Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Resurrection of a Reformed Actress

*Note to readers - I had intended to make this story a single blog post, but as I started writing, I realized that I had a lot more to say than I had initially thought.  I could have cut back, but what the hell, it's my blog and I kind of want to explore this thing that is my identity.  So, I have decided to post this story in multiple parts.

Part 1:  Childhood

So, I am in a show.  And, I'm super excited!  When I left the DC Theater Scene over 8 years ago, I wasn't sure if there would ever come a day when I would say those words again.  It has been a long, transformative journey there and back.  A journey that parallels the story of My Life.  So, let's start at the beginning, shall we?

My Parents on their wedding day, 1962
Like so many artsy-fartsy types, I grew up with a tumultuous family life. My father was a disappointed artist/genius who had early success as a photographer in New York City, but later career frustrations once he began working for NBC and later CBS.  My mother was a former dancer who, after a particularly satisfying but difficult season with Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, had given up her career in performance to support my father in his endeavors and pay the bills once he was drafted to Vietnam.   I suspect the choice to hang up her toe shoes and start working for Pan Am also had a lot to do with a fundamental lack of self-esteem coupled with a need for financial security. Ultimately, these personal and artistic disappointments led my parents down the path of bitterness, anger and exhaustion which, when coupled with the responsibilities of two young children, eroded their once dramatic and charismatic union.   After 19 years of marriage, they acrimoniously divorced when I was 7 and my brother was 9. This was back in the 70's and early 80s when none of the families in our neighborhood had working mothers (we did) much less divorced parents.

I was a painfully shy, bespectacled, asthmatic child with mild learning disabilities that led my family to pronounce me, "a ball of fluff and a future Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader."  I found this puzzling because other than my obvious lack of intellect, I felt totally unsuited to this glamorous career.  I was definitely not considered popular or pretty or vivacious.

Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, 1978

Me at 8, definitely not
a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader

In our early childhoods, my brother won all of the academic and social accolades from my parents and the community at large. He would roam our neighborhood with a pack of kids.  Children and adults alike found him amusing, friendly and precocious.  He played chess at 6!  He was a lego genius!  He was gifted and talented!

I, on the other hand, would run around behind my brother and the other cool kids, hoping some of the acceptance would wear off.  The one friend I had, I clung to with a death-grip, praying that she would not figure out what a dork I was and leave me behind.   I cried on every single first day of school until the ninth grade.  The idea of riding the bus unsure of a seat partner and then navigating a new classroom of strange and terrifying faces all while holding myself together simply overwhelmed me.  I would be so alone.  And awkward. There was nothing about me that would appeal to anybody.

However, in private, locked in my room, or wandering around the woods that lined the golf-course near our house, I would create an alternate universe.  It was a universe where I was a star.  I was beautiful and graceful.  I was full of promise, and people would come to watch me, ME, dance on soft stages of grass lined by trees.  Every beam of light that filtered through the summer leaves would touch me and it would feel like the hand of God, a God that I spent a lot of time pondering and praying to in those days.  I prayed for him to help me and my family.

I started taking ballet when I was 5 after over a year of begging my mother for classes.  Thus began an unbalanced, and sometimes unhealthy love affair with dance that continued into my teen years.  Unfortunately, even from that young age,  although I loved, deeply loved the discipline of dance, I was so terrified of making a mistake that I would become sick with nerves and forget the routines that we were to practice during center floor time.  More than once, I left a class in tears, frustrated once again with my ineptitude.  Other girls were taller, slimmer and had better memories for choreography.  Although it seemed that I worked the hardest, I could never get ahead.  I would be praised for my form or technique, only to fumble as soon as all eyes were upon me.  Plus, there was my Mother.  I lived in fear of her disapproval.  She had danced professionally.
ANNIE! My alter-ego!

It was not until a desperate book-report in seventh grade that I became aware of Acting.  Oh sure, in my lonely days I would sing all the songs to Annie and day-dream about starring in the revival, but that had to do with Song! and Dance! and Broadway! as much as anything else.  No, it was an unconventional book report that my seventh-grade teacher assigned to our class that changed my life.  We had the opportunity to do anything we chose for this book report.  We could paint pictures, make a tri-fold display board, create dioramas, anything.  But it had to be good.  And it had to show effort.

I had no idea what I was going to do.

Over the years, I had quietly set about proving to my brainy family and the world that I was not in fact, stupid, but smart.  Smart enough to be a member of my family In Good Standing.  After the divorce,  my brother and I had moved with my Mom and her new husband to another school district.  Interestingly, as soon as I got away from where I had grown up, teachers began to notice me.  A few glorious teachers took the time to work with me one-on-one to overcome my dyslexic tendencies and ultimately, I was tested and brought into the gifted and talented program in my new school.  My life as a determined perfectionist had begun.  The funny thing about perfectionists, though, is that those of us whose strive for perfection is coupled with crippling self-doubt often find ourselves procrastinating out of the fear of failure.  We must then work ten times as hard and at a feverish pace to finish our projects.

This was exactly the predicament in which I found my 11 year-old self.

I was quickly running out of time.  The project that we had had over 3 weeks to complete was due in a matter of days, and I had not yet begun.  The book that I had read (I don't remember the name) was about two young sisters who discover a world of fairies. In a panic, I decided to make a tape-recording of all of the different characters interacting, children, fairies, etc.  This would absolve me from coming up with a fancy art project.  If I bluffed well enough, I could make it interesting and dramatic but most-importantly, it would sound cool.  So, with about three days remaining, I set to work.

Each day after school, I would record different scenes of my inventing based around the story.  The book was set in England, so I took advantage of my time with my new step-mother and step-sisters, who were British, and mimicked their voices.  Americans LOVE English accents, I figured.  Even at the age of 11, I knew simply speaking like a Brit would give me instant intellectual cred.

Winston Churchill
For the written portion of the project, I decided to create a "journal" in the voice of one of the sisters who discovered fairyland.  I wrote days of "journal entries" describing the oral adventures recorded on tape.   I then wrapped the tape and "journal" into a box with a letter (soaked in tea for the appearance age) the recipient was the subject of the book's "grandchildren."  The letter explained that within the box were a secret recording and diary proving that fairyland really existed.  It occurs to me now, that this project could actually be considered my very first theatrical writing as well as my first performance.

I was terrified about how the thing would be received...

The book report was a HIT.  A SMASH.  A GIANT COUP FOR INVISIBLE ME!

My teacher was so impressed that she played the whole tape for the class.  She later called my Mom to tell her what a talented child I was and to encourage her to send me to theater camp!    Other students suddenly noticed me.  They thought I was cool and interesting.  "How did I talk like that?" they wanted to know.  "How did I come up with such an awesome idea?"  I beamed.  I made up some sort of clever answers, and an idea began to form:  I was not such a loser after all, I was good at something!

That summer, my mom scraped together the funds to send me to a fairly prestigious theater camp in Texas, a whole continent away from the East Coast, my fractured family, and my ailing father who had recently been diagnosed with Cancer.  I suspect her willingness to spend her hard-earned money on this venture was as much due to her acknowledging that I needed a break from my further crumbling home-life as it did with her encouragement of my newfound talent.

The first day of camp, auditions were held.  We were putting on a youth production of Oklahoma!  There would be professional sets, music, and costumes.  The show would be a paid performance.  It was a big deal.  The camp participants ranged in ages from 10 -18.  Although I don't remember the precise numbers, I do remember that there were a lot of us.  I had never auditioned for anything in my life.
I took my song, (Matchmaker - haha!) and I performed it as loudly as I could, I even did a dance that I had choreographed for myself.  I wore make-up and had done my hair.  Round after round of auditions were held.  I kept getting called up, again and again.  We read from the script, we sang and we danced, until finally there were only two of us left standing.  We had to do a kissing scene with the 16 year-old boy who was, by this point, already cast as Curley.  I had never kissed a boy in my life.  But, let me tell you, I put everything I had into that kiss.  After a seemingly endless break while the adults consulted with one another, the final cast list was announced.  I was to be the lead in the production,  Laurie.  I was 12 years old and my first kiss had been onstage.

That summer in Texas, I was reborn.


  1. Diane, I LOVED reading about your dramatic beginnings!!! You have blossomed into a beautiful and talented woman!

  2. Tina, thank you so much! It means a lot to me that you enjoyed my story. :)

  3. I love that last part. First kiss on stage!

    1. Thank you! That is 100% true. It was terrifying!

  4. You tell this story so well, Diane! The things we don't know about each other...

    1. Thank you! I know... all of those crazy background details...

  5. great story. my 15 yr old son has dyslexia - a challenge that inspired me to become a tutor for dyslexic learners. just spent my whole afternoon with several brilliant, uber-talented and creative kids who just happen to have trouble decoding/encoding words. my heart was breaking the minute you put together artsy with asthmatic and learning disabilities. So glad you were recognized for your talents and found your way. and glad you found your way back to the stage! :)

    1. Deb, you are the kind of hero that changed my life. For me, I found my salvation in the help of a few dedicated teachers. They helped to open up the whole world to me. The stigma of learning disabilities can stay with someone for a lifetime, so I applaud anyone who can see the person and the intellect behind the challenges!

  6. Wow! We do need to catch up. When did you start a blog? I really enjoyed reading this. Among your many other talents you are a beautiful writer. -Jenn

    1. Thanks, Jenn! I finally started the blog last week after well over a year of prodding from our friend, Kate! And, YES to catching up!

  7. Love all the visuals I am getting while reading. I love when teachers give all students a chance to find their strength and talent, because they are there! Great read

    1. Thank you! Teachers can really change a person's life, can't they? They are true heros!

  8. On top of my immense love for you, I adore this post. :) I, too, had a book report revelation! Mine was acted in front of the class. I was terrified. People were awed. So great. There is so much of me and my daughter in this, too. *fistbump*

    1. This comment made my heart smile! The power of books are amazing in so many ways. Fistbumps all around! It is so exciting to have your lovely girl join our ranks!

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