I believe in ghosts. I believe in the ghosts of otherworldly dwellings who haunt from the great unknown as well as those kinds of ghosts who haven’t been seen for ten years but a run-in at Target at 10pm on a Wednesday has determined the resurrection of familiarity and undo anxiety. If I’ve witnessed the first kind, I may have repressed the memory but the second kind I recently experienced in full force on my Facebook feed when I accepted a request to join in on the fun of twenty year reunion page. From the first day joining the group, I watched the countdown happen as old classmates posted pictures of their “insanely” good times, memories of teachers, and all those exhilarating moments at the (insert sport) game when (insert jock name) made that (goal/kick/touchdown/homerun). As I read through these posts I began to wonder if I was included in the correct high school reunion page because with the exception of a few people, these folks could have been stock photographs of Anyone from Anywhere, USA. Their comments about their lives and who they were (“You guys, we were crazy”) or who they are now (“Well, first of all, I’m a mom”) didn’t help me to piece together the puzzle of if I knew these people or not. Who were the teachers that were being quoted and laughed about? Did I not take science class with other people? Was I not in math class with at least 60 people over the course of four years? Where was I for four years?
Oh yes, the Drama Room.
The Drama Room was one cavernous room with a magnetic grip on any kid roaming the halls who was looking for a social scene that didn’t require chasing a ball and welcomed esoteric knowledge of BBC sketch comedy. The room was decorated with industrial carpet and had few tables and chairs scattered around the room. One could enter this space and if they weren’t pummeled by the lyrics to Rent, confused by teenagers dressed in formal Victorian garb on a sunny California day, or chosen at random to be included in the bibbity bibbity bop improv game, they were taken aback by what was on the walls. Covered with colorful production posters, the walls boasted of all of the shows that had taken place at the school, pictures of all the casts and crews from the past, and toward the back of the room, all the trophies. The trophies caught my attention when I walked into the space for the first time – I saw them I knew I wanted to win one. But these weren’t in-house, pat-on-the-back trophies, these were won at competitions and if I wanted to win a trophy I had to go to one.
There were a few competitions throughout the school year but the one everyone wanted to go to was held at Fullerton Community College. There were some vague rules that you had to play by but it would seem that if you were dedicated to your script work, had a decent GPA, and weren’t a pain the ass you could go to competition and be alongside other kids who were freakishly well versed in the nuances of Sondheim, able to morph into the nostalgic portrayal of Neil Simon’s east coast middle class, or wax poetic the intricacies of the Third Folio. Upon arriving at the Fullerton campus, the quad area resembled festival grounds of warring factions with each high school pitching an encampment that were beehives of activity: streamers, balloons, costumes scattered like armor after a long day in battle. Students doing stretches, rehearsing lines, crying (Oh! The tears!), doing hair and makeup (Oh! The glitter!), chasing each other, and dancing (Oh! The Lindy hop!). Then there were the parents trying to keep up with it all, trying to make sense of the environment while also helping kids with costumes or rushing them off to the next competition to support their friends across campus. It would not be unheard of to almost be knocked over by a flock of teenagers dressed like Cockney ruffians running by while one of them yells, “Hurry! We’re going to miss Jennifer’s Antigone!”
If you followed those ruffians, those little Greek mythology enthusiasts, through the labyrinth of the campus the end point would be in one of the many classrooms where performances occurred in front of judges. Whether or not those four strangers had theater experience or if they were a community member who thought volunteering for something like this would be fun, those performing didn’t care – as far as we were concerned, these people were Guffman and our competitive performance lives counted on them. All judges were seated in the front row of the classroom looking very important, making small talk names dropping that time they saw Mandy Patinkin at a drive thru in West Covina or which off-off Broadway shows and artist co-ops they belonged to in the 70s. Amongst all this low level chatter, take a moment to place yourself in the role of the performer: standing at the front of the classroom reflecting on the hours spent rehearsing and blocking the scene, the tangle emotions felt “digging deep” to find the soul of this character, multiple science homework packets missed to focus on this three minutes, consecutive nights lying awake wondering if the time’s been wasted, and your peers and their parents staring at you with dead eyes because they haven’t slept since arriving two days ago. All this has brought you to this pristine moment of adrenaline forged of excitement and white hot fear because you’re pretty sure you forgot all your lines…The stuff of nightmares but never fear, the fairy goddesses of the theater competition kick in and everyone in the audience is giving you their version of the Care Bear stare because though theater kids can be a catty bunch, we are all in this together. “This” not being the competition but whatever was waiting for us outside of the magical quad space of eccentric glittery glee and Shakespearean fairy dust. Because once the trophies were given, the group pictures taken, and phone numbers and addresses of new friends exchanged it was time to go back to “this”.
We were bullied for being weird, loud, having a bigger sense of the world and having imaginations. As an adult, I now know kids bully other kids because their sense of self is challenged and I can understand how a theater kid is who is spontaneous, confident, outgoing, and not giving a shit about what others think is scary AS FUCK to a kid who is concerned about being popular. But because at the time we couldn’t empathize our way out of having trash thrown on us during lunch, being called fags, being pushed into lockers, and being laughed at openly while we were on stage in those grueling in school performances, we looked toward the future and anxiously awaited the time when we could travel a few hours away and cocoon ourselves in happy theater geek warm fuzzies. The trophies we won didn’t matter to our school or to our classmates but they were a small token of dedication and focus – in the bigger world, we knew things were going to be ok.
And things are ok but adults do still bully, however, in ways that seem well meaning when paired with Pinot Grigio and vegan fare: “What’s your real job?” “What awards have you won?” “Have you performed in anything that I’ve seen?” “You’re so lucky because you don’t really work – you just write!” The resilience I built over my formative years to not suffer fools gladly assists me in these moments and the foundation and the ability to smile politely and think of the community of artists who support me and my artistic goals was built by participating in theater competitions. By attending these festivals, I learned to seek out structures of support like the one I found at The Pocket Theater where inclusiveness, respect, and flat out unbridled enthusiasm for the creation of any art has been a kickstarter to many projects that may have never been dreamed of, let alone attempted.
“How now, Horatio? You tremble and look pale” could have been a line delivered to me looking at my twenty year reunion Facebook page because before my God, I might not this believe. How could I compare with some of these accomplishments that I was seeing? There was no way that I could have three children, lose twenty pounds, gain 5,000 followers, travel the world, publish a book, and become a lawyer/doctor/Phd by the time we were supposed to meet at a nondescript San Marcos brewery? But while those ghosts haunted my computer screen, this scholastic seance also brought me those spirits of the drama room and the spectres of theater competitions. Memories of those wily and far out kids who would swing dance in the middle of conversations and reply to each other across a room in musical theater lyrics danced through my mind and summoned my attention to remind me of my foundation:
“What? I’m busy comparing myself to other people!”
“That’s not very theater kid of you.”
“Create your own reality!”
“Thrive in your own weirdness!”
“Only you can be you!”
“Act well your part, for there all honor lies.”
“…OK. You got me.”
“And wear more glitter.”
“I said you got me!…But ok.”