I remember vaguely the first time I was onstage. I must have been about five years old and was portraying the role of the donkey in the classic nativity scene. All of the manger animals were costumed in pre-made white cardboard boxes that were strapped to our small shoulders. Even at a young age, I was struck by the obvious lack of production values.
I wasn’t nervous. My class was shoved onstage at the appropriate juncture by our nervous Sunday School teacher. Earlier, in the hallway, she reiterated the scope of our role: “Just stay VERY QUIET until the narrator points at you and then make animal noises until he stops pointing at you.”
Our task was very simple. We were not trying to become the animals: there was no Stanislavskian transformation that needed to occur. We were, at best, set dressing. Cherubic pre-kindergarteners who could not yet be trusted to memorize lines and therefore were reduced to improvising moos and bleats. We had this under control.
The only record of this performance was a blurry photograph that one of my parents took. In it, I have red glowing eyes from the flash of the camera. I look possessed, but happy. Which fairly encapsulates all of my experiences with theatre that followed.
I am often asked where I get my outgoing and theatrical nature. Most people assume it has something to do with my genetics. I am an only child, which probably has more to do with the equation than either of my parents. My father was a scientist. He holds a Ph.D. in Earth Resources and was forever teaching me academic things growing up. I would say that I got some of my quick-wittedness from him, but not my gregariousness or desire to perform. My mother was an elementary school art teacher. I would say that she’s a rather quiet person, seeming almost shy to some. Her greatest gift to me was observing my emerging multiple interests in the arts and facilitating training and extra-curricular activities to nurture them.
The first theatrical production I was in that was not biblical in nature was The Princess and the Pea with Playtime Productions. At the age of seven, I was only entrusted with two speaking lines. The director somehow saw my comedic potential within and also cast me as the court dog, a completely superfluous role that made it necessary for me to endure wearing my lady-in-waiting costume underneath a Toto costume. Yes, folks, I was doing quick changes at the age of seven. Top that.
Playtime Productions rehearsed in the small auditorium of the local library. After the show had opened, we toured to local schools, sharing our fractured fairy tales. After a matinee at the Waisman Center Auditorium, I may have scarred a young theatre-goer for life when I removed my furry dog head in front of him. He started sobbing and screaming uncontrollably. I stood perplexed and said “It’s ok. It’s me, it’s just me, I was the dog all along, the whole time! Why are you crying?”
It was my first lesson the transformative power of theatre. To this little boy, only a few years younger than myself, I WAS the dog. When I took off the dog head, as poorly constructed as it was, a mess of felt and thread-bare fake fur, it shattered his disbelief.
I could take or leave being a donkey in the nativity play. But this experience, the dog-beheading experience, made me realize that actors had power. And I wanted more.
The next time I auditioned for Playtime Productions, I was immediately humbled. At the tender age of nine, I learned about the rejection that is the other side of the coin of acting. Power/rejection, power/rejection…this is the cycle, over and over, still to this day.
I didn’t get a part. Too many girls had auditioned and I was the odd one out. The director called my mother and asked if I wanted to be an understudy for this production of A Little Princess.
“Understudy?” I said. “That sounds like a great part! Tell her yes, mom, tell her yes!”
My mother had to gently explain to me that an understudy was a very important part of the cast. They learned several parts in case one of the actors got sick and couldn’t go on. She had to explain it a few times before I fully comprehended. Luckily, I didn’t have that much of an ego yet. I said I still wanted to do it and was relatively unbothered.
It wasn’t until the first read-through, when I realized I didn’t have any lines to say, that my heart began to sink into my stomach. I swallowed my tears and continued to take notes on the characters whose lines I would need to learn.
It is rare for understudies to go on. Most actors will weather the worst flu-like symptoms instead of missing a show. Luckily, this was children’s theatre and the better judgment of a parent kept one of the girls I was understudying for home.
There are no words adequate to describe the jubilation I felt when I got the call to go on. Santa, The Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny could all shove it. I was going onstage. I was saving the day.
The girl that was sick played the monkey. I was not the understudy for the monkey, but I was the understudy for the girl who was the understudy for the monkey (Do you follow?) I remember that fateful winter evening in the Stoughton, Wisconsin gymnasium. We had a brief put-in rehearsal to incorporate Amelia (the monkey’s understudy) and myself into our new roles. I played a street urchin with a Cockney accent early in the play and then one of the girls at the school in subsequent scenes. I had watched My Fair Lady several times that week to perfect my Cockney accent. Amelia seemed a little perturbed as I added antics and volume and a general sense of chutzpah that she had never brought to her street urchin role.
When I’m 80 years old, looking back on my acting career, I am fairly certain that the 1994 Stoughton High School show of A Little Princess will always be in my top ten favorite single performances.
As an actor, you are sometimes asked, “When did you know you had the acting bug?” It had to be that performance: February of 1994, in Stoughton, Wisconsin. A little girl with a big lisp and strawberry blonde hair acted her little heart out. She acted so hard that she almost exploded and/or levitated off the stage. There. In that moment. That’s when I got the acting bug.