This is how theatre saved my life. My imagination (and later, theatre specifically) saved my life. When I was a child, my mother was quite ill and consequently to show concern for her, I controlled my emotions. I didn’t want compound her stress.
I was the youngest in my family. With ten years between me and my next closest sibling, I rarely had anyone to play with or talk to. I depended upon my imagination to comfort me and take me away from loneliness I felt but wouldn’t admit to anyone. I learned how to slap on a smile and pretend everything was good with me. I was quite a little actress.
When I saw movies, I would act them out and sing very dramatically while sequestering myself upstairs on the east porch of our house. It had no heat and I remember freezing to death for my “art”.
I was born and raised in Kansas in a small town. Our only claim to fame is we had two colleges, one university which was a teacher’s college and another one a religious affiliated. Oh, and we had an enormous beef packing plant which made our town smell…..unusual. Ugh!
My Childhood Secret
I thought I was crazy, though. I never told my friends about my make believe playing and when I would visit their houses, they never played make believe. So I decided I wasn’t like everyone else. I played make believe until I was twelve.
My father was a physician and my mother was raised in Japan when she was a child. Consequently, her wander lust was difficult to satiate and we traveled to many countries when I was quite young.
If it wasn’t hard enough being the youngest, my world view was very different from my fellow classmates. Just another thing to make me an oddity, at least in my mind.
My mother wasn’t at all supportive of my interest in theatre. She intimated I could end up like Elizabeth Taylor, “She’s been married seven times. Look at her…”Something was mentioned about me ending up on a “casting couch.” I didn’t know what that was, but by my mother’s attitude I knew it must be bad.
Trying to be the good daughter, I left behind my imagination and became a cheerleader in junior high school. It makes sense if you think about it. That worked for two years and I loved the performing aspect of it. I was a rotten jumper. No one taught me how to do a round off or cartwheel, so I taught myself. But I could yell loudly and lead the crowd in cheers. At least I could do that!
When I was in high school, I found exactly what I was seeking –the stage! I was cast in my first play as Madame Arcati in “Blithe Spirit”. Since I had no previous acting experience, but lots experience playing the piano, I notated my script as if I was playing the piano. I used fermatas for pauses and crescendo and decrescendo signs when I wanted to speak louder or softer. (That’s me in the photo above in the green dress.)
I remember a college theatre professor attended the play and reviewed it. (Who reviews high school productions?) He mentioned that although I was believable it was a shame he couldn’t hear my voice past the stage lights. I never let that happen again, period.
To this day, I grow nostalgic whenever I step backstage. The scent of sawdust, newly painted flats and the warmth of the stage lights are a magical elixir to me. I brush the back of my hand across a velvet grand curtain and immediately I feel I’m home.
In college, I experienced an epiphany. It was the early 1970’s, and society impressed upon me to hide my negative feelings or only express those feelings most accepted by others. I realized by sharing myself hiding behind a character, I could express all my feelings and thoughts. I felt accepted universally.
That’s a heady experience which made me come back for more. Nearly forty years later, I’m happily stuck here.
My Directing Debut
I became a director for a community theatre production of The Miracle Worker because there was no one else willing to do the job. Ha! I have a leader type personality and directing fit into my life. I was quite young to take on such a challenging production but I took to it right away. I saw the potential of affecting people through stories that I created in my own manner.
Now, I adore making a statement through words and actions.
As of this writing, I have directed over 300 plays and musicals with adults and children alike. I chose to direct and act at the community level for most of my career. It’s not that I don’t enjoy professional theatre. On the contrary. I’ve appreciated the professional positions in which I have been employed. If you’d like more information about my teaching experience, go to: The Lessons I Learned from Working as a Drama Teacher
It’s just not where my life’s journey has taken me. I’m always open to work in whatever venue needs me.
I’ve portrayed many beloved roles–Maria in “The Sound of Music”, Marion Paroo in “Music Man”, Dot in “Cricket on the Hearth”, Penny in “You Can’t Take it With You” and many others. Above all, more than any particular role or any special production, I have learned about myself.
Theatre saved my life. It has given me great joy, creative challenges and great friendships (I even met my husband while acting in a show). If you’d like to hear from some of my former students and their experiences, check out: How Theatre Shaped My Life and How Theatre Shaped My Life Volume Two
I don’t know where I would be without it.
How did you find theater? What are your experiences from participating that have shaped your life? I’d love to know. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out my website at DeborahBaldwin.net.
I’d love to hear from you!