My Theater Career
And how it introduced me to myself
I feel like many of my friends don’t realize that I was a big theater kid for a large part of my adolescence, but they’re all definitely aware that I’m 1) highly dramatic and 2) deeply introspective. So, I decided to dedicate a post to my short-lived career as a thespian, and how it led me to develop such *charming* behavior. Really, how it taught me to know myself. Let’s start at the very beginning.
My foray onto the scene
The first play I was ever in was a production of the children’s book, Anansi The Spider, and I played the lion. The production was through a local children’s theater group at Northwestern University, only about 15 minutes away from where I grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago. In retrospect, the play contained a rather heavy subject-matter for a young group of children to take on:
“Anansi, the celebrated spider from African folklore, tells the story of an African mother and daughter who are kidnapped and sold into slavery. In prison and later on a slave ship coming to America, Shontay’s mother calms her by telling her stories of Anansi and how he inherited the box of stories from Nyame the Sky God.” — Anansi The Spider, Pioneer Drama Service
To be honest, I’m not sure if our tiny production pursued this complex embedded narrative or if we simply attempted to act out the more jovial tales of Anansi. Given that we were all around age 7 and generally incapable of memorizing lines (or any other theatrical coordination), I think the latter is more likely.
I didn’t I memorize a single line for our performance of the play, despite my mother’s best efforts. We sat for hours trying to remember lines that revolve around the lion’s only character trait (see image to the left). Once we gave up on my lines, my mom decided to make me a costume. We went to Vogue Fabrics, picked out some beige felt, and made a little tail and some ears. I used one of my nude leotards from ballet to complete the outfit. Fortunately, my hair already resembled a lion’s when I rolled out of bed each morning, an actual rat's nest of almost white-blonde locks, so we just teased it a bit and I could’ve been a cast member of Tiger King (either one of the big cats or Joe Exotic).
Lucky for me, by opening night it was more than evident that all the other kids were equally incompetent at memorizing their lines, so I was in good company. I’m pretty sure we all just made animal noises and rolled around on the floor for a few hours. I only remember the sound of everyone laughing in unison, and I think my mom saw how joyful I was, despite the fact that the experience wasn’t perfect. And I saw the solidarity of being in a cast, and how much joy it brought me.
The next recallable “production” was at my church, where my mother nominated me to play Mary in the Christmas service. Good God, I was displeased. By this point, I must’ve been about 9, and I was already starting to feel a little awkward. Finding out that I had to don a pastel robe and carry a plastic infant to the altar was devastating. When I found out that my crush (who I had known since we had gone to preschool together at this same church) was going to play Joseph, I practically disintegrated.
The next week after Sunday school rehearsal, I grabbed a bible from one of the cubbies and marched right into the sanctuary, where our minister remained at the podium after service.
“Dr. Bowen? I have to play Mary at the Christmas service. Can you tell me about her?”
He told me about Mary and Joseph trying to get into the inn, and being turned away. The dejection and misunderstanding they may have felt, knowing that no one understood their situation. The fear of the unknown in having this small child, and the hope that the arrival of the three kings brought to that tiny manger in the barn. And whether or not I really believed the validity of this story, I was sure of the validity of those emotions. And I could feel them as he retold the story. After all, the previous week, I’d been picked last for soccer teams during gym, which made me feel sad and alone. Maybe that’s sort of how Mary and Joseph felt?
I thanked Dr. Bowen and scurried out of the massive sanctuary.
The performance was actually enjoyable, not nearly as embarrassing as I feared it would be. Plus, I think Joseph was crushing on Mary if you know what I mean. I learned that in order to have a good time, you need to do more than just bond with the cast, you need to find a reason to believe in what you were doing, and that requires spending some time getting on the same page as your character.
I got my first “real” part in a play when I was 10, and I had just moved to a new elementary school, much to my chagrin. Carter (not his real name) was my best friend from my old school, and we used to hang out almost every day. He lived right around the corner from me. We used to listen to the Shrek 2 soundtrack on the boombox in my room.
One day, Carter asked me if I’d ever tried acting, and if I’d audition for this play with him. Truth be told, I had a crush on Carter at this point, and I was hoping that as Accidentally in Love played in the background of our conversation, he was asking me to do the play to spend more time with me. So, I happily obliged.
Unfortunately, the reality of the situation was that Carter just wanted to be friends, and even more than that, he really wanted to be an actor. Thus, it caused somewhat of a rift in our friendship when I scored one of the two lead roles in The Phantom Tollbooth, an adaptation of a popular children’s book by the same name, while Carter got the part of the sidekick dog.
Nevertheless, Carter was a very loyal dog, I mean friend, and we rehearsed our lines together for weeks. He taught me to project, to be expressive, and to laugh at myself when I made mistakes. The hours we spent after school learning our lines together, and the care that he had for what he was doing, I realized that performing on stage was going to make me feel really exposed. What if I made a mistake in this production? It would be super noticeable. What if I didn’t really understand my character? It would change how the performance was received. I was really nervous.
Our performance in The Phantom Tollbooth was the first time I ever worked really hard at something because I cared enough about the production and those around me. If I failed them, then I was failing myself. I realized that fundamentally, I was a team player and wanted to be consistently accountable. Once I realized this, it was not difficult to commit my lines to memory, because I knew doing so was simply who I was. I wasn’t doing it out of fear, I was just being myself. And then, I got to enjoy the payoff. We had multiple showings, lots of families came to see me, and it felt really nice to step into someone else’s story for a few hours every day, especially as my life at my new school became a bit more difficult (more of this to come).
Carter, I should note, did go on to become a wonderful actor, even studied theater in college. We haven’t spoken in quite a long time, but I only have the fondest memories of the years we lived only a 5-minute walk from each other.
I changed to my new elementary school starting in 4th grade, and I spent that year and the year after in “lower school,” which is elitist for “elementary school.” In lower school, we had to participate in the annual lower-school musical. We could audition for a real role, or we could abstain and settle for a supporting role — if the faculty knew you had a little bit of talent — or be an extra.
In fourth grade, we did Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, which was a musical I already knew 100% by heart. We had the Donny Osmond version on VHS because my mother was (is) in love with Donny Osmond. And I loved it, the colors, the family drama, the connection to a bible story that I was familiar with from my extensive time spent at church, it was the perfect show. I even paid a second visit to Dr. Bowen to find which part of the bible I could find the story of the technicolor dream coat. “Look at the book of Genesis, and break a leg, my dear,” he told me.
While I did actually have some acting talent from my recent role in The Phantom Tollbooth, I was also the new kid at my school, and I didn’t want anyone to know that I liked to act. I preferred to remain on the sidelines, mostly because I didn’t feel ready to show my peers who I really was. So, I was cast as the color “ochre” in the fabulous number, “Joseph’s Coat” (skip to 5:00 to see my shining moment). I just threw up a vaguely orange silk scarf, yelled “OCHRE!” and scurried off the stage. And that was just fine for me. I didn’t feel confident enough to be a real character, I just wanted to be an extra, in this production, and in my life.
Now, we need to discuss my foray into musical theater before we get to the fifth-grade musical. At the beginning of 4th grade, my choir teacher pulled me aside and encouraged me to audition for the solo part during the Winter Choral Concert. I disdainfully said “ok” as I knew I’d be up against another girl who had gotten every solo since I’d matriculated into this new school (who, by the way, is now a professional recording artist). I’d spent a couple of months at this school, and I finally felt ready to take a step into the unknown, and once I found out that the opening song that year was “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” I could not get the mental image of me suddenly impressing all of my peers with one dramatic riff. And I won’t lie to you, I sang like a lark during my audition. I absolutely nailed that shit. And I secured the solo. I wore a really cute little red sequin dress, confidently walked up to the microphone, and did a wonderful job. And I felt like a queen, I mean I was the new kid on the block, and I felt like I did Mariah justice!
Unfortunately, my new-found confidence amongst my peers didn’t last long. I felt pretty cool in the two or three weeks following the concert, however, the end of elementary and beginning of middle school was a dark time for me, as it is for many other kids. For some reason, all of my friends who had been boosting me up began to incessantly follow me around say “GOOD JOB ON YOUR SOLO!” Which felt genuinely kind at first, only for me to later realize that it wasn’t genuine at all. But I didn’t care. Because I was the one who belted Mariah, sweetie. And I knew that despite what all those other kids were saying, they didn’t look at me the same way once I sang. So, I ignored the little shits, and I held on to the joy that moment brought me, throughout a tough couple of years. I realized that I was a force to be reckoned with.
Once I pulled the Mariah stunt, I was recruited for a lead role in the 5th-grade musical, Seussical. I played Horton. Oh yes, yes I did. This school I went to was very *equal opportunity* so in order to give all the other ostentatious 5th graders lead roles, our director actually cast five Hortons. And no, we didn’t perform in separate shows. No, we all traveled in a little elephant group around the stage, and sang all the songs in unison, with the occasional one-off solo.
But it was fun. I really loved to sing, and I really liked this acting stuff. I’d been singing in the church choir and my school choir for years, and now I got to do it on stage, with a plot! Even though I felt kind of like an idiot wearing that felt elephant hat, I felt like I was doing something well. And no one, despite their jeering, could take that away from me.
Ok, this is not supposed to be a post about my middle school tormentors, but I would be remiss not to mention that by the time I hit 6th grade, I was not feeling this school. I did have two wonderful best friends, Samantha and Cynthia (who, to this day, remain dear friends of mine), and it felt like it was the three of us against the world. Going into 6th grade, my 5th-grade “boyfriend” had dumped me and subsequently vandalized my locker, I’d fallen out of favor with some of the cooler, prettier girls at the school, and I was really leaning into my awkward phase, see image for reference below.
In middle school, similar to lower school, we were required to participate in performing arts. We had to pick 2 out of these three options: band, choir, or participate in the middle school play. I could only play the piano, and it was excluded from our middle school band, so I always opted for choir and theater.
Middle school was really where I hit my theatrical stride. I started small in 6th grade with a role as Waiter #4 in our production of Roald Dahl’s The Witches (although, as my dad reminded me every night after rehearsal, “Chloe, there are no small roles, only small actors. You are the best goddamn waiter I’ve ever had, please bring me my scotch”). After I’d played Horton the year before, there was an unofficial policy that I couldn’t have a lead role again, nor did I really want any more spotlight. During The Witches, I worked on the stage crew, and I papier mache’d all of the funny little costume pieces that my classmates wore on stage. Being in the stage crew was a totally new experience, and learning about the history of masks on stage really illuminated how much I loved to learn and to create. It was an important first exposure to visual art and sculpture, and I realized that I didn’t need to be at the center of the stage to be happy. In fact, being at the center of the stage at this point was really uncomfortable, and it was fun to work independently, something I still firmly believe as an adult.
During 7th grade, the school chose a show called Homework Eats Dog. I was offered the opportunity to be the stage manager for the entire production after my success as a sculptor during The Witches. I called all the light and set cues, and sat safely up in the director’s box at the top of the theater. I enjoyed being the overlord of the theater, quietly playing out evil scenarios in my head akin to the scene in Burlesque when Kristen Bell cuts out Christina Aguilera’s lipsync track. But, I never would have. In reality, this was my first real leadership experience, and I really loved it. I called the shots, coordinated large scene shifts, made sure everyone looked good. And when I watched the production play out over and over below my little box, I felt proud of myself, and of the company I was a part of, even if I wasn’t a huge fan of some of my classmates. It was a more advanced version of the satisfying isolation I experienced while sculpting, I could lead, and also remain somewhat hidden.
Now, the real shining moment of my acting career finally arrived in 8th grade, a few months before I left my school for good and transferred back into the public school system for high school. Our school put on a production of H.G. Wells’ The War of The Worlds, and I had one of the leading roles, Professor Pierson. If you do not know the story, The War of The Worlds was originally broadcasted as a theatrical production on the radio. It details somewhat realistic journalism covering an alien ship landing on earth. Professor Pierson is the local expert witness, called in to ruminate on the aliens’ meaning for a descent to earth. When the production was originally aired on radio, many members of the public thought it was real, eliciting calls into the radio station from all over the country.
What was so wonderful about my role as Professor Pierson, is that she is presumably the last human standing at the end of the aliens’ inevitable destruction of the earth. And that was exactly how I felt getting ready to leave my school. Everyone in my 44-person grade was fighting with each other, the drama was tearing down the walls of society. I felt like I was one of the last living and sane human beings (to be fair, I think everyone felt this way too). Professor Pierson has these glorious monologues at the end of the play where she evaluates the meaning of being the last woman on earth. In fact, she delivers the last lines of the play. She has beautifully complex, prosodic lines:
“Dim and wonderful is the vision I have conjured up in my mind of life spreading slowly from this little seedbed of the solar system throughout the inanimate vastness of sidereal space. But that is a remote dream. It may be that the destruction of the Martians is only a reprieve. To them, and not to us, is the future ordained perhaps.” —H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds
I toiled for weeks mastering this complex language. The play was written in the 1890s, the vocabulary and rhythm of speech were as foreign to me as these aliens in the story were to earth. I was so invested in it. I made drawings of my outfit, the hairstyle I would wear to the show. I spent a week deciding if a french twist would be appropriate, given that the hairstyle didn’t emerge until the 1950s (and the broadcast was in 1938). Once I’d decided to go through with it, I spent another week deciding how I would rough it up after the point in the play when ultimate destruction transpired.
During our tech rehearsals, a rather tragic reality came to light. Half the cast and I really do mean half, did not know their lines. There was simply no way that they would have sufficient time to memorize them all, we only had 2–3 days until we opened. Because the show was set on stage as a radio broadcast, our director made a crushing resignation: we all had to carry our scripts with us on stage throughout the entire performance.
I was irate. How could these idiots not know their lines?? We had months to learn them! I was utterly dejected, I went home and cried all evening, knowing that no one in the audience would be able to tell that I had worked so hard to memorize all those lines. Then I bargained, what about cue cards?? SNL uses them every week! After pacing around my room for about three hours, I reached acceptance. Now, my acceptance stage didn’t look like resignation to this fate, no. I’d planned a rebellion. I was going to stick it to them all.
The Grand Finale
I went and got my french twist, and I asked the hairstylist to make it extra tight. I put on lipstick, maybe for the first time ever, pulled on a pair of pantyhose, and waltzed out on stage.
I played by my director’s rules, kept my little binder, and script in my hand. I followed my blocking, worked the crowd, and messed up my french twist just enough before Act II.
Then came the moment for my big, final monologue. When I’d practiced at home, it took me about 5 minutes to act the whole thing out (including sufficient time for a dramatic pause, a soft whimper, and a corresponding gesticulation). And at that moment when I took the stage for my final speech (and I shit you not, I actually did this), I SLAMMED my script binder shut and FLUNG it off-stage in one fell swoop. I wanted everyone to know that I knew that monologue by heart. I knew every emotion the Professor felt, the dejection, the loneliness, the uncertainty of the future. I knew it because I was living those emotions too. I wanted to get away from this school, to go to high school and have a fresh start. And I wanted every single spectator to know that I owned those feelings and that I wasn’t just reading them off the page, I was really feeling them. I wanted my classmates to see how I felt.
It wasn’t really acting anymore, it was raw vulnerability. I was just bearing every part of myself to my peers. In my last moments at that I school, I finally showed everyone who I really was.
I haven’t been in a real theatrical production since War of the Worlds. My high school had an ultra-competitive theater department, one that produced stars on the Disney Channel and Broadway; we even churned out Rainn Wilson. That wasn’t the theater community for me. But in no way did I lose my passion for everything that makes the theater magical. I went on to study Shakespeare at Oxford University for a summer in high school, took private voice lessons, and performed Broadway music, and I’ve watched live productions of The Book of Mormon, Hamilton, The Lion King, Mary Poppins, Annie, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar, The Tempest, Henry IV, among countless others. The night I got into college, I got my acceptance letter 5 minutes before opening my vocal concert, and cried as I sang “I’m Not That Girl” from Wicked, mostly because I finally felt like that girl. I continue to enjoy watching others on stage, learning about them through their portrayal of their characters.
And what I’ve taken away from writing this, and what I hope you will take away from reading it is the incredibly powerful knack that theater has for getting you to understand yourself. By assuming the life and experience of someone else, you must first reflect inwards, and confront how you positively and negatively relate to a character and a story. And when you get on that stage, you’re really bearing it all every time. I’ve become a deeply self-reflective adult, and I think it’s because theater repeatedly commanded: