Design by Reid Graham

When my middle school introduced its musical theatre elective by putting on “Beauty and the Beast Jr.,” I played Chip. Well, I played Chip once and only once, at a Saturday morning dress rehearsal. I had appointed myself the understudy — the speaking roles went to the seventh and eighth graders, and I wanted to feel important as one of the few sixth graders in the cast. The young actress who had (rightfully) earned the part of Chip hadn’t shown up that day, which meant that I not only got to say her lines but also got to wear the bulky teacup costume. It couldn’t have been more than some painted fabric sewn around a hula hoop, but I thought it was something straight out of the movie. I rode the high of playing what was, to me, a lead role, all morning. It was on that day that I first fell in love with being onstage. 

Doing theatre in my teens has easily been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. My parents insisted that my siblings and I do something active each year. In my freshman year of high school, after many fruitless attempts at different sports, my mom and I went to see my school’s production of “Hairspray.” She said that all the dancing would count as “something active,” and I immediately signed up for the summer musical.

I’ve played a wide range of characters over the years and worn an even wider range of costumes. I was in a “Guys and Dolls” dance number. I wore a dress my friends dubbed “the weed dress” because it was green and had a sparkly plant pattern on it. In another complicated dance number for “Curtains,” I played a mermaid. Being in Catholic school meant we wore seashell tube tops over white leotards — God forbid we show any actual skin, but considering I got an uncomfortable compliment from one of the dads in the cast, it’s probably good that we didn’t. I played a nun on more than one occasion (again, Catholic school). I wore a fur coat when I played Mrs. Van Daan in “The Diary of Anne Frank.” The coat was my character’s most prized possession, to the point where I probably rubbed its sleeves on my cheek to showcase my love for it more than I wore it as an actual coat. 

Under any other circumstances, I avoided being in the spotlight. My family would have to whisper-sing “Happy Birthday” to me at parties when I was a toddler. I hated being asked to play the piano when we had people over. Any time someone cheered for me at a sporting event, I’d turn and glare at them from the court. So what was it about being onstage that changed me? Did I feel more confident because I was playing a character? Did it have something to do with the clothes I wore? My costumes were never something I could have worn outside of a stage production, but they made me feel beautiful in their own way. I think the answer lies more in the ways that performing taught me to get out of my own head.

Mrs. Van Daan was one of my favorite roles I have ever played, and not just because I was onstage for the entire show. Mrs. Van Daan was so unlike myself: openly flirtatious, an instigator, stingy and dramatic. She was a “big” character. I was the furthest thing from big — I remember my director telling me not to be a “repressed white girl.” As such, inhabiting her personality took a lot of work. At the start of the rehearsal process, we played improv games in which we responded as we thought our characters would. I visibly froze during one game while trying to come up with an answer to the question. During another, I was ironically eliminated for trying to “stay alive” more than making character choices. A particularly scarring memory was having to stay after a tech rehearsal for “yelling lessons,” which left me in tears of frustration. 

Performing in a show is more than memorizing lines and cues. How I would respond to situations no longer mattered; I had to get deep inside Mrs. Van Daan’s head and leave my own awkwardness behind. There was no room to be complacent, either — I had to constantly respond to what my scene partners were giving me. If I made a character choice that I liked, whether making a certain face or standing in a certain spot, I had to act as though I was making that choice for the first time every night. Never leaving the stage for the show’s two-hour runtime added a deeper layer of intention to my performance because I had to be in character even when changing costumes. I don’t remember much beyond the outfits themselves — a red tea dress and a sleeveless floral number among others, all historically accurate — but there was no opportunity to check myself out in the dressing room mirror, which I think would have taken me out of the job I had to accomplish. From the time I opened the play to the time I took my final bow, I was Mrs. Van Daan. 

We rehearsed for three hours, five days a week, and eventually all of my time and effort paid off. Throughout our weekend of performances, I found myself growing more confident. I was making choices that weren’t in the script if something went wrong on stage. When I had to scream and cry because my beloved fur coat was stolen, I wasn’t getting stuck in my head over whether or not I was believable. In the beginning, I had felt like myself playing a character, but now I had become my character. Apparently, it showed — one of my best friends had come to see me on both opening and closing night, and she told me she had noticed a difference in my performances. 

There are some days that I miss being in shows. I never saw it as anything I would do beyond high school, but the ways that it taught me to apply myself left a lasting impact. Mrs. Van Daan wasn’t the last character I played that put me out of my comfort zone, but because of her, I felt more equipped to take on those roles. Putting on a fancy dress and character shoes meant that I could become someone else for a little while, someone who knows who they are in every sense, which in turn helped me feel more confident in myself. Feeling like I belonged in the drama club certainly gave me a boost, too.

Senior Arts Editor Hannah Carapellotti can be reached at hmcarp@umich.edu.