Once upon a time, I was a theater rat. I thrived off of the smell of woodchips, paint, and overly air-conditioned performance spaces. I rehearsed endlessly after school, on the weekends, and over every summer. I did my homework backstage, ate and slept in the house seats, and daydreamed in the wings. Mixed in with TLC in my CD tower were soundtracks to musicals like Pippin. I could equally recite Charlemagne’s tongue-twisting lyrics in “War is a Science” as I could the entire rap in “Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls." I never missed the Tonys and had Tommy Tune’s autograph framed and nestled between my prom glass and yearbooks. And when I think of all the seasons of my life, that extended season of casts and crews, building and striking sets, and creating the extraordinary from the ordinary, shines in my memory with the brilliance of a perfectly focused spotlight.
I was one of several rats with whom I ran from theater to theater, show to show, and camp to camp. We weren’t always the greatest influence on each other. Even young artists have a tendency to test boundaries, experiment, and push the envelope with false invincibility. But we were also a bonded troupe du jour who understood why we’d sacrifice a traditional adolescence for plays and performances that mostly attracted our parents and English teachers. To us, it didn’t matter that the groundwork was being staged in a gymnatorium; we were rehearsing for our life’s destiny, and like Pippin, finding our “corner of the sky.”
Now though, I can count on one hand the friends from that season who are actually doing what we set out to do. Most of us at least started out working in “the industry” in some capacity, but the bulk of us fizzled out for various reasons and the corner of the sky we gaze at now is nothing magical. The last show I worked on was after I had my first baby. It was all too much--the late nights, juggled with a kid, and a husband who also worked nights. When the curtain came down, there was a sense of relief. That’s when I very neatly packed the script into the box with all the other scripts and songbooks, closed the lid, and quite peacefully blew a farewell kiss to the season. I didn’t think about the theater rat. Frankly, I didn’t care if she cared at all.
But seasons aren’t so boxed, at least not the ones from which you’re born. While it’s been twelve years since I’ve blocked a scene, memorized lines, or warmed up my voice, it takes one orchestra prologue after the lights go down when I’m sitting in an audience to make dormant butterflies inside me suddenly flutter, one whiff of sawdust when I walk into a hardware store to make me long for a cast workday, and one forgotten recording in my itunes to make me listen to musicals all day for a week.
Who am I kidding? It never left me. Nothing that makes you ever really does.
I’ve binged through “Encore!”, that reality show on Disney+ in which cast members from high school return 20, 30, and 40 years later to restage their high school musicals in five days. Entertaining? Yes, but more than anything, it’s as conflicting as the nostalgia it stirs up. The show focuses on middle-aged adults, who at one time saw these extraordinary futures before them, except they all settled for being about as ordinary as you and me. They’re now math teachers, personal trainers, and legal assistants. It’s enough to make the entire reproduction a bit sad, and there's just enough underlying regret in their testimonials to stir up my own regret.
Wasn’t my name supposed to be in lights? Wasn’t I supposed to die a glamorous death from rehearsal exhaustion? As it stands, I’m gonna die an unglamorous death from laundry exhaustion. Please don’t tell the theater rat.
But then there’s this truly poetic moment when the director, an accomplished Broadway veteran Disney brings in to give the show some oomph, asks the cast to close their eyes and picture their faces at the age when they first played the roles they are recreating. They are asked to tell their younger self the one piece of wisdom they wish they knew then that they know now. There isn’t a dry eye in the room. Every would’ve been actor tells himself or herself affirmations like “You’re good enough.”, “Stop worrying.”, “You’re stronger than you think.”, “Enjoy the journey.” Every one of them experiences this enormous moment of peace with their ambitious younger self, who wanted so much out of life, who might have even come near to it at one time, and as the tears trickle down aging cheeks, there is resounding clarity. As the curtain comes down, the tears have turned to laughter and relief. They played their roles without embarrassment. It was fun. It rekindled old friendships, and more than anything it wiped away any doubt they’d been carrying since whenever they last stood in the spotlight. They go back to their regular lives grateful, proud, and a little happier than before.
The pressure is off and the power of perspective, which always manages to get the last word if we shut up and start listening, throws an act of mercy that didn’t require a reality show in which to experience it.
Nostalgia is altogether a conflicted feeling. In one sense, there is a sentimentality for a time gone by when bliss and possibility could fill a heart with so much contentment that there wasn’t room for anything else. I hear a song, smell an old costume, or unearth a picture and all at once travel back to a place when all seemed possible. Then my heart pangs. I know now that all of it was fleeting. Rather than smile, I’m tempted to grieve.
But just like the ordinary folks in “Encore!”, I know more than just that it was fleeting.
There’s a reason why man vs. destiny is poured over time and again in novels, in the most cinematic ways, and smeared across Broadway. Art imitates life. In his story, Pippin starts out bursting with wonder. What will he do? Where will he go? His corner of the sky is literally the limit. The glamour of being extraordinary tempts him through war, sex, and greed. He survives it all, reaching the crown jewel of heroism by being crowned king and he believes he’s found true happiness. Only it doesn’t last. Even a kingdom isn’t fulfilling, and he’s convinced he will never be happy. It’s then that he stumbles upon a simple woman and boy in the country. He fights like mad not to settle, but eventually defies everything he ever dreamed of and assumes an ordinary life, saying, “If he isn’t tied to anything, he’ll never be free.” Pippin’s happy. Ordinary isn’t so bad after all. In fact, it’s freeing.
Replace Pippin’s crown with my theatrical aspirations and your flashy dreams and we’re really no different, except that we don’t come with Bob Fosse choreography and a Stephen Schwartz score as we find the right track. We are equally tempted, pulled, and forced to answer the questions of what we want and what we’re willing to do to get it. And what perspective tells us is that the first question is actually easier than we ever knew. What we truly wanted was never the issue. I wanted to be an actor. Maybe you wanted to be an astronaut. Within both was the simplest, most ordinary desire. We just wanted to be happy. That’s what makes the second question vital.
When we’re young, we think the answer is sacrificing the ordinary--giving up football games, Christmases at home, a family, regular hours, and traditions. And for some, that’s their answer. But if you’re anything like me, it was never the ordinary I needed to sacrifice to finally be happy. Nope. I needed to sacrifice the extraordinary--opening nights, lights, action, and a world for which I was no longer cut out. I’m sorry to disappoint the theater rat, but that’s just who she turned out to be by the end of the act, and if I had one message for her it would be this: Finding a corner of the sky and choosing it without reluctance is the real dream come true.
If it was so easy for me to kiss it goodbye, was it ever really my destiny? I’ll always love theater, but my name won’t be in its lights. I’ve got magic to do elsewhere.
I know enough to know that nostalgia isn’t meant to be gut-wrenching, yet sometimes we can’t help but reflect on the past without doubt. That’s when, while dusting off old scripts and humming showtunes, ghosts of musicals past, I need to let perspective have a word. My nostalgia isn’t because I’m not truly happy now, but rather that I think I let me down--me from a time when everything that ever mattered was my spirit running free. Well, girl, starlit Annie, full of dreams, you never stopped dreaming. Your dreams just changed as you changed, but one thing is certain: You are as free now as you were then to keep fighting for that corner of the sky--whatever that freedom may be, extraordinary or extraordinarily ordinary. And another thing: Years from now, you’ll have perspective about today, this very season in your life right now. Even then, something tells me there will still be sky to find.
For maybe that’s what life is--a continuous circle of tests and spurts of happiness, followed by another big push. Though we may feel trapped in the cycle, it doesn’t mean we gave up on happiness. It’s just that happiness might look different from how we imagined it.
And that “isn't bad for the end of a musical comedy.”
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