Time to Remember
I realized in my teen years that if I wanted to pursue a life in the theatre, I was going to have to do it without any support from my family. In my early teens I had been placed in the advanced art classes- I had some aptitude for drawing- and they encouraged that creative outlet wholeheartedly. Unfortunately it just didn't capture my imagination. I was fairly good at copying pictures, but not good at creating original works. Theatre, it would seem, was the art that caught my muse. But for my parents, this" acting" thing they just didn't understand. Well, mostly my father didn't seem to understand it which in hindsight is kind of funny because I now see that I got a lot of my theatrical verve from him. He has an gift for dialects and is a seasoned joke teller with a gift for gab. His oversize personality and charm have informed my DNA . My Mother, on the other hand, was soft spoken and preferred to remain in the background,avoiding attention at all costs. I found out in her later years that she had a lovely voice and enjoyed a brief tenure in her church choir. It was then I learned of her choral past in her school days. I found it strange that she never mentioned it before, at least when I started singing in shows, but we as a family didn't really talk about the past- even the good parts. I don't think she really understood my desire to be onstage, but she supported me in doing this thing that made me happy with her gentle encouragement.
My junior year of High School I did my first musical and it clicked for me- THIS is what I am supposed to be doing. The singing, the dancing, it all electrified me. The show was Bye Bye Birdie and I played Mr. MacAfee.It was a gem of a supporting role with two great songs- "Ed Sullivan" and "Kids". Because of the size of the role, I didn't have to attend all the rehearsals but I told my folks that I had to be there for all of them. I didn't want to miss a thing. I rented the video of the movie version and became obsessed with the "Gotta Lotta Livin'" dance number and appointed myself as rehearsal dance captain (despite the fact I was not in the number and had no dance training or even an inkling of what a dance captain was!.). I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I would rewind that tape over and over, studying every dance move and mimicking them in my living room until I had it down pat. In my mind I would lead the chorus like a pro, yelling "5, 6, 7, 8," just like they did in Chorus Line. I am sure the reality was a bit more Guffman than Bennet.
Those were the days MTV still played music videos and I would pore over them, taping all the greats, playing them one frame at a time to master the dance moves. My dance teachers were Michael, Janet, Madonna, and Paula. Movies and television were the only training I had as far as acting, and I devoured it all. Kind of sad if you think about it, but it was all I knew. These were the days before internet and smart phones, there was no such thing as E! Television and no shows like Inside The Actors Studio, and no YouTube. Show biz was outside of my families realm of experience and I had no guidance in the matters. So I did whatever I could to absorb everything I watched, in the small hopes that THAT would make me an actor, make me a performer.
I remember the impact of watching "Madonna: Truth or Dare" had on me- I was obsessed with dancing at the time. I saw the movie at lest 10 times in the theatres, and a friend taped the Blonde Ambition Tour special on HBO for me, and I wore out the video tape.Once again I pored over every frame, mimicking the dance moves , bouncing and shaking my hips around my living room. The movie was trancendant to me- a true revelation, but it was the backstage stuff in Truth or Dare that really got to me. I saw people like myself with passion for what they did- perform, and I knew that was where I needed to be. Among other artists, my peers, making something special.Also, it was my first real exposure to a group of gay men (the dancers) unafraid and bold in who they were-they were celebrated and seemed cool. That was an amazing revelation to me. At that age, I was so green and inexperienced, but I was also HUNGRY for it. I knew I would do anything to be part of that world at any cost.
The next year would find me in my first leading man role in a community college production. It was nothing to write home about, but it did give me a bigger taste of what performing in front of an audience was like. Increasingly with each experience I was hooked like a junkie on heroin, the obsession with getting a fix began to control my life. I followed my best friend to an audition at the Birmingham Festival Theatre where he was cast and I was not but once again that did not stop me from forcing myself onto the production crew. I became the propmaster.
And then, I learned what the properties master did.
I had a tendency to put carts before horses.
That was my first experience of what a professional theatre could be like. Yes, the Festival was a community theatre, but the director and actors talent level far exceeded anything I had done up to that point. Once again, I became the ardent observer, studying everything I could, hanging on every direction , drinking it all in. The show was a bawdy comedy and I remember the director trying to explain "funny" to us one night. "If you see a lady in a wheelchair at the top of a hill and suddenly she loses control and starts rolling down it, that's not funny. But if the lady has a pee bag hanging from the wheelchair and it's flapping in the breeze- THAT"S comedy!"
Opening night I was as nervous and excited s the actors. I bought a special outfit and everything- a white shirt with white pants and a fancy Panama hat- also white. Not the most optimal choice of wardrobe for the propmaster who is supposed to be changing things onstage during the blackout, but the director never pointed it out or made me feel bad about my poor choice in wardrobe. I will forever be grateful for that kindness.
I learned a great deal from that experience- about putting a show together, about myself, about life in general. I was not happy at home- my family was going through a rough patch- and the theatre seemed a wondrous magical place where I could re-invent myself. Be anybody. Do anything.
I'd found a new home.
Stephen LaDow is a local actor, blogger,singer, barista , and supporter of the arts. He lives on the West End of Panama City. Follow his blog at Unfiltered-ness.com.
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