I was a troubled child. Most days went something like this: Some group of kids making fun of me, me throwing a tantrum (including once throwing a chair against a wall), me getting in trouble. This went on waaaaay too long, past the point of acceptability on all fronts.
Why was i picked on? For a number of reasons. First, I was a bit weird. The primary weirdness that was mocked was my Christian Scientist faith. But I also had somewhat odd habits, like singing in the hallways as I walked down them, or nerdily obsessing over pop culture from my parent's generation (Tom Leher, Simon & Garfunkel, the film A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum). I bore some similarity to Marcus in About A Boy only not nearly as charming. Second, because the kids who did it got away with it. I frequently got punished for being disruptive (which, honestly, I deserved) and they got away with having caused the disruption. This caused no small amount of consternation for my parents, who routinely found themselves arguing with the school administration about why they weren't doing their jobs (which, honestly, they weren't... it wasn't a school used to disciplining kids, it was a hippy school). The first time I remember one of those students getting in trouble was when I said that he menaced me with an exacto knife (to this day, I'm only about 75% sure this actually happened... 25% of me thinks it was a nightmare I had that was simply a manifestation of being kind of terrified to go to school). That same kid was later suspended for bringing a pellet gun to school, and eventually let back in because he had "a good social record". Go figure.
Not that I should complain. Any other school would've easily kicked me out for my bizarre and antisocial behavior (see above). Especially when you consider that (a) I was an unremarkable B/B+ student and (B) this behavior continued into the 7th Grade.
By 7th Grade, I was a mess. I had two friends (one of them was Herxanthicles, actually, the other was a compulsive liar and equally antisocial kid named AC who I believe is now a Karate instructor). I had had these same two friends since about 4th grade. I was afraid to be left at home alone. I was praying constantly for some sort of healing to make this all better. No one really knew what to do with me.
No one that is except for my drama teacher, who loved me (many of my teachers liked me, actually, as a kid I always got along better with adults than with my peers). I was always willing to delve into the (rather hokey) worlds of make believe that she would throw us into. I was always willing to go that extra fantasy route. My steady diet of books, video games and comic books probably helped too. I was to some extent a creative child. Not as creative as some (Herx, for example) but moreso than most of my classmates.
Then a theater in DC posted an open casting call for 12 year old boys (preferably Jews) to play Jason in William Finn's Falsettoland. Stacy- my drama teacher at the time- suggested I audition. I didn't really work at it. My mother kindly suggested that we bring in some outside help. I declined. But a freak snow day lead to my working with a woman named Jane Pesci-Townsend, and my audition skills improved. Drastically. (Alternate post title: How Jane Pesci-Townsend Saved My Life)
I went to auditions for Falsettoland. I sang two songs for Serge Seiden, who was stage managing the show and also basically the casting director for it. I sang Do You Hear The People Sing? and Comedy, Tonight. You know, for variety. I was relaxed and confident, even though I felt like shitting my pants.
I don't really remember what happened next. There was one more audition, maybe two. I remember Joy Zinoman, the indominable founder of The Studio Theater and the director of the play asking me some vague questions about how i liked GDS (where her son was currently in high school). I sang some more. They taught me some bars of "The Miracle of Judaism, Part I", where Jason debates who to invite to his Bar Mitzvah, the sexy (shiksa) bad girls or the good girls he can bring home to mama.
Anyway, a couple days later my mother met me outside in the hallway at school and sang There's No Business Like Show Business to me as a way of letting me know I had the part.
I was thrown into the world of professional theater. I was (by about 7 years) the youngest person involved in the show. I had little craft. I didn't know my place in the pecking order. I didn't know I couldn't ask the other actors directory questions about their characters. I didn't know a lot of things. I learned. Quick.
And I also learned that there was this thing called the AIDS Crisis that was killing a lot of people that a lot of people loved. I also met my first openly gay man (actually, my first several openly gay men, one of whom would be diagnosed with AIDS the next year and die from it a few years later) and became very politically involved with gay rights and AIDS awareness issues. So much so, in fact, that I was hauled into the guidance counselor's office for talking about homosexuality too much in sex ed the next year.
It was a whirlwind time. The show was a hit. A big hit. It ran for 100 performance (May 13-Auguest 23rd). I was interviewed by the Washington Post twice and by the NY Times once. People came up to me on the street and talked to me about the show. Lots of kids from GDS went to see it.
And... Well... I grew up. I stopped crying all the time. I stopped throwing things at people (or walls). I stopped freaking out and having tantrums. I stopped pretending to be sick rather than go to school once every couple of weeks. I wasn't scared to be at home at night anymore. Speaking openly about gay issues lead to a lot of derision in class, and somehow withstanding that just made me a lot tougher of a person.
And I saw that this thing that I liked to that was kind of goofy had a real effect on people. This was the early nineties, pre-Clinton (whose first inaugural I marched in with the AIDS quilt, Tom Hulce, Miss America and Herxanthicles), pre-the March on Washington. Talking about homosexulity wasn't really done. Even in the "first integrated school in the Washington, D.C. area". And here was this show about AIDS and homosexuality and, ultimately, family, and how unconventional a family could look. It spoke to people. It meant something to them, and I was a part of that meaning.
Theatre saved my life. And what about it saved my life? How did it do it? It demanded I grow up and then rewarded me generously for it. It loved me for my oddness while also demanding of me that I adapt to give other people space. It showed me the value of hard work. And it showed me that I had to find other ways of dealing with the terror of everyday life in 7th grade.
I think of the alternatives, sometimes. I think about WQ, the kid I knew growing up who had the exact same problems that I did who found himself institutionalized around the age of 19. I think about kids growing up now, and how frequently they are medicated, and how much I fit the symptoms of any number of disorders (especially ADD). I think about the kids who wound up at military school, or self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. Frankly, I'm happy I found theatre when I did. I'm not sure I would've found anything else had it not come along. And this is why when things get especailly dark, I can't leave it (although I've thought about it). I owe Theatre too much. It saved my life. The least I owe it is my dedication to it.