In one of my clearest childhood memories, I’m standing in the wings of a stage. I’m eight years old and I’m a little out of breath, having just sprinted from the dressing room to the stage. I’m nervously rolling and unrolling a comic book — my only prop, which I took very seriously — in my hands as I wait for the lights to go down and the scene to transition.
The last note of a song rings through the theater, the spotlights turn off, the crowd cheers. The stage manager waves a hand urgently, I straighten the vest that I’d been put in for my little role as a citizen of River City, Iowa, and I step out to find my mark.
Back then, I had aspirations of becoming a Broadway star. My part as a background townsperson in this community production of “The Music Man” was enough to get me dreaming. Maybe this was just the first step. Maybe I’d get an even bigger role in the next show, and things would fall into place from there.
Everything in the world was possible and wide open then. If I worked hard enough, what would stop me from doing anything I wanted to do? It was never even about fame — something I could hardly conceptualize at the time — but the fun of performing, of stepping out in front of other people and telling a story.
But I got older, and my ability to be comfortable on a stage shrank as I lost the self-assurance kids are blessed with. I stopped performing. My dreams shifted away from being a Broadway star and gradually worked their way down to earth. Eventually, after so long with my head in the clouds, I found myself with two feet on the ground. The great big world of possibilities shrunk to fit between the narrow walls of my own capabilities and other people’s expectations.
There’s probably a connection there between how I stopped being able to express myself both as an actor and in real life. The ability to wear every emotion plainly and feel them deeply became harder to do in real life as it became impossible to do on a stage. No one told me that growing up would make me reticent, more afraid of my own feelings, more afraid of what other people would think about them.
But I kept theater with me, even though I moved from the stage to the audience. Of all the things that I loved in my childhood, it’s the only one that’s grown with me. I can’t count how many productions I’ve seen, but they span years and continents. Musicals make me less jaded, even when getting older demands pessimism and weariness. I don’t know another medium that allows, if not requires, the same kind of frank emotional exposition. In order for the story to move along, everyone has to say exactly what they’re feeling so that the audience can feel it too. The Phantom has to tell everyone how ugly he is; Jenna has to mourn the person she used to be; Evan has to apologize as his lies unravel; Bobby has to reconcile with his loneliness.
Whenever I sit in a theater, I let my guard down. When I do, nothing can command my attention the way that a good show can. Even though the nature of an audience involves being surrounded by other people, I find the theater a solitary experience. My phone stays off. I don’t move from my seat until curtain call, even during intermission. I don’t say much to anyone who comes with me. For two or so hours, I’m completely content to be alone in my head.
Letting the theater’s darkness settle over me like a weighted blanket and letting all of the emotions coming from the stage — no matter how dramatic or over-exaggerated — allows me to experience everything with more emotional clarity. Most of the time, I have what I think must be a life-changing realization about myself or the world or the universe after I’ve seen a show. It’s never actually as profound as I think it is, but it means that I’d let go of some of my reticence and hesitation, at least for a little while.
Basking in the loneliness — welcoming it rather than shoving it away — invites me to feel everything more acutely than I normally would. It’s strange, but I think I owe it to the people performing. They put on such displays of emotion that it makes me think it’s only fair for me to feel my own in return.
Personal growth isn’t linear, but sometimes I think I’ve only regressed from the person I was when I was eight — the person who let herself feel everything, who was so excited to perform because she was totally undaunted. The theater makes me feel like that person again; it lets me take a step back in order to move forward with greater clarity. I learn — or, maybe, relearn — something about myself every time I’m in an audience. I leave the theater having grown into my own skin just a little bit more.
Daily Arts Writer Katrina Stebbins can be reached at email@example.com.