by: Addison Bell
The first musical I saw was Grease. I can’t remember how old I was, but I was in elementary school. My class walked up the street to watch the high school kids perform it. They made us hold hands. I told my classmates that my cousin was in the musical, because I thought that maybe it would make me cool. Some kids didn’t even know what Grease was about, so I told them, because one of my other cousins let me watch the movie this one time. I thought this also made me cool. But feeling something isn’t the same as being it.
I can only remember bits and pieces of the show. I can see my cousin in a pink jacket and I can see the scene when the boys pull their pants down at the dance (they wore boxers on stage). But what I remember the most is what I was thinking during the entire production. I wasn’t really paying attention to the story—I was focused on the performers. I thought—I knew—that the people up on the stage had to be the coolest kids in school. They were able to get up in front of big crowds and memorize lines and pretend to be other people and even drop their pants sometimes. They were fearless. They had the confidence that I didn’t have. I sat awestruck in my chair, because I wanted to be the kids up on the stage.
I was in the theatre program in junior high and the first two years of high school. Actually, I wouldn’t call what I did “theatre.” I didn’t have talent. I was just…there. Sometimes I had a few lines, but I hated having lines because I constantly worried about how I sounded or how I looked saying the lines. I knew—everyone knew—that my voice sounded different, that I was different. When you’re a teenager and lack confidence and identity, you learn to hate what makes you different, and sometimes that hate never really goes away.
I didn’t become what I thought the kids in Grease were. Being in those productions did not make me fearless and they did not boost my confidence. But they did allow me to be around nice people for two extra hours during the week. And that made me less lonely. I was the kid that everyone knew, but no one saw outside of school. Sometimes I wish that I had been brave and become closer to the theatre kids. I think high school would have been easier if I had.
What really kept me going back year after year, though, was how those performances made me feel. Everyone was always nervous on opening night, but when the curtain went up it all went away. At least, that’s how it was for me. When the show started, I was able to stop being me for a few hours. I stayed in those plays because I got to be someone else. I was in a completely different world where nothing really mattered. Everything stopped. It was like when you’re a kid and something makes you laugh so hard that you’re stomach hurts, but laughing makes you feel so happy. Why don’t we laugh like that anymore?
Performing was like when you have a horrible day and everything is sad, and the only way of getting away from it is to go sleep, to step out of the world for a few hours. But then you wake up. That’s why I quit after my sophomore year. I told everyone that I wanted to do other things, that I was too busy, that acting wasn’t for me (it’s really not). But the real reason was because it hurt too much after the productions were over. After the last show, I would go home and realize that I had to be me again. I would want so badly to go back to the world up on the stage, but I knew that the feeling was only temporary. Sometimes you dream about someone that you’ve lost or someone that you miss more than anything else, and as soon as you realize that it’s that person, you wake up. You try so hard to fall back asleep so that you can keep dreaming, but you can’t and you cry, because you were so close to being with that person again, just for a little bit longer. I quit because I could be whoever I wanted to be on stage, but that person always died as soon as the show was over, and I was always missing him.
Once, during my senior year, I snuck into the auditorium through the stage door. It was in the middle of the school day. There was this old, unstable loft backstage that was always off limits to students unless you had permission from the director, but people went up there anyway. I climbed the ladder and lied down on my side. I thought about all of the people who had been on the stage. I wondered if they were happy or sad or both, if they had good lives or didn’t live long enough to ever know. I wondered if anyone had felt what I felt when I was on the stage, and if they tried so hard to keep searching for that feeling, if they were ever able to hold on to it. And I wanted to know if any of them were ever lost, and how long it took them to understand why, and if they ever were able to stop searching for a way out. I ended up falling asleep up in the loft. I don’t know how long I slept for, but when I climbed down the ladder, I walked across the stage and said goodbye.
There are rare times when I when I do get that feeling again. The other day I was walking in Lincoln Park and the sidewalk was covered with dying leaves. They smelled like what a forest in the peak of autumn. I looked at the trees and there were warm colors everywhere, and the sun bled through them. This beautiful song was playing in my head. Everything just stopped and I only existed in that moment. I was in that dream with the person that I miss; I was up on the stage again. I was exactly where I wanted to be.
Addison Bell is a senior at DePaul University where he is studying English Literature. He is the President of Oxfam DePaul and volunteers with Oxfam America, an organization dedicated to ending world hunger, poverty, and social injustice. Follow Addison on Twitter @boy_1904 and on Tumblr: colourmegreenwich.tumblr.com.