Posted in Life

Lessons From the Theatre

I took theatre arts as a teenager. That is, in school I took a few classes and acted in a couple of plays. But, my main acting experience was in a teen drama group out of our church. We had little comedy-with-a-message sketches we would perform for youth groups within commuting distance. We rehearsed every single Sunday night, and our director tried to book us somewhere at least once or twice a month, most of the time more frequent than that.

In the summers, we would travel out of town, and a few times he even arranged national tours. (He was a self-employed graphic designer, so he would work on drama team stuff during the working hours when youth pastors and such were in office and ready to conduct business).

When our youth group’s worship team started getting good, and actually started calling themselves a band, the director teamed up with them, and marketed to churches that we could do an entire youth service. The band would open, and then then the drama group would do about forty-five minutes of sketches. (The youth pastor would later launch an entire career off that band, but that’s a whole different story).

The band leader was also our youth pastor, so he would close out the night with a mini-sermon and an invitation for prayer. All the drama members would come out and pray our awkward teenage prayers in one-on-one altar ministry. (Which, was essentially, anytime a kid would naturally say “like or “umm,” it was replaced with “Lord,”or “God.” I’m sure God was pleased, but, man, sometimes it was hard to watch!). I did this all through junior and senior high, a total of six years.

We had scripts, written by the drama director, but the team was largely based on improv. The general understanding was, “anything for a laugh.” Inexperienced team members stuck to the scripts, but the more experienced members saw them as sort of a plot outline. Get to the key points, with as many laughs as you can throw in. In the drama team there were only about two real rules: be funny, and for God’s sake BE ON TIME (or we’re leaving your lazy bum!)

For most people, it didn’t matter if you could act or not. It was all about hanging out at drama practice every week. As for the director, it was all about giving apathetic teens the a chance to do ministry, so he didn’t care if you could act or not either. The so-called “audition,” was simply a diagnostic for the director. (And yet, somehow, we were actually pretty good…)

I was never the best actress. But when the best actress married the youth pastor and quit the team, I was proclaimed a good enough mimic to inherit all her lead female roles. This was great fun, and my technique was just to get out there and be stupid and silly and respond in kind to whatever the better, funnier actors threw at me.

As an awkward, shy teen, I remember there was such a rush to having an entire room of people laugh at my jokes. The first time I got a laugh on stage I just stood there in shock for a few seconds. They actually thought what I said was funny!

This anything goes mentality, however, got me banned from the high school theatre. In a rush of drama team success, I auditioned for a high school production of I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a play about the Jewish ghettos during the World World II.

As a newbie to the scene, I was given a three-line bit part as a Holocaust victim. For the better part of the semester, we had after-school rehearsals for three hours every weekday. I delivered my three lines probably once a rehearsal and then spent the rest of the time backstage playing cards or engaging in teenage shenanigans with the other Holocaust victims who didn’t even have speaking parts. On opening night, I wanted to prove to the theatre director that I had talent, or at least experience, and I could do so much more than my three lines. So, I gave myself one extra line. The director heard it and muttered with disdain, “IMROV!” The next play he cast me as a deaf/mute.

Then, as a college freshman, I responded to an open audition casting call for The Crucible, thinking that even a three line bit part would be a great way to meet new people. I sat in the auditions and watched the other performers, and I realized that these weren’t horny teenagers trying to hook up with each other while playing cards backstage. These were all the university’s theater majors, who were learning to make this a profession, and they were all vying for the same seven roles. I didn’t have a chance. I quietly slipped out of the auditorium, and that was the end of my acting career.

But, the lessons I learned in acting have been very valuable tools in life. The first time I consciously used my acting skills in life, I was 16 in my first job. I was obsessed with Christian music at the time, so my first job as a sales associate in a Christian bookstore, was the absolute perfect fit for me. Except I was very shy, and preferred being behind the counter. Being out on the sales floor working with customers scared the daylights out of me.

One day I sat and watched a more experienced cashier ring up customers, for about an hour. (I don’t remember why I didn’t help her, I probably should have…). But I watched how this girl moved, what she said, how she smiled, made eye contact, how she engaged the customers, even in the simple act of ringing up a sale. Drawing from my drama training, I created a character.

I called her Rachel, I don’t know why. She just seemed like she should be named Rachel. Rachel was this cheerleader-esque, bubbly, friendly, sweet church girl who laughed a lot, complimented everyone, oozed empathy for everyone and imbibed positive energy almost to a cliche. Walking into work, I decided, was like walking out onto stage. I had to “get into character.”

I was shocked as the customers laughed and smiled with me. I was actually out there, talking to people and working with customers! And, there was a certain safety in being in character. If people didn’t respond well to me, that was okay, because I wasn’t me. I was Rachel. So, I could live with no inhibitions.

In those first few broke-after-college years, I had a handful of weird jobs that were terrible fits. I knew they were, but I needed the work. So, I learned how to turn on a character for a job interview. I knew how to convince a manager that this shy, nerdy writer was an outgoing, super-friendly, fun loving receptionist type. I channeled the sort of collective stereotype of the young, trendy upwardly mobile college grad from every chick-lit book and movie of the mid 2000’s. I would feel a twinge of guilt as their eyes lit up, knowing I couldn’t keep up the charade longer than a week or so, and then they would be stuck with me. What could I say? It was all about the Benjamins.

I could go on, describing how acting has helped me “fake it till you make it,” when working with children, or even attending an intimidating party of event. But, my point is, life requires a certain amount of bullshit. A little bit of acting skill just makes it go down a little bit easier.

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