“Love art in yourself, not yourself in art.”
I learned this lesson in high school. I’d become somewhat of a theater geek after being cast in lead roles from my first audition on. I’d found something that I was actually good at, or so it felt at the time. Up until then I had tried so little, to be fair, that who knows what else I might have been good at. Theater had intrigued me since I was a little girl in elementary school. My journal entries from the time vacillate between wanting to be an actress, a writer, or a mother when I grew up. Little did I know I’d be all three.
By the time sophomore year came around, I began diving into activity after activity, trying on these extra-curricular activities like colorful hats. But it was theater that grabbed a hold of me and refused to let go. In one of my first productions, I had to pretend to make out with a boy in my class, complete with falling on the couch in the dark, and making a lot of well-intentioned noise. As a shy fifteen year old, I thought I would literally die. On opening night, we broke the couch. But I didn’t die and that boy and I still laugh about that play when we run into each other as adults. Perhaps surviving that scene, overcoming the fear of “what will people think”, made me realize that when you are good at something and you enjoy it, it doesn’t matter what people think. That’s part of the art.
Junior year I got a new director. Maryanne Taylor, one of the English teachers, took on the role. Our meager theater department, which was entirely a drama group—no musical theater even though we begged her every season—took on a new life. A bit rough around the edges and pretty clear about her favorite students (which, was almost everyone), Ms. Taylor stepped the productions up quite a bit and threw us into abridged Shakespeare. A lofty endeavor for our little school, our inexperienced and somewhat goofy group. We were probably very much like the Bad News Bears meets The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. But Ms. Taylor thought we could do it.
Somehow, she got football players to participate and be fairies, some complete with wings, and the entire cast, now encompassing kids from various cliques across class lines, became quite a family. In the history of our small-town, slate-belt, football-lovin’, country bumpkin school, I believe this was a first.
Wiry, hyper, and loud, I had won the role of Puck. Definitely typecast. Everywhere I went after that, my friends called me Puck (and obscene variations thereof) and it was my first experience in “owning a role”, what it felt like to eat, breathe, and sleep a script. I remember going over the end monologue with Ms. Taylor again and again and again. I held a candle, had to extinguish it by the end. Standing up there in the dark, alone, understanding I had to carry the play to the final beat—it made me feel important. Who knows if I was any good—but I felt the responsibility and the honor of being part of something so much larger than myself. That’s part of the art.
Senior year, and shortly after the success of Midsummer’s Night Dream, Ms. Taylor chose a much smaller production which would be the final play I could audition for during my high school career. A serious drama that was comprised of many small parts and very little set. I was disappointed. I still wanted a musical. I wanted flashy lights and big roles and pretty costumes. I’d learned a lot, but I hadn’t completely gotten it yet. Art is not flashy lights.
I was cast in a bit part. My inner diva emerged.
There are very few things from my teenage years that I regret. I look back at that time mostly with warm memories and eye-rolling. It’s a funny few years, yet highly impressionable despite it’s quick life.
I’d planned on leaving a note on her desk, but she came into the room before I could sneak away. Nearly in tears, I told Ms. Taylor that I just couldn’t take the role. That it was too disappointing as my last show to not even have a role with a name. I will never forget the look on her face, the slightly raised eyebrows, a bit of a frown, a bit of a smirk. Not anger, not disgust, not even disappointment, really.
More like: Lord, what fools these mortals be!
“Are you sure?”
And that was my high school theater experience; extinguished my candle with a cold bucket of self-conceit.
Years later, I stepped onto the stage again. At twenty-three, I took my chance at community theater, was immediately cast in decent, but smaller role and I rebuilt my understanding of theater, of art, and learned to appreciate the fact that, as the cliché’ states, “There is no small role, only small actors.” I remember sitting in the audience one night during rehearsal of a scene I wasn’t in. It was the first night with finished set pieces and I watched as the crew moved everything around, how it all came together: the other actors, the lights, the sounds, the words. No longer a mortal fool, I was moved to tears.
Ms. Taylor could have preached to me that day in high school. “You’re being ridiculous, you’re being selfish. There are no small parts!” She could have easily condemned me for my choice, but she didn’t. I like to believe that somehow she knew theater would end up becoming an extremely important part of my life and that I’d already learned the lesson I needed to learn even though I didn’t know it yet. She was right.
I stayed involved in community theater for ten years, and even landed some professional acting and modeling gigs before deciding the stress of performing was too much for my body to handle. Around this time, my true calling stepped out from behind the curtains. Talk about a bit part—not many people see the writer. That is part of the art.
Maryanne Taylor passed away this week. A friend, who was also in that history-making Shakespearean production, mentioned on Facebook that Ms. Taylor had our class photo on her classroom wall until her retirement. When asked, “Why the class of 1994?” Her response: “Because they were awesome!”
Well, Ms. Taylor, the feeling is completely mutual.
You will always be awesome.