Sunday, June 15, 2014

My Place in the Theatre

I was not born to perform. Some people may think that, because I have no trouble belting out a random line from “Some Enchanted Evening” in a crowd full of people. I am not embarrassed to krump in the middle of a shoe store or make strangers laugh in a restaurant.

The stage, however, is a different story. After performing a bell solo in the school concert when I was six, people were impressed at the effortlessness of my five-second moment. I knew the truth, though. I felt that shake, the nameless, unknown first hint of nerves and anxiety that would grow to haunt me for life.

As I got older, as I was able to understand the stakes and delve into the drama of who was watching, what they were thinking and how I looked and sounded, the anxiety ate at me daily. A performance several months away would run through my mind constantly. I would analyze every note and decide how I wanted everything to sound, how I wanted people to react. I listened to recordings over and over and imagined myself sounding just like the professionals. When I sang, my voice would shake and I would revert to a nervous chest sound. When I played violin, my vibrato was either incessant or nonexistent.

I used meditation, rituals and eventually a mild antianxiety medication as coping techniques. Eventually, this allowed me to pull out some surprisingly decent performances. But I never felt at home and I always knew that no matter how much I wanted it, I could never perform as a career. I was much too inconsistent.

So, I searched for another place in the theatre, on the stage. I wanted to immerse myself in music and performance, but I needed a different angle. I tried pit orchestras, symphonies, chamber music, choirs, and small ensembles, and ended up having some of the best experiences of my life. In the end, though, I valued the communities and the experiences but still stressed over each performance.

The summer after I graduated university, I settled into the ticket office at Starlight Theatre, a large outdoor venue that hosted Broadway musical tours and concerts each summer. I still got to talk about my love of musicals and I contributed to the “scene” with my strength: administrative work. I was promoted to supervisor and worked as hard at my summer job as I did teaching. Still, the stage seemed so distant and I imagined myself being up there again, singing or playing. But every time I so much as opened my mouth at the all-school talent show, the anxiety came rushing back.

This is how Adam found me. A nervous musician, a former performer, with a flair for organization and detail. Through the first musical we did together, I stood in where needed. I ran the sound at rehearsals, took care of some administrative details, and sang when actors were absent. I developed relationships with the secondary students, an age which always frightened me. I learned the light and sound boards. I eagerly watched Adam work, soaking in his expertise on acting and vision. I probably learned as much from him in three months as I did during my entire teaching program. Adam suggested that I direct my own show.

Directing a show was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but it gave me insight into the theatre, into the deep workings of a musical, that I did not have before. I was good at the technical elements and the administrative details, but I struggled with the artistic vision.  I cared very little about costumes and could not even sketch out set ideas. Thankfully, I had a team of people more creative than I to push the artistry forward and I ended up with a show full of talented children with several talented adults behind-the-scenes.

I don’t know if Adam knew where I belonged. He is the type to sit back retrospectively and watch, putting everyone in their exact right place. It is what makes him a brilliant director. One of us came up with the idea of me stage managing The Sound of Music, the all-school musical and the largest production this school had seen. At the beginning, I wanted to do a good job because I wanted to help Adam. I wanted to support him after he supported me as director and teacher. As the process intensified, I found myself extremely invested in the show, perhaps even more than I was in the production I directed. I immersed myself in the technical elements of light hanging, set building, and sound design. I opened the lines of communication with the students and parents. And on show-night, when I was calling cues and live-editing microphones up in the booth, I felt like I was performing, in a way. I was performing, but this time without the anxiety.

I owe a significant portion of my happiness in Egypt to Adam. He has put up with my anxious and emotional temperament and never stopped teaching me. He helped me love my job here. He made me laugh harder than I ever have and party more than I ever should. But most importantly, he found a place for me in the theatre. He has been a rock, a mentor, a colleague, a teacher, and a friend.
Adam, hanging curtains on the set of Sound of Music.
Trying to take pictures on closing night without laughing.
Light hang for the Sound of Music.
At the cast party with Stephanie (choreographer and lights) and Joe (teacher/actor). 
Director and stage manager.

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