Confessions of a High School Theatre Dork

When I was in high school, I was that kid who took acting classes and voice lessons and hung out with the other little theatre nerds who wanted to talk about why we thought The Rocky Horror Picture Show was the shit. If you’ll remember, kids, this was in the days before Glee, so believe me when I tell you that I wasn’t the coolest. I compensated for this by making a big deal to everyone about how exhausted I was from my tech rehearsal for the community theatre where in case you don’t know, tech is where you stay there all night while the lighting and sound people do their jobs and you stay there really late because it’s super important and that’s why my homework isn’t done. Also you should definitely come see me in Into The Woods. It runs this weekend only and I’m onstage for four minutes at the end of the three-hour musical. We have this awesome pared-down orchestration that’s only a digital keyboard and a local kid on drums. It’s Sondheim, so it’s really really important to the musical theatre canon. Oh? You don’t know who Sondheim is? Oh. Well. 

I get it now. Older version of me does not really care for high school version of me. (Although I find it comforting to think that most people probably don’t care for the high school versions of themselves, either). The side effects of early pretentiousness aside, the arts really are a pretty good way to survive high school. I’m still close friends with all of the other kids who sat on the back of the bus with me and eventually told me they were gay. Theatre teaches you a lot about teamwork and acceptance and meeting deadlines and living through crushing personal humiliation. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

During my senior year, my small-town high school suffered a personnel crisis when the choir teacher, who had helmed the annual school musical for well over a decade, threatened to quit unless she was given more money for tackling such an epically miserable job. She was roundly denied, and the administration (again, these are the days before epic budget shortfalls, back when schools had librarians and photocopiers and desks) elected to just hire somebody else. They settled on the guy who directed at the local community theatre, a sweetly neurotic closeted guy who wowed them with his vision for a high-school version of RAGTIME. It would be a sweeping American epic tackling racial prejudice, awash with cakewalks, soul, and gospel numbers. Audra MacDonald wouldn’t have shit on the QHS Class of 2004.

Upon touring the halls and realizing that the diversity quotient of the entire school was limited to the one Asian kid in my chemistry class, it was quickly announced that the spring musical would instead be TITANIC: THE MUSICAL: A sweeping American epic about a bunch of predominantly white people dying on a boat.

Auditions were a sweeping success, in that only fourteen or so girls walked out immediately after someone asked “Where’s the sign-up to play Kate Winslet?” and were told that this production differed in every possible way from the blockbuster film. The final cast included approximately fifty high school girls and seven high school boys, which was problematic only in that the play is written for approximately fifty men and, at best, fifteen women. The ultimate solution involved a lot of hats. My friend Bryan played a role in the first class, second class, third class, and at least four of the ship’s crewmen, all by sprinting offstage at breakneck speeds and changing hats. At one point I would watch from the wings as he dramatically chortled, clutching a monocle and a bowler, “Don’t be ridiculous, Astor! This ship would never sink!” then frantically change his hat to pop out ringing a large handbell and saying “We need more coal to stoke the fires, Barrett!” and then again with an Irish brogue and a Newsies cap, “Don’ ya see, Katie? Wee’re all gon’ die herrre in steerage!”

The Intro to Art class had been enlisted to create a scale version of the iceberg, and the Intermediate Art Class had been enlisted to create a scale version of the Titanic. This would have worked better if the two classrooms had communicated with one another. During Bryan’s dramatic, sailor’s-hat-clad emotional cry of “Iceberg! Iceberg right ahead!!” the audience watched in horror as a rather intricate and beautiful replica of the Titanic, duck-taped to a roller skate, was pulled across the stage with fishing line towards a paper-mache lump the size of a VW van meant to represent the iceberg.

Please enjoy this artist’s recreation I have made for you in four minutes of my time:

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It didn’t have quite the intended dramatic effect. I am so grateful this happened in the days before YouTube.  

It was all total nonsense, and I loved it so much.

It’s been almost ten years since I was that kid in high school, and most of my close circle of friends wound up doing cool things later on. An opera singer. A professional violist. A world-traveling au pair. Bryan’s now a grad student with a killer drag persona tackling the Boston improv scene.

I became a costume designer. It’s a long story, but it happened, and even though it wasn’t what I planned to have happen, I somehow make my living doing essentially the same shit I was doing in high school. I just know a lot more now. And I get paid.

I make my living playing dress-up. I mostly love it.

Occasionally it’s tough. (Not, like, real life tough. Let’s be real. My hard days, as my dad likes to point out, don’t end in somebody bleeding out on your operating table. You’re not fighting a war in Iraq, kiddo). And I know that. It sometimes feels tough when the work doesn’t pay well, and it’s tough when you don’t like the project. And there are those days when it takes you right back to feeling like that stupid kid again, and you go home and put your head down on your pillow and think, is THIS what I’m doing with my life?

A few years ago, I took this design job at the same summer theatre camp that Tina Fey writes about in her memoir Bossypants. It’s still there, still operating, still a perfect summer home for hundreds of kids just like high-school versions of myself. It can be a strange brush with reality, to find yourself walking through a high school hallway, now a grown-ass adult with a job you didn’t even think was a real one, surrounded by kids who are no longer you. They, too, all have their own innocent hopes, their own misguided dreams, their own incredibly forceful opinions about the film casting of Les Mis.   

I was hired to assist the costume designer of their high school production of TITANIC: THE MUSICAL. And I’m hustling backstage, sweating my ass off, living in the irony and the oddity of hearing other kids sing the words that I once sang for an auditorium filled with apathetic parents and teenaged stoners. Right at the moment when the boat is about to sink, I came across some students tearfully huddled together in a hallway. Three of them, dressed in costumes I would have killed to wear when I was their age, giant hats and vintage gloves and spotless navy sailor uniforms. They looked genuinely upset, holding one another’s shoulders and squeezing each other’s hands. I paused, set down my laundry basket, and asked if everything was okay.

The oldest, a girl with fierce red-rimmed eyes peering from under her Winslet-esque updo, whipped her head around to glare at me. “Um. We’re trying to emote here. Can you please just GIVE US a MOMENT to GET INTO CHARACTER?”

The sailor in the back glared at me and deadpanned, “The boat SINKS, you know. It’s like, really sad.”

There was later a bunch of whispered backlash about a kid who was totally cheating by using Visine to appear as if he had been crying during the epic boat-sinking scene, and they all buzzed and whispered right around me because no one cared what I, the outsider adult in the room, had to think. I sat there and folded those life vests and smiled to myself, never so glad in my entire life that high school was behind me, suddenly so awash with perspective on my own seventeen-year-old priorities. Shit, I thought, I was that kid. Shit, I thought. I’m so glad I’m not that kid anymore.

And then I texted Bryan the whole thing. Because let’s be real. We were, like, never quite THAT obnoxious when we were in high school. Right? Right.   

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