“Theater and Community”

This author recounts how finding community in theater changed her perspective and made a lasting impact post graduation.
It was understood from an early age that I was a theatrical kid.

I made my mom buy me a tie-dyed piece of fleece so that I could perform one-kid productions of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. My Fisher-Price cassette player had a well-worn rotation of Cinderella, Annie Get Your Gun, and South Pacific tapes. I performed in as many shows in high school as I could.

When I attended my first club fair after entering college, I had consigned myself to other extracurriculars, but, come audition day, I found myself messaging the Facebook page of one of the student theater groups.

“Hi, I’m a freshman and was wondering if it was too late to audition?” I asked, approximately 45 minutes before the auditions began. “No problem!” they quickly responded. One large stress rash, a hastily printed monologue, and a pounding heart later, my audition was done.

Who could have known how this impulse decision would change everything?

I was cast in a rag-tag production — the plot was absurd and none of us really had any idea what we were doing (it was student theater, after all) — but I have never fallen in love with a group of people more quickly. Our cast ranged from seasoned performers to newbies, and we bonded together as long hours of rehearsal stretched into late nights in the college dining hall eating lukewarm mozzarella sticks and laughing into the early hours of the morning.

It was fun, freeing, fantastic — but my parents didn’t approve. I had done theater in Catholic high school — a nun had to sign off on all productions to make sure they were appropriate — but my mom and dad pushed back when my college theater lifestyle introduced me to a subset of people who weren’t the squeaky-clean girls who attended Mass before sleepovers like my high school friends did.

Before college, most of my friends were high-achieving, smart, stay-out-of-trouble types. And although the people I met through theater were also incredibly intelligent and driven, their differences scared my parents. For the first time, I had Jewish friends, LGBTQ friends, and — what scared my parents most — friends who wanted to pursue theater as a profession. My parents joked every now and again how I would have been paying for my own tuition if I chose drama as a major. Even to this day, they sound a little hesitant when asking how my drama-major friends are faring in the “real world.”

At first, I felt daring. That’s what the arts are about, right? Proclaiming subversive material to make people think? But soon that feeling turned to anger. Who were my parents to say I shouldn’t be spending my time with “theater people,” as they called them? I love my parents deeply, and probably read too much into their words at the time, but I felt incredibly hurt that they didn’t trust me to pursue theater without losing my convictions.

I had performed in four shows at college before my parents came down to see a show my junior year when I finally landed the lead role. The show in question — Qui Nguyen’s She Kills Monsters — featured gay characters, profanity, and hinted-at sexual content. While my parents were certainly proud of my work (“You memorized all those lines!”), they found the content of the play unsettling.

“Why couldn’t you do a nice play, like Guys and Dolls?” my mom asked me afterwards. I was disappointed, feeling like all the work I’d put in was for nothing. What I wanted to say was that all these people, these stories, these experiences — theater — is important.

Although I didn’t agree with many of the characters’ actions within the play, the production humanized many perspectives that had not entered my life before college.

For me, it became a way to channel my extroverted nature into creating something that touched people. A few days after the final curtain, I received a Facebook message from someone who saw the show. She told me how much she had liked the play and that “as an actual geeky younger sister of a normal girl, it made me very emotional.” It was the first time I felt like doing theater had made a real impact — something I wouldn’t have been able to achieve without the “theater people” around me. These new friends brought perspective, insight, and empathy to the fictional portrayals of very real situations and emotions.

The student theater community, more than my sorority or other extracurriculars, has produced the strongest feeling of community in my life, and I think it comes from the empathy it takes to act and perform. In my experience, my theater friends are great listeners (maybe because they know how to take direction). They are practiced at expressing themselves (maybe because they all have a dramatic flair). And they support each other unfailingly (because you won’t get far on stage if you’re trying to do it alone). These are the people I’ve called at the lowest and most stressful points in recent years — when a close friend ended our friendship, when a best friend told me about an unexpected pregnancy, and when I was going through the intense period of applying for jobs.

No, I didn’t go off the rails, as my parents feared. Far from feeling excluded as a Catholic, I found that the theater community welcomed me, not only embracing my perspective, but reaffirming why I continued to practice my faith. Far from being corrupting influences, these people gave me the space I needed to try new things, hold on to what I already considered important, and erased many of the biases I had about theater being close-minded and progressive to a fault.

At the end, what remains after graduation is the community I was welcomed into, not the costumes I donned, the lines I recited, or the sets I helped paint. As I visited my alma mater for the fall musical a few weeks ago, I was invited to participate in an all-cast-and-crew dance to Uptown Funk before the curtain went up — a longstanding tradition. Looking around the circle at the faces of old friends, mixed with the freshmen and newcomers I will never know, I only wanted one thing for them: to feel, as I did, a part of something entirely human, accepting, and irreplaceable.

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