My Weird Love-Letter to Theater (and Why We Need to Save It)

I think one of the insidious lessons about TV is the meta-lesson that you’re dumb. This is all you can do. This is easy, and you’re the sort of person who really just wants to sit in a chair and have it easy. When in fact there are parts of us, in a way, that are a lot more ambitious than that…I think what we need is seriously engaged art, that can teach us again that we’re smart. And that there’s stuff that TV and movies–although they’re great at certain things–cannot give us. But that we have to create the motivations for us to want to do the extra work, you know, to get these other kinds of art. And I think you can see it in the visual arts, I think you can see it in music…

These words are from David Foster Wallace. I wish I could claim them as my own because they are genius. But alas.

I read some DFW in college around the time I discovered that I liked my English minor classes way more than my Musical Theater major classes. It was an odd time.

I love musicals and acting and singing, and because I had a talent for it, I thought it was what I needed to do. Don’t waste a gift. That kind of thing.

It was the plan before I got sick with bone cancer, and so when I was well enough, I picked right back up where I was and kept going with it.

So in college, when I began enjoying something else more than musical theater, it was jarring. And I suppressed it.

Graduated. Moved to New York. Auditioned for a few years. And truly found myself looking around the audition holding rooms thinking I could be the most talented person in this room…but ALL of these people want it more than I do.

And that’s huge. That was a big, ugly realization to have. Because then I’m looking around the drug-deal-in-the-bathroom McDonalds next to the studios, wondering why I’m here, in this rich-man’s city when I could be literally anywhere else nursing the same carton of fries.

I realized I wasn’t cut out for the audition-world. And don’t get me wrong–the few professional jobs I worked, I loved every single second of it, and always felt fulfilled. But I could not handle the lows of being back in the city auditioning. Back to square one. Back to the restaurant biz.

Back to the stories about how certain projects are being cast based on Instagram following. Chicago is bringing in another Real Housewife…and what!? “Such and such regional house” hired only dancers and used pre-recorded ensemble voices? A casting director told their class that someone didn’t get a role because “they didn’t look good next to the vacation swing”?

What the f—–!? Why am I doing this?

And I totally fell out of love with theater.

Cue the pandemic.

Sitting on my thumbs in Syracuse for 6 months with my new boyfriend (who LOVES theater…we’ve had a few quarantine run-ins where he’d show me a video of so and so singing such and such song from “Insert Title Here the Musical” and I’d go…”babe. You know idgaf about this right?”).

And I’ll be honest, for a little while, when it was just like, a month hiatus…I didn’t feel bad about Broadway being shut down. I was kinda like…good. That world can be so toxic (not that I really know that much about it with my rousing 000000 Broadway credits), let everybody chill for a bit and think about other things besides whether their show will keep running another month, whether they got the callback, whether they should switch agents, whether they should take their seventh class with X casting director so they will maybe get cast in one of their projects.

Let everyone remember that there’s more out there and that THEY are more than their pirouette and 16 bar cut.

Well…I’m pretty sure with all the sadness and death and misdirection of the past 6 months…they remembered.

In June, I took a stroll through Times Square and felt ashamed of myself for ever thinking a Broadway shut-down was a good thing. Empty theaters, empty streets…once-bustling restaurants still with their St. Patty’s Day promos in the window. It was just a big empty hole of LOSS.

I didn’t want to be there.

When I read those words of DFW’s a few weeks ago, they kinda stuck with me, and I’ve thought of them every day since.

He was talking to David Lipsky (the book is called “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself”), about how reading demands something of you. It demands your participation. Lots of TV and movies (especially now in our binge-watching culture, although he wouldn’t have known about that), they demand nothing of you. You just sit there and do nothing. You don’t have to live–the people on the screen do it for you.

And it made so much sense to me–I’ve had a lot of trouble sitting and watching TV for hours on end during this pandemic, not realizing that it had to do with my engagement with it.

Reading felt better. It was a two way street…I needed the author to tell the story…but he needed me to pick up the book and activate my brain to read the words.

The words implied things that I had to be smart enough to pick up on…and I was! I had to read between the lines for things…and I could! I had to interpret the messages and feel how the words on the page were hitting me…it was kinda like…kinda like….

Like DFW said, like music! Like visual art!

….Like theater!…

No, no, Jesse, we hate theater now. I ignored the thought and kept reading.

And then yesterday I came across this photo:

Me+female swings of Spring Awakening: Kayla Foster, Krista Pioppi, Krystina Alabado

I haven’t thought about or talked a lot about this experience since it happened. But during the height of Spring Awakening excitement, I was mid-chemo, listening to “Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind” to distract from the giant needle in my arm, or the upcoming MRI, or the painful throat sores and nausea.

I had seen the show on Broadway the summer before my diagnosis, and was immediately enthralled. I couldn’t wait to audition for it.

Auditioning became my Make-a-Wish. And at first it was almost a throw-away wish. Like “yeah, you know what Make-a-Wish Foundation? You wanna fix all my problems? Ya know what I really f—ing wanted before cancer ruined my life? To audition for this show! But that’ll never happen now, so go ahead, chew on that and then send me to Disney World.”

(I was not a pleasant patient…or person in general.)

But somehow…they did it.

They got the creative team of Spring Awkaknieng to invest a WHOLE afternoon into sitting and listening and working with a sad teenager who loved their show. For all they knew, I couldn’t sing at all, and just really f—-ing loved Spring Awakening. And they didn’t care.

I loved their show enough to WISH for it. They’d been told it was the soundtrack to my cancer journey–which it was. That it had a significant hand in getting me through to remission–which it did.

Michael Mayer, Kim Grigsby, and JoAnn M Hunter worked with me one on one. Coached my singing, my movement, my acting. Looked into my eyes and SAW me…treated me like a professional actor and not a sick kid with no eyebrows or eyelashes. When JoAnn asked to touch my head and I felt my wig slide…she didn’t wince or stop or treat me with kid gloves. She asked my family if we wanted to see Billy Elliot, and got us prime orchestra seats with souvenir programs.

“A few of the actors want to meet you after the show.”

Will Chase and Greg Jbara met my whole family–said they’d heard I had an amazing audition and just really wanted to meet me.

Greg Jbara talked to my dad like an old friend and I remember thinking this must be one of the first non-cancer related conversations my dad has had with someone new in a very long time.

My Make-a-Wish had nothing to do with Billy Elliot…they just wanted to meet someone impacted positively by theater. By what they do.

Carrie Gardner, the casting director, brought me to Magnolia Bakery the next day where I ate cupcakes with original Spring Awakening cast members John Gallagher, Jr., Gideon Glick, and Remy Zaken. They just chilled with me. Talked about Spring Awakening. Asked me things about ME. Non cancer-related things!

The Broadway show had closed, and the First National Tour was on its last leg, but when it came through Rochester, NY, I was invited to come and learn an ensemble track, the “chair of rock”. The show had audience seats on the stage, and a few ensemble singers were filtered in with those audience members.

I was terrified. I still had no hair, no eyelashes, no eyebrows. Everything about me was fake, and I remember always feeling like a party clown with my big wig and painted on brows.

I thought “these are real, paid actors. They are professionals. They are not going to want some charity case to come tread on their show and waste their time.”

The first few hours, I learned the show with the stage manager, and then the rest of the cast would be coming to rehearse with me.

While I was in the hair/make-up chair, Jake Epstein, who played Melchior, came up to introduce himself to me. I was so nervous that I called him Craig (the character he played on Degrassi) and he just laughed.

He would be the first of many friendly, excited introductions. Everyone was kind. Everyone was thoughtful. From the stage crew, to the orchestra, to the actors, to the hair/make up team, to the costume crew…

During every show, I was late on jumping up onto my chair during “Totally F—“. I didn’t have the nerve to tell anyone that my legs were not muscular enough for me to jump fast after being in bed for a year.

No one scolded me. The stage manager would just give me kind reminders.

It was a beautiful experience.

But once I got a year or so away from it, and got used to being a healthy person again…I honestly just thought of it as everyone being nice to a sick kid. You see interpretations of the Make-a-Wish kids on TV shows and in movies, and they’re always so pathetic and condescending…I kinda just labeled that experience in my brain “Jesse, the Charity Case.”

And yeah, that sounds terrible and cynical. But illness comes with all kinds of icky internal feelings that you can’t quite name, and then when you look at them again from a healthy perspective, it feels like people were only nice to you because they felt sorry for you.

But when I saw that picture the other day, it came to focus better. It lined up in my head with DFW’s quote.

I was a prime example of why the world needs theater. Why we need art, and music, and mediums that engage both parties involved.

The actors and team behind Spring Awakening gave the world their words and their show and their hearts, and I was an example and testament to the engagement of the other party. The reason we make art. I had taken in their show, and used it to survive, used it to find beauty, listened to its words when I needed to remember something bigger than a hospital room.

And that is why they were so kind to me. Their work requires our engagement, and our souls require theirs’.

We need theater. We need it to come back.

During my last show with Spring Awakening, I stood to sing “The Song of Purple Summer.” Tears were streaming down my face, and I caught the eyes of the singers on the other side of the stage. We were all crying.

We were all crying because we had participated in the full circle beauty of theater.