert took me to a party and there they were, along with some other students in the program, the leading players, acting outrageous and flirtatious. This, I thought, was the real, grown-up, theatre scene. These were the people that held the opportunities I sought.

So Robert seduced me. I lost my virginity to him. I rationalized that maybe he was right about me, maybe this was who I really am. Maybe it was okay. Maybe now I would open up and realize my full potential. I flattered myself that I was an adult and a member of a very special club. After all, I was now 15.

It was clear that if I wanted to be considered for roles, I needed be a player in this game of men and boys. So I tried. But I was ashamed and conflicted. I knew in my heart, this was not me. But I also knew that this was the way to work in the local and regional theatres. I did learn to sing. But the cost was high. Robert owned me.

This is not about homosexuality. (Although the experience helped affirm my heterosexual identity.) This is about a toxic mixture of power, vulnerability, and desire. It is about an economy run on weak self-esteem and strong ambition.

Eventually, at age 16, I mustered the courage to break it off. I focused on creating my own work. I figured that if I could learn to make my own theatre, I would be in control. I continued to study theatre in college, where the game was also in play. I went on the road after that and never went back to my home town. Once or twice I found a theatre group that had the same ethic I valued: an egalitarian work ethic where we practiced and produced and co-created quality stage plays from our passion for the art. But I kept coming across the game. In graduate school as intern at a prominent regional theatre company, I played alongside a Hollywood star brought in for the lead. He gave me useful tips on playing Shakespeare...and he propositioned me. (Nevermind that I was married.) He offered me entry into the business, the chance to travel, to make movies, if only I would be his consort, his boy toy. I declined.

I saw no way to dodge the game. To continue in this career, I realized, I could not advance on merit alone. I sank into despair and depression. I fell back on my solo practice and returned to my childhood passion: children's theatre. I began to interpret and tell stories for school children. I was good at it. I started creating like crazy, developed a varied repertory with something for every age. I embarked on a new, ex-theatre, career: storytelling. I gained a new voice, a fresh imagination, and a liberated sense of play. I entered a new community of musicians, writers, librarians, teachers, and folkies, all of whom had been lured into the telling of stories. They welcomed and encouraged me and valued the merit of my work. I began to heal. I began to recover confidence, dignity, hope and renewed enthusiasm for my art.

The rest is history. But there is a crippling legacy. Self-promotion nauseates me. False promises haunt me. And, for the most part, I continue to work alone. 

Often I am asked why I left acting to become a storyteller. My standard reply is that I found the business of theatre had less and less to do with the life of an artist. That was true. But in addition, I was not willing to pay the price of admission.