Reflections on Pipe Dreams and Self-Obsession
“You’ll never reach the center of an only child’s Tootsie Pop, the layers of narcissism run so deep.”
The hankering for fame like no other started as early as I can remember. I was an only child, so the center of attention simply by default, and I thrived most in climates where I was the focal point of the room. By four or five, I was already destined to be a Rockette at best, a groupie at worst, always discovered by my parents moving wildly in the center of some dance floor filled with drunk adults.
The love for all things music stemmed from my father, who sang and played bass guitar in bands since my birth (some band names I remember: Q-Ball, Take Five, and, before I was born, Public Enemy…yes, really…and The Great Rock Scare, the poster of which still hangs on my wall and is a straight rip-off of With The Beatles). Sometimes I’d get to accompany him to guitar shops where I’d run around smelling the lubricant for strings and fiddling with the picks, or to actual gigs at smoky taverns, graduation halls and church picnics, like some roadie – baffled at how dad’s voice could seamlessly drop an octave, like creamer in coffee. His “music room” man cave sat at the top of our stairs, a museum of Fenders and amps, an old record player, Yes albums, Three Dog Night CDs, Beatles figurines. I’d sit at his treasure chest coffee table and leaf through glossy picture books of The Supremes, play with the naughty Marilyn Monroe calendar on the wall, press buttons on music machines I shouldn’t be pressing. My mom called him “anal” often around me, as he spent most waking hours outside of real work and yard work in that room, alphabetizing Motown cassettes or dusting off his Paul McCartney miniatures, keeping it impeccable for no one but himself.
The love for all things creative came from mom, who was abjectly tone deaf but made up for it by dancing in the Price Chopper aisles, canned goods in her hands like maracas. When she was our Girl Scout troop leader for a few years running, she wrote a parody of Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” for our bicycle safety demonstration (the lyrics went something like 🎵Helmet! Knee pads! Oh woah oh oh!🎵) She was the funny, charismatic one at PTA meetings and in her group of girlfriends, always cracking inappropriate jokes and getting really into Halloween, stenciling pumpkins and gourds in shiny lacquer and twine for the local craft fair and dressing in ridiculous costumes that embarrassed me as a child. Unfortunately, like most household dynamics, the prime role of being the responsible parent also fell on her – the always frazzled “do your homework”/”clean your room” parent – and she had a way of instilling the fear of god in me with one crazy look and a grit of teeth before she even had to count to three, while dad was up in the music room bidding for music paraphernalia on Ebay.
But the love for all things attention – that was 100% a product of my own doing. While mom and dad’s creativity and musical talent had only one outlet into which its surging electricity could current – mwah – my conceited temperance took literal and figurative stage center. As a toddler, when my father’s band covered Van Morrison’s “Wild Nights” at some festival in courthouse square, there I was in the middle of the crowd in my tie-dyed romper and jelly sandals, bopping to the beat and making eye contact with anyone who would give it to me. On a family vacation to Point Pleasant, a live band at the pier played “You Can Call Me Al” by Paul Simon and I took the liberty to occupy the empty dance space and do the Macarena to it. Even at that age, I was cognizant of all eyes on me. (Then, I’d thought they were admiring me. Later, I realized they were probably poking fun at me. Now, I understand they probably could give two shits about me and saw me as nothing more than a nuisance.)
I’d catwalk up to complete strangers at the Ponderosa and pose for them. If any background music was playing, forget about it, you were getting a full-blown choreographed dance number right here in this Blockbuster checkout line, my mother apologetic but mostly unaccountable for my failure to recognize not everything is about me (sadly, something my boyfriend continues to remind me to date), yet negated by the fact that my parents kept boxes of entire disposable camera film rolls devoted to me posing with hands out in a curtsy and a Shirley Temple smile.
There was the Talk-Girl on which I recorded an entire album with my keyboard. Yes, I made an album, it was called Roy G. Biv., and the hit single was a country song, “Hey Jake!” (🎵Hey Jake, smokin’ your cigarettes, sittin’ at the bar talkin’ with me🎵), followed by an out-of-character R&B ballad, “Woman’s World,” that didn’t favor well with the stuffed animal fans or the cousins I played it for, unsolicited.) The bottom drawer of my dresser held a tangled treasure trove of cheap, play dress-up costumes and props that would rival Ava St. Claire’s closet: bejeweled, feathery, sparkly, leathery, satiny, and silky coats, skirts, scarves, off-the-shoulder floor-sweeping gowns, and all the accoutrements: hats, masks, pearly white clutches stained in hot pink lipstick, batons, clip-on earrings, a staff made of roses. Inexplicably, I was handed down my old babysitter’s turquoise cheerleading costume that I would wear alone at my bedroom desk, pretending to be a high school cheer coach in math class getting erasers thrown at her from an admiring quarterback flirting across the way. (Read that again slowly: I threw erasers at myself to get my own attention. You’ll never reach the center of an only child’s Tootsie Pop, the layers of narcissism run so deep).
Extended family gritted their teeth through half-attentive smiles during the latest ‘written, directed, and performed by me’ one-woman shows being broadcast in the arch of the dining room when trying to digest Christmas dinner. But my parents (and the cats) got the brunt of the weekly auditions for imaginary roles: Olivia Newton-John inspired jazzercise ditties, word-for-word remakes of scenes from Alice in Wonderland, improvisational sketches a la Whose Line Is It Anyway? It was like living with Woody Allen. I even did audition for something once: me atop a stool in a wizard hat chatting into an unplugged microphone that we sent to Warner Brothers as part of a sweepstakes to interview the cast of the first Harry Potter movie on the red carpet in London. I, obviously, did not evoke a performance worthy of what they were looking for, and remain salty to this day about not being chosen.
But the true catalyst of wanting to be a ⭐️ STAR ⭐️ happened around age six or seven, when I saw Grease on Broadway starring Brooke Shields and Rosie O’Donnell. Joe Piscopo pulled me on stage during the intermission to dance in my saddle shoes and poodle skirt and the massive audience squealed at my adorableness. The thrill was indescribable as I felt the sea of blank, no-name faces watching me – it gave me an electric buzz I had never felt before. After we left the show, we bumped into Lynn Redgrave sporting a long white coat and my Aunt asked that she sign my autograph book. I still have the photograph proof: an old-timey actress whose identity I didn’t even know bending down to my level and smiling at me sweetly while she asked my name and signed my little autograph book from Disney World, adding her flawless, loopy signature alongside Snow White and the Seven Dwarves; and me, still drunk from the thrill of the stage, gushing like she was here to see me. It was one of those rare, addicting, star-studded New York City days, a drug that once I got a taste for it, I couldn’t bear to give it up.
And yet, there was still that small problem of being a raging, control freak perfectionist. Between both my parents, I managed to get an unhealthy overdose of both left brain AND right brain tendencies – two frenemies jostling around up there in a constant, agitated state of wanting to be a carefree artist while still being really fucking Type A about it. If mom was high-strung, I was swinging from the rafters. If dad was anal retentive, I was a full blown anal fissure. Mere play time with my Barbies or toy cars or Melanie’s Mall was a dictatorship for anyone involved. If I got 46 skips on my Skip-It, you sure as shit better believe I had to get 47 the next go-around. Things had to be PERFECT before fun could commence, including any creation of art. I demanded take after take of the suggestive dances to JLo songs on the front lawn with my cousins: shirts turned into midriffs and hip swivels were all carefully coordinated details part of a grand plan. Magic marker on construction paper often resulted in crumpled balls in the trashcan and frustrated tears. I spent considerable time writing the track “Different” off my album Roy G. Biv and it still, sadly, didn’t slap. This far too young precision, in combination with my bad addiction to attention and overt self-awareness, needled its way into the classroom, too.
Elementary school was like my special guest seat on Leno. In Kindergarten, Ms. Harding put my head in the quiet corner every other day to punish me for chatting incessantly. In third grade, I voluntarily crafted a colorful cardboard rendering of the map of the United States, complete with tiny state flags on tiny pins, just for the hell of it and just to one-up my peers. In fourth grade, I was convinced I was Ms. Intoccia’s favorite, priding myself on being the teacher’s pet. In fifth grade, I relished in my classmates’ jealousy when Mr. Gerrity gave only ME a nickname (it was “Festa-vus for the rest of us” and he was actually a really volatile drunk who shouldn’t have been teaching kids). If there were ever a chance to read aloud, I made it a point to steamroll the other students, a smarmy tone of voice, shimmy of the spine and lip smack of “Let me handle this paragraph.”
Lucille Ball-inspired artistic tyranny found its way into my recreation and small circle of girl friends, as well. Recess on the playground meant I was brushing off the big rock on the hill with stalks of grass, priming it for some type of Spice Girls music video recreation I took full charge of (I viewed myself too mature for Baby, too prude for Scary, too girly for Sporty, and too fun for Posh, always calling dibs on Ginger, despite having an actual ginger friend.) That same group of girl friends also got roped into my camcorder rendition of The Real World where I played both a woman AND her love interest, Steve, who cheated with another housemate and left when confronted. We filmed confessionals and all, and it took the length of one sleepless sleepover until it was up to my standards.
Worse, there were times friends didn’t even get to participate in the fun, instead mere audience members for my one-woman shows, like that time I wrote, directed, and choreographed in a single afternoon the first act of a work-in-progress musical on my front porch, entitled Scooters, performed entirely on…you guessed it…my razor scooter, and set in a post-apocalyptic future world where everyone is forced to ride around on razor scooters separated by class. Stepping off the scooter meant alarms sounding and the scooter Gestapo arresting and/or killing you. But, what do you know, two teenagers on opposite ends of scooter classes fall in love and must hide their sordid love affair from their families and the government. I didn’t get to write past the opening number, “Scooters” (🎵We’re on SCOOTERS! SCOOTERS! 🎵 ), but I think it would’ve been a smash hit. (Only children may be lacking in empathy, but they sure make up for it in boundless creativity born of loneliness.)
Then there was my classmate’s poor mother who got stuck watching me after school, often placating fights between me and her daughter over who would be the Pink Power Ranger, since I felt the role was, without question, obviously mine for the taking. I hated sharing space with her, faking migraines in the nurse’s station most afternoons so I wouldn’t have to go to their house, pinching between my eyes with a look of pained resignation, even going so far as feigning the “maybe I’m okay” schtick to land the plausibility, only to reel it back in with some nausea, lightheadedness and a request for Shannon to bring me my homework for that day because I was a good little girl who never missed an assignment – the drama! To be honest, it was a performance worthy of a Golden Globe nomination, at the very least.
Sometimes, this search for validation teetered on the edge of Orson Welles egomania where I willed myself into believing there were more sinister things and people at work out to get me. (I attribute a small portion of this to The Truman Show – forewarning: never watch that with a self-obsessed only child lest you want to talk them out of their hole of “everyone is watching me.”) I have strong recollections of strolling the Steamtown Mall or Nay Aug Park with my mother, me side-eyeing the families near us and claiming, “They’re staring at me”; and my mother, droning from the countless times she’d been through this with me, “No they’re not. You’re just paranoid.”
Despite my neuroticism, by the end of fifth grade, I still wanted to be an actress, now largely due in part to my idolizing Drew Barrymore, who I had swooned over back-to-back in Ever After and The Wedding Singer. Scranton offered little in the way of molding me to be the next Macaulay Culkin, unless you count being the rollerblading reindeer in the Christmas concert, a role I prided myself on and dance moves of which I perfected on our porch until I had blisters. Yet by middle school, I still rapidly buffed up my portfolio with whatever opportunities were available in public school and on my parents’ lower-middle class budget, starring in a number of local plays and dramatic performances with schoolmates – the ones that you somehow get wrapped up in by way of those hokey summer theatre camps, cheap acting classes, and after-school drama programs that kept kids off drugs and their parents’ hands for a few hours.
My expansive 6th to 8th grade stage roles included:
🌟 Girl On The Phone in the opening number of Bye Bye Birdie.
🌟Southern belle in a Scranton Public Theatre play our Jason Miller-founded troupe collaboratively wrote, directed and performed in the sweltering heat of August in a tent at McDade Park (the setting was a haunted cruise ship and the theme was reality dating show-turned-murder mystery and we had our parents doubled over with laughter in their seats.)
🌟 Flamenco dancer for the “America” number of West Side Story.
🌟Cheery chorus line member for some Christmas in July musical extravaganza in a university classroom where I tossed a chocolate chip cookie to an unsuspecting person in the front row.
Most notably, I was the coal miner’s daughter in a major production of The Fire Down Below at the Kirby Theatre in Wilkes-Barre where I posed for my mother’s disposable camera on a plush leopard print chair in the shape of a high heeled shoe in *gasp* Aretha Franklin’s dressing room. I had a total of twelve consecutive lines (my biggest role yet!) that I oozed in cloying cadence, play-acting at what I assumed a scrappy child from 1902 would sound like. I sat on the fake witness stand and definitely forgot a line, but the seasoned wannabe Gregory Peck covered it up well. When it was End Scene and the lights went out, I was supposed to walk off stage, but forgot, instead awkwardly sitting still in the blackout until hurriedly walking off in the light of the next scene.
It was around then that I wasn’t quite ready to accept a very clear fact: I was actually pretty terrible at acting. Sure, I could hold my own in a public forum – stage fright was surprisingly not on my laundry list of irrational childhood fears – and I maintained confidence in other departments outside of monologues. I could carry a tune and forge my way through any number of dance moves…but I would never have the lead role (as much as I believed I should). In any event, I added my name to the Kirby’s secret basement graffiti hallway of past performers (Houdini himself actually did a stint here), marking in permanent black Sharpie my full name.
Underneath: “Your future star!”
The road to me locking in a Tony Award didn’t stop there. There were the dreaded dance classes where I caught on to the moves quick but hated most of the snooty Green Ridge girls and the years of upper class tap and jazz instruction they had on me, the piano lessons from my godfather that prompted my mother to somehow acquire an upright piano I was forced to play on Thanksgiving in front of the family, the sole vocal meeting somewhere in West Scranton that ended promptly thereafter because my mom realized how expensive it was, the countless chorus group trips where I was hauled on buses to nursing homes and neighboring schools and luncheons and awards banquets and parades and holiday parties, stuck on the back risers with the rest of the sopranos (I’m an alto now, if that matters to anyone), singing songs drilled into my head so much I now forget them out of sheer post-traumatic willpower, and the dramatic poetry readings and renditions of Anne Frank’s diary in Bernie Ross’ literature class performances, under whose wing I also learned I was very bad at improv. (I’ll never forget when asked to silently act out our morning routines, charismatic Colin expertly dragged himself out of bed, yawned, scratched his belly and rubbed his eyes – totally outshining my fake, perky wake-up and miming of my oatmeal breakfast – topped only when Kara legitimately fainted on the floor, the students and Mrs. Ross hesitating in a moment of “Is this acting?”).
Then, there were those regretful, tedious vignettes of “you gotta do this if you wanna be an actor” pushed on us by our parents and teachers who thought hours on some volunteer timesheet meant brownie points for getting into Juilliard: like that time me and five others from nearby middle schools were hand-selected to record a single called “Scranton’s Comeback” under the direction of some staunch city planner in charge of Scranton’s renaissance, an embarrassing as all hell stain on my teenage reputation when we we were forced to dance to a pre-written, corny and out-of touch hip-hop song in our oversized t-shirts at the high school, rapping 🎵Scranton’s comeback, Scranton’s comeback. Yeah she’s building new bridges and she’s on the right track!🎵 (I’m just saying, “Hey Jake!” could run circles around this record.) It was my first introduction to stomaching a less than desirable role for the sake of my CV in hopes of snagging larger roles later on in life, like Emmy-award winning Bryan Cranston starring as a no-namer on early episodes of Baywatch.
Most disturbing, though, were the short, once a week “professional” acting lessons from some washed up perv on the University of Scranton’s campus, who “coached” our individual acting styles to memorize and perform famous speeches from Hollywood stars, old crooners, and eloquent public speakers. Amber’s brunette bangs snagged her the role of demure Audrey Hepburn and she got to wear a black dress, long satin gloves and pearls. Larry’s stoic speaking style got him FDR and a too-large suit. For me, after the teacher’s eyes took considerable time undressing me, spanning the length of my long legs and stopping at my frizzy blonde mane, he decided I would perform as Farrah Fawcett, complete with a hula hoop and beach towel, signature feathered hair, eensy-weensy gym shorts and a tight midriff top to match. I stood barefoot, feeling vulnerable and half-naked, on the carpet of a university classroom, soliloquizing something overtly sexual that she maybe once said on a talk show, stumbling over my lines as I tried to be more “breathy” per the instructor’s lessons/fantasies.
Pedophilic acting coach aside, by the end of junior high, I had shown enough serious interest in the art that my mother actually entertained the idea of the two of us escaping to Manhattan to live in a studio apartment so I could attend a performing arts high school. Once, she even took a chance on me and my newly sans brace-face to drive me in an unrelenting downpour to a TGI Friday’s near the Wyoming Valley Mall where I sat in the conference room with hundreds of other hopefuls my age, clutching papers and combatting red face flush, just for two dumpy adults with bad hair to give us pamphlets encouraging us to pay money to their pyramid scheme for the near-impossible chance at snagging a “modeling” contract. These pipe dreams were short-lived, the combination of finances and too-serious-for-my-own-good self shutting it down pretty quickly, my mother having just touched wheels after a rather turbulent divorce, and me favoring a full-time, four-year education anyhow. In an alternate universe, I like to think that the two of us packed our lives in her Toyota Corolla, whisking ourselves off to a land of fame and fortune, the calloused fingers of a scorned divorcee and green ears of her prized It Girl in a take-on-all-comers tour de force down Broadway.
Then, at fourteen, I was handed the hard, dry horse pill of disappointment every teenager with lofty goals is forced to take. It tasted of people my age with far greater talent and a big, bad world outside of just *ME* and I absolutely hated it. It started in the Spring of 8th grade, when my mother took me to watch a play at Scranton High School, an atrocious, post-modern architectural nightmare built on gradually sinking swampland abutting the highway and designed to look like an open book (only if you were viewing an aerial shot of its roof). Her coworker’s son was starring in the drama club’s production of The Servant of Two Masters and she wanted me to get a feel for it, planting the motherly seeds of “maybe you could do theatre as an extracurricular,” since idle hands are the devil’s playground or something like that, but mostly because she didn’t get out of work until 5 and needed me to be somewhere after school that wasn’t home alone with the Zimas in the fridge and the oven knobs within my grasp.
I remember walking the grounds in the magic hour from the parking lot up the dramatic, grassy hill to the entrance of the school I would be attending that Fall, feeling threatened by the fluorescent light boxed inside its wavy, tiered walls of floor-to-ceiling glass and hideous schoolbus yellow trim. It had metal detectors and security guards, jocky teen boys leaving late-night swim practice, duffel bags confidently tossed over their broad shoulders, perfect blonde girls that were definitely the popular ones waiting outside for them. I didn’t want to be here. I had a research project due the following day for Ms. Roche’s library studies class – something about cataloging handwritten index cards with notations from the Dewey Decimal System – and it was weighing on me. Why is my mother forcing me out on a school night when I have homework due? But wanting to keep up with my immersion in musical theatre, I sucked it up. And hey, there may be the added bonus of flirting with some cool, older senior, a greasy, long-haired, Johnny Depp acteur type.
For a high school performance, the lead was fantastic, the crowd in uproarious, tears-down-your-cheek laughter at his slapstick Jim Carrey-like demeanor, his well-timed reactions of eyebrow lifts and one-liners. The supporting cast held up their own the best they could, but they faltered in his wake. He stole the show from them, and I cry-laughed along with everyone else in that audience that night and jealously thought, Wow, this guy is going places.
After the show, we convened in the lobby outside the auditorium to clap and holler at the powdered faces of exasperated young hopefuls clutching bouquets of flowers and receiving lipsticked kisses on their cheeks. I felt overwhelmed by their makeup, their hair, their loud shrieks and laughter, their random outbreaks of falsettos, their supportive, tumbling hugs. My mom found her coworker in the crowd and introduced me to her son (his role, I discovered that night, was very limited as Townsperson Number Whatever). My mother opened with the classic, too-forward parental nudge (“My daughter wants to be an actress, too!”), forcing conversation between two kids with a loose common denominator. He was wide-eyed and genuine in his interest (“That’s great! You would love the Drama Club, you should join!”), my mother sharply side-eyeing me as my distracted gaze met the clock and the exit sign, my panic setting in that it was 8:30 and I still hadn’t even begun the colorful highlighting portion of the library index card project. I could feel her disappointment as she gave them terse goodbyes on my behalf and yanked me outside, yelling at me for something like her going out of her way to introduce me to like-minded people and me being an ingrate who didn’t even take advantage of the ample opportunity to socialize with older mentors that I could’ve had a possible “in” with come September, as if Wench Number 3 who spoke no lines was a producer at NBC and I fucking blew it during the elevator pitch.
I stormed into my bedroom that night and didn’t come out, having an angsty teenage existential crisis of not knowing what my damn problem was or what I wanted to do with my life (funny enough, I still have these crises, only this time joined by a glass of wine). I hated my mom that night. I hated the theatre kids and all their teamwork eagerness and overbearing bouts of public performance when they could just be themselves. But I hated myself the most, because she was right. I did want to be an actress – desperately. But as usual, my work hard/play hardly attitude impeded on any possible enlightening or invigorating life experience. I spent half the night worried that I was in that auditorium seat instead of home where I thought I was supposed to be, poring over the timeline of index cards splayed out on my bed by the desk light. Wasn’t that the whole point of school?, I thought. Show up, participate, work hard, get good grades, leave Scranton, go to college, get a good job, work hard some more, never come back. Isn’t that what any mother would want? Why was she being so hard on me for DOING my homework?
But that’s wasn’t really the issue. The issue was me living up to the just plain true stereotype about only children: we don’t play nice and we’re not team players. Tonight’s lack of bumping elbows with the cast and crew solidified that. Because when the star of Servant pulled off a particularly impressive act of physical comedy at the end of Act One, the audience laughing so long the dialogue couldn’t continue until it died down, I thought, That’s what I want. Not the fake chumming up to peers, networking in actors’ circles and pretending there’s no competition for who’s better. Not learning about the Stanislavski method, or working in fucking improv groups and giving each other *gulp* “constructive feedback.” It wasn’t taking advice from some potbellied, pedo acting teacher with failed dreams of his own. No, what I wanted was that hot, white spotlight, the bellows from an adoring audience, the roses at my feet, the girls my age shooting jealous stares, the long-haired boys I crushed on drooling over me, the custom green room full of shrimp cocktail and champagne befitted for me, the limousine transportation, the glossy magazine cover photoshoots, the Oscar’s acceptance speech. The truth was, I didn’t even particularly enjoy acting. “Acting” in and of itself was never my dream. God no. Being famous was. I didn’t want to be one of X amount of townspeople or wenches or henchmen waiting in the wings for a turn that would never come. I wanted to be the best.
And so high school came and went in an abrasively loud, mostly sexually-driven blur: the tiny lockers and pit stains and guttural loathing for calculus class just blips on the radar of being positively boy crazy and obsessed with the drama club, two things that unfortunately contradicted one another. (Despite growing up in a relatively open-minded area and fairly progressive time period, the early 2000s still fell victim to the notion that any man in theatre was flamboyantly gay and any woman an annoying, feminist, nerdy virgin – the latter 100% true, in my case.) Regardless, I had originally entered high school dreading the fresh hell that it would bring, but rather quickly settled myself comfortably into the rag-tag group of likeminded folk in the drama club. I had to join, after all, seeing as I was too uncoordinated and squeamish for sports, too gangly and desperate to party with the popular kids, and not quite smart enough to hole myself away in the dark study of AP classes and SAT prep where all the now doctors and lawyers wisely spent their time. In Room 341C, I had found my niche…my people.
Freshman year, we put on Schoolhouse Rock Live! and I don’t even remember the character I played, just that I crushed hard on the lead (Ben, the senior), dressed like a realtor in an itchy paisley blazer and pantyhose, and performed a sign language song to the Preamble to the Constitution (despite singing it over and over again, I do not remember the Preamble now). The older juniors and seniors took me under their wing, letting me skip class with them and calling me Sandra Dee. I basked in fake humble glory over it.
If I wasn’t consuming every available calendar block of sophomore year in spritzing myself with pink lemonade-scented perfume and stalking Rob what’s-his-face outside his basketball game, I was rehearsing the few lines I had in Seussical the Musical as one of four sequined “bird girls,” jazz-handing my way stage left to right, handcrafting the sluttiest costume I was allowed, and taking mid-afternoon air mattress naps on Ms. Padden’s floor. She directed all the school plays, taught the Speech and Debate classes, and had a laissez-faire approach to educating, with very little boundaries and rules. Her classroom was hidden backstage in the media/arts wing of the school no one ventured down; thus, forbidden apples ripe for a high schooler’s taking, which included stowing away in the not-coed-but-definitely-coed dressing rooms to hook up (or, at least, me making a pass at Colin and getting rejected.)
It was somewhere between miming in the background of “Horton Hears A Who” and adding frilly ‘oohs and aahs’ to “Amayzing Mayzie” when I had finally learned to be a little bit okay with not always being the center of attention, instead sharing it generously with my fellow actors – a sort of personal, communist martyrdom, if you will. My costars were beyond talented, and far more talented than I could ever dream to be: the lead, Billy (Horton), had a voice like, funny enough, Billy Joel. Amanda could have been Idina Menzel. Born-to-be-a-star Colin shined in what was a minor role, but which he played brilliantly, and he was ever the ladies’ man, always flanked by whatever bright-eyed freshman girls looked up to him. My fellow bird girls were like models, helping me with my hair and eye makeup. And other supporting characters and close friends were just as much of attention whores as I. Every interaction, whether in class or in the hallways or during rehearsals or outside of school, was a Disney Channel Original movie starring us: who could be the loudest? The funniest? Pull off the most ridiculous stunt? (During one particular serious table read when we got chastised for not giving it our all, two of these friends, having been M.I.A. from the meeting, burst into the rear of the auditorium like sitcom characters and ashamedly shuffled the entire length of the aisle down to the stage in silence, stuck together inside the same large hoop skirt. I’ll admit I was a little jealous it wasn’t me, envying even the death stares they received from Ms. Padden. Any press is good press, right?)
Several friendships, crushes, fights, belly laughs, tears, heartbreaks, and frustrated actor breakdowns later, our final day of production was our best, absolutely sizzling for being on such a small budget, and the camaraderie of the wrap party was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. Seussical was FAMILY, and I was becoming one of those overbearing, eager theatre kids sharing laughs and hugs. I loved it. Teamwork really DOES make the dream work, I thought (but not before finishing off the wrap party with an attention-seeking flourish, when the host accidentally taped over the beginning of her own family’s holiday VHS tape to film me in a fake behind-the-scenes/tell-all confessional, exclaiming, “I’m done with this shit,” followed by a well-timed flush of the toilet. I like to think her family has to endure that every time they try to watch their old home films, and that gives me a great sense of pride.)
By junior year, it was time to start thinking about college. Sidetracked by my studies and my then-boyfriend, I barely scraped by in the audition for that year’s play, getting in solely on my loud pitch when shout-singing something by Panic! At The Disco. Ms. Padden’s choice for The World Goes Round was interesting (most likely the only musical rights of which the school could afford at the time), and was less a play and more a jukebox selection of theatrical vignettes from several different musicals: Chicago, New York, New York, etc. My social butterfly side wasn’t happy about the one-on-one acts and lack of ensembles; my ego, however, was thrilled I snagged Barbra Streisand’s solo from Funny Lady. Ms. Padden sent us home with CDs of the soundtrack and I was so excited when I got to the key change of “How Lucky Can You Get,” I put it on repeat and squeal-danced around my bedroom in restless agitation, picturing the crowd watching ME perform THIS. I would breathily croon, wearing a white Marilyn Monroe dress and a short blonde wig to match, I imagined, and this would be my BIGGEST number – the one that would put me on the shortlist for NYU.
Realistically, I scrounged up the only semi-presentable costume left in the grab bag: a sparkly cutout black dance recital little number that I paired with fishnets, black heels, and an untamed mane of frizzy curls in a bad red dye job. Despite feeling a little less sexy and a little less confident now, I still poured every ounce of my 17 year obsession with the limelight into my cup, going hoarse reaching the up octaves (my voice had significantly dropped sometime in early high school) and feeling sore after several rehearsals of climbing in heels on John’s poor back to straddle Scott’s shoulders for the accompanying dance number. The men did the literal heavy lifting, but I did the figurative: it was now or never. I was either going to choke out, forgetting a line and fumbling over a step, or be the absolute best. For me, there was no in-between.
My solo was right before the intermission, which I of course thought was Ms. Padden’s intention: send the crowd out to the vending machines on a high note and they’ll be clamoring to return for Act Two. Only the finale number could’ve topped this program schedule! Finally, the first piano notes chimed. One long, shuddering breath in, and it was time:
I casually draped my body’s length across the open arms of the boys as they doo-wopped and carried me to stage center, like Cleopatra. (🎵 Satin on my shoulder and a smile on my lips / How lucky can you get 🎵) I saw no heads, only blinding spotlight on the horizon, felt its heat hitting my face. (🎵Money in my pocket right at my fingertips / How lucky can you get🎵) The boys gently released me, my feet touching the ground, and I trotted around them, climbing their bodies until I reach Scott’s shoulder, crossing my legs at the top. (🎵 Every night a party where the fun never ends / You can circle the globe with my circle of friends 🎵). Singing right to the front row, the boys surrounded my head like a Fosse routine (🎵 Making merry music with the one that I love / We’re a perfect duet / Wow, how lucky can you get 🎵 )
Then, the music dropped to a sad, slow piano melody and the boys dissipated into the wings, leaving me alone with a single moonbeam spotlight in the dark (fame is fickle and lonely), but picking up again gradually with a delicious drumroll (nevermind, dahhling, fame is fun and you’re missing out!) I sashayed to stage right, one leg slowly in front of the other, shimmied my shoulders, my voice in crescendo (🎵Gee, how lucky…wee, how lucky…wow, how lucky can you gettttttt! 🎵 ) Now I was swinging my hips to the booming bass drum, ba-duh-ba-duh, crooning and catwalking the length of the stage’s edge (🎵 Hey there, gorgeoussss! Biiiiiig success! What’s your secret? Juuuust lucky I guess! 🎵)
Now, I was Roxie Hart in her eponymous song as I whipped my hair to the audience (🎵 Life’s a bed of roses squirtin’ perfume on me / You can spare me the blues, I don’t sing in that keyyyy 🎵 ) Finally, the key change! I returned to front and center. (🎵 Aaaand if there’s a man who’ll leave me, I’m delighted to say, I haven’t run into him yet! 🎵 ) Run backwards, throw my hands up in wide spirit fingers with each finishing lyric (🎵 Gee! Wee! Wo-owww! Hooowww LUCKYYYY…..can you gettttt! 🎵) I held that last note out as long as my lung capacity would allow. Several show-stopping horns, Hollywood cymbals, and labored breaths later, I was finished with a dramatic close of the curtains in front of my face, met with a standing ovation and cheers from the audience and my supportive costars watching me in the wings. I had relapsed back into the drug of Grease on Broadway, feeling like a child in New York City all over again. It was magic.
And then, it was time to visit colleges. I had my heart set on NYU since that fateful day in New York City so many days ago, so off my mother and I went to the Tisch School of Arts before the summer going into senior year. I sat in an all-white, clinical room with a very small group of people my age, my mother and I both realizing too fast we didn’t belong. The teenagers and the parents flanking them here were rich. They dressed smartly. They wore a lot of makeup and had perfect straight hair and smelled too clean. They carried fancy folios with fancy paper written in fancy font that listed their many accolades. Traveling improv troupes! Classically trained opera! Children on soaps! Ballet since babies! Commercials for christ’s sake! They oozed fake earnestness when the staunch, slick-bunned Devil Wears Prada department head gave us judgmental stares, barking at us that we wouldn’t be famous and that this cutthroat program demanded our bodies and minds seven days a week in the studio to perfect our craft. I felt a lump in my throat when we left. There was a big, bad world outside of just *ME*, only this time that scared the hell out of me instead of pissed me off. Why the hell did I think *I* would ever be a famous actress, let alone get into a prestigious school like this?
Senior year arrived, and my extremely minor role in my final high school production of Crazy For You (and the fact that I had already secured acceptance into the University of the Arts…with a writing major nonetheless) was fodder for a give-no-fucks phase I felt I had earned: skipping Spanish class to “work on the flyers,” sneaking out the back door during lunch and not returning to “gather antiques for the scenery,” lazily rehearsing lyrics and dance moves to songs I didn’t even remember the second I was finished with them. I cared so little that year, I couldn’t have even told you the characters’ names or even the vaguest plot synopsis. The night before opening day, my costars and I slumped over my living room furniture, convincing ourselves it would be a disaster since everyone but Colin (the lead, of course) didn’t have their shit together. Truthfully, we were jealous of Kylie and Alyssa and Grace and all the young freshmen and sophomores who infiltrated our turf with better roles and prettier costumes. We were all highschoolers, and yet, fresh, new faces were still preferable to the old senior hags. In any event, we were grateful some good talent was replacing us and thankful four years of rehearsals and Capezios and warm-ups and green rooms were all finally coming to an end…but maybe a little bit heartbroken over it, too.
I often wonder what happened to that main guy from Servant. Did he go on to do great things? My cynicism leads me to believe he most likely ended up staying in Scranton, getting married, having kids, and shining as the star salesman at Wyoming Valley Motors (🎵 Makin’ good deals, makin’ good friends🎵), his coworkers laughing at his jokes by the water cooler the closest thing he’d get to being center stage. But that’s depressing even by my jaded standards, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and say he probably did what most non-athletic, artistically-inclined, mathematically-declined highschoolers did: pick some form of art or media as their college major, attend an overpriced art school, realize your small bit of innate talent means shit amidst the hundreds of stage mom-raised Lena Dunhams, and finally, mournfully, settle on any job that pays. If you were an acteur, you’d use your people skills to charm clients at an advertising firm. If you were a photographer – social media travel influencer on Instagram at best, local wedding photographer at worst. For the painters and sculptors, you would probably live up to the age-old adage of “Those who cannot do, teach.”
And writers…you’ll start a blog at the age of 31 after a decade in the white collar workforce, trying to unlearn everything from your art school education and reminiscing on your whirlwind far-off Broadway stint, dreamily murmuring the words to All That Jazz on your couch, imagining adoring fans in the audience swooning over your performance, a brief moment of ‘Should I do musical theatre again?, but quickly reminding yourself, Not everything is about me, an excitement that fizzles out as quickly as it arrives – mere pipe dreams of gunky, untapped potential sitting blocked and stagnant in the elaborate plumbing network in a house I could never afford and don’t belong in – and turns out all I needed to unclog them were tools I didn’t have.
For now, though, you can still find me dancing wildly in the center of the dance floor.
I do love the attention.
🎵 I need a photo-opportunity
I want a shot at redemption
Don’t want to end up a cartoon
In a cartoon graveyard 🎵
© 2020 Andrea Festa