Earning Our Stripes

We all know that we do dopey things in our youth; we don’t always think things through to the end. I have learned the hard way that you really have to earn your stripes in most anything you do in life.

This goes for work, school, hobbies and life in general. What exactly does it mean to earn your stripes? Basically this: when we are new to something, we have to be patient enough to take the time to scope out the situation. We need to see who is in charge, what our own boundaries are, and who does what and when.

Case in point: when I lived in Texas, I was lucky enough to join a light opera company that put on Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. I grew up listening to Gilbert and Sullivan, and I adored the patter, the music and the characters in each operetta. I dreamed of being in at least one of them, so joining this company was a dream come true.

Being the showoff that I was back then, I stepped on a lot of toes in my attempt to fit in. Most of the players were old hands and had worked with each other many times before. As such, they shared each other’s jokes, remembrances, experiences and so on.

When I and the other “newbies” joined the cast for “The HMS Pinafore,” we were introduced to the old hands one by one. When my name was called, I stood up, lifted my arms into the air and did a deep bow. The silence was deafening; even the crickets weren’t saying anything. I had just made an ass out of myself, and also made a pretty poor first impression.

I was of course part of the chorus; the main actors already had been chosen. Luckily, I knew enough about wigs and makeup to become the company’s wig mistress and makeup artist. I really don’t think anyone else wanted to do it, but I was thrilled to be able to do this bit for the show. As the rehearsals went on, I got to know everyone better. I watched and listened and employed that bit of good advice: “to stay out of trouble, apply your tongue to the roof of your mouth.”

I loved and still do love theatre. Being a part of this group meant a lot to me, and slowly but surely I learned to talk less and listen more. We women of the chorus had to sew our own skirts, aprons and high-necked blouses. We learned all of our songs together, and often practiced together during breaks. I made some friends, and finally I felt part of the show.

The show had its first night, and everything went well. Each night we showed up early to get dressed and made up, and we “chorus girls” would stand together in a line to tie each other’s apron in a big fluffy bow. I was lucky enough to get an assistant to help me with the makeup, and we were able to get everyone all ready before the orchestra tuned up.

In the next show that we did, “Patience,” I was still handling wigs and makeup, but this time I also was one of the dressers as well. This meant standing backstage waiting for the character to come back and change into their next costume for the next scene. Somehow I always got the male characters, and they finally got used to me pulling off their shirts and trousers and making them step into the next costume. Generally, dressing couldn’t take more than two minutes; to this day, I don’t know how we did it—but we did.

I soon realized that I had indeed earned my stripes. It happened when I put myself where I was supposed to be; not where I thought I should be; a main actor. I grew to admire these folks very much, and realized that I did not have what it took to be a main actor in the shows. But I always got to be in the chorus, do the wigs and makeup, and to my surprise, that was more than enough.

Funny how that happens, isn’t it?

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