Who is in Your Tribe?

Remember high school? I don’t know about you, but in high school I never quite fit in anywhere. I wasn’t smart enough to belong with the brainiacs, didn’t like sports so didn’t hang out with the jocks, and was certainly not popular enough to be in with the “in” girls. It wasn’t until our high school introduced theater that I found my “tribe.”

There I found other people loved to sing, act, dance, wear costumes and who absolutely loved musicals. When auditions began for our school’s first musical, “The Guy From Venus,” I discovered that I had a competitive spirit. I studied and practiced and read up on the character I wanted (the lead, of course), and swallowed my fears and acted my fool head off at the first audition. No one was more surprised than me when I landed the part. I was 14 years old, and had finally found my tribe–the wonderful and amazing tribe of theater geeks!

I also found that I loved doing hair and makeup for the plays, too, as well as occasionally helping out with painting sets and scenery. It was a wonderful new world for me, and I loved being with other people who loved theater as much as I did. Best of all I got to know people I never would have met if not for the plays and musicals we put on. For five lovely years I was in each musical, and ended my high school career playing Anna in “The King and I.”

I didn’t realize that Francis Cleveland, long-time director of the famous Barnstormers theater in Tamworth, NH was in the audience during the show’s last performance. My parents and grandparents had come backstage to see me, and he introduced himself to us all. Then he asked me if I planned to become a professional actress.

“Oh, no!” I blurted out. “I love acting, but I want a real life.”

I could have cheerfully fallen through the floor. What a stupid thing to say! But Mr. Cleveland smiled and asked me if I was interested in working at the Barnstormers Theater that summer playing the *ingenue roles.

Would I?!? Long story short, it was one of the best summers of my life. I played the kleptomaniac daughter of a family of thieves in “Kind Lady,” the choir director in “Own Town,” Jane Eyre in “Jane Eyre,” the slutty maid in “Angel Street,” and Gigi in “Gigi.” I was privileged to work with the older, more experienced actors, and they were kind and patient with me. It was an incredibly exciting time in my life.

Every day we rehearsed the play scheduled for the following week, and every night we went on with the show we had rehearsed the week before. So we always had two plays in our heads, which was challenging, but fun. Our little theater, both onstage and backstage, felt magical to me. The stagehands kept an old refrigerator near the entrance way, and they always kept in it a loaf of sliced bread, a jar of mayonnaise, and a tube of liverwurst. There was a shoe box with a slit cut in the top for the price of a sandwich; 25 cents. As I was paying my Equity Actors Guild membership each week, I enjoyed a lot of those 25 cent sandwiches!

Not far up the road was a great swimming hole, and on hot days we went up there to cool off. It was also a wonderful place to practice our lines. As the water roared and rushed over the rocks, we sat on the ones that poked above the water, shouting our lines to each other. We felt so arty and sophisticated, but really we were just kids in our late teens and early twenties, having the time of our lives.

For me, there was no better feeling in the world than standing behind the curtain on opening night, my heart beating triple-time, listening to the rustling sounds and murmurs of an audience who paid to see us perform. When the curtain opened and the lights went on, it was a fairy tale come to life.

This was my tribe and I’ve never outgrown it.

*The ingenue in a theater company is the young and innocent girl who plays all the young and innocent female characters in a season.