The Stage, My Life, and a Good Book

Theatre has played a huge part in my life.

Learning to Love Drama

I’d give you specific examples, but the truth is that theatre is so tied to who I am that an attempt at making an exhaustive list would fail to properly explain. I made my debut on stage a couple of weeks after I turned nine. I can’t imagine the course my life would have taken if I hadn’t.

My introduction to the theatre came in the form of a summer conservatory I attended every year for 9 years. That was the maximum the program allowed. My grandmother found it for me after my first ice skating lesson bored the tights off me. She wanted my brother and me to take up extracurricular activities. I, having never thought about any such thing before, was picking Things That Looked Fun at random.

The conservatory was about a month long and consisted of two tiers of instruction. In both tiers, students spent half the day taking classes and the other half in rehearsals. We were each placed in one of about eight plays chosen to allow the students to apply and show off the skills they’d been developing. The differences between the two tiers of instruction were in the content of the classes. We learned basic skills for the regular consevatory and more specific or esoteric skills for the advanced conservatory. Since the advanced conservatory students were generally older, they had less kid-friendly plays to be in.

Stability Amidst Chaos

As an army brat, I’d moved around every few years up to the point when I joined this conservatory. A few years later, when the time for us to move again was approaching, my dad took a horrible knee injury and left the military. Our family stayed in Alaska after that, moving locally a couple of times until my parents bought a house and settled down. Unfortunately for me, instability didn’t end there; I’d expected to go through middle school without having to change schools, but they built a new one in my area. When they drew up lines for the new school, I was inside them.

I adapted well to change, going with the flow, but the instability still left its marks on my psyche. I don’t consider myself scarred for life or anything like that, but I don’t, for example, think of any one place as home. There are places to which I am attached. When I went off to college and then on student exchange I never got homesick, though. Even now, in moments when I’m sick of dealing with living in a foreign country and want to go back to the states, the only reason I envision Alaska specifically is because I have family and friends there.

This was as true then as it is now, if not more so. So it was that the acting conservatory became a small bastion of stability in my hectic life. Even though few of the students stayed as long as I did, many of the staff members were permanent fixtures of the program. It was also always held in the same place. My mother, budget wizard that she is, planned for it every year to make sure I could go.

Not as a Career

Although my family paid for the privelege of sending me there, many of the adults who worked for the organization that ran the conservatory were (and still are) heavily involved with the community theatre scene. I considered making a career of acting at one point, but I decided against it. I had learned that an acting career involves hunger and unpaid bills unless you get a lucky break, even for the best of actors. There is always community theatre to participate in, usually at no cost.

In spite of this knowledge simmering in the back of my brain, I have been far less active in theatre since getting too old for the conservatory. I’ve volunteered with the old conservatory a couple of times. I joined the drama club at the college I studied at in Japan. In my last year of college I took a couple of costuming classes. I took a workshop on writing one-page plays at some point. That knowledge came in handy a couple of weeks ago when I helped some Japanese students of English write 5-8 minute plays in three days’ time. The only play I’ve acted in, though, since graduating from high school, was The Sound of Music.

I haven’t lost my taste for theatre, as either an audience member or a performer. Like riding a bicycle, when I stop doing it for a while, I forget what it’s like to love doing it until I’m doing it again. But with so many other things I want to do — books to read, places to go, games to play, things to learn about teaching — it just kind of drops off the radar.

Now for the Book

And so I come to the reason I’ve been telling you all this: John Lithgow’s memoir, Drama: An Actor’s Education. I’ve been listening to the audiobook, narrated by John Lithgow himself. In short, it’s great. It had me laughing and crying at the same time before the prologue was over.

In long, I find myself connecting to it more than I expected. This shouldn’t surprise me as much as it does. I’ve acted alongside rich kids and poor kids; arrogant assholes and some of the sweetest, kindest people I’ve ever known. I’ve acted with people from Japan and other countries and connected through World of Warcraft with performers from Argentina. We all, when the day is done, have some nameless personality quirk in common. There is in all of us a love of play and storytelling.

Listening to John Lithgow recount the events that developed his character (See what I did there?), it’s easy for me to draw parallels to my own development. It’s interesting to listen to his account of learning at 62 something I learned at 25. It’s humbling to hear him speak of egregious mistakes and poor choices and consider my own.

I don’t think you have to be an actor to find his story interesting, mind. The retelling of his life and how he got there is like a chain of memoirs, a series of tales that gradually take shape as a face with whom many of us are familiar. It’s one of the best audiobooks I’ve listened to. I recommend it whether you get it as an audiobook or in a more traditional textual format.

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