Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Rock Star Behind the Scenes

When I was eighth grade I had a plan. I'd bleach my bangs blonde, slap on some black eyeliner, and run away to England where I would meet the members of Duran Duran, stun them with my charm and wit, and accept their offer to be the new backup singer for the band. No problem that I had no talent for singing. I had really good hair.

By ninth grade I was more into The Smiths, The Cure, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. I was beginning to feel a little embarrassed by my love of Duran Duran. Morrissey, Robert Smith, and Siouxsie Sioux had higher standards than The Fab Five, so I couldn't see them allowing me to join their bands. Instead, I'd win them over with my writing. I'd write poetry and prose that would knock them off their toes, and they'd embrace me with open arms.

Unfortunately, when I was in ninth grade, I wrote a lot a sentences like that last one, so I was never able to lure my musical heroes with my literary ways.

By tenth grade I signed up for a year-long drama class. I was certain I wouldn't make it through the year. I'd try out for the first play, snag the lead role, wow the audience on opening night, and graciously accept an offer from the talent scout in the crowd. "Sure, you can be my agent. Do you want me to sign the contract with my real name, Rebecca Sue Burton, or my stage name, Rebekah Sioux?"

Unfortunately I practiced my Academy Award acceptance speech in the bathroom mirror at home more than I practiced my lines. My name was not on the list of call backs after tryouts. Not my real name. Not Rebekah Sioux.

My drama teacher suggested I work behind the scenes, helping to build the set, work the lights, or run the sound system. I was appalled. Who did she think I am?  Behind the scenes? Whatever. If she couldn't see my star qualities, I wanted to be no part of her drama crew.

I gave up my dream of becoming a great actor, four years after I'd contracted the drama bug from my sixth grade teacher who told me my performance as The Nurse in our school production of "Romeo and Juliet" bordered on genius and wrote "to my thespian" on my report card. I still remember the terror I felt when I first read her comment. "Her thespian?" I thought. "How does she know about my secret attraction to girls?! What am I going to tell my mom?" I was so relieved when Mom looked at my report card and laughed. "Becky, 'thespian' means actor, not gay."

My tenth grade drama teacher was much less enthusiastic about my talents. Dude, who am I kidding? I wasn't acting for the pure joy of it. I was acting for the attention, the recognition, the praise it got me. Once nobody saw the sun shining out of my behind, I gave up and turned to writing.

My husband Will sang in a musical at his high school. He was one of the few guys with the guts to sing and dance. He did it for the chicks. Same reason he took up guitar playing and song writing. For the chicks.

Once Will and I got married, we tucked away our peacocky feathers, saving them for each other. While we're over our drama bug, our eight-year-old daughter, Kate, is starting to catch it. She joined the choir at church last year. This year, in third grade, she tried out for the musical and got a role as a chorister. She loves going to practice and regularly bursts into song and dance in the middle of our living room floor. She signs songs from the musical at stop lights in the back seat of the car. She sings so much, I join in, having never attended a practice but learning the songs just from hearing Kate sing them all the time.

"You know what I love about singing on stage?" Kate told me the other day.


"I love when the lights come on and they're shining so bright in my face. I can't see the audience, so I can just stand there and pretend to be someone else," Kate said.

I'm glad she's having fun and that she's finding her voice. I hope her confidence doesn't begin to wane during her teen years as I've seen happen in too many girls. Myself included. I hope she retains her love of performing even if she doesn't always make call backs. I hope she doesn't give up because she doesn't always get the starring role.

All the parents of kids in the musical have been asked to help in some way with the set design and stage production. I am helpless in both areas. Back when I didn't make call backs, I booked it. I got out of that drama hall and turned to the library, where I made myself a career. I've worked at the library for twenty-two years. I love it, not just because I'm good at it. I love it because I know it's important. And even if I'm not the one in the spotlight, I might help someone else shine their brightest. I get to help kids work on reports for school. I get to encourage teens to read poetry from the greatest, most gifted outcasts the world's ever known. I get to recommend a nice, relaxing story for new parents with caretaker burnout to enjoy after they tuck their kids in at night after a long day. I don't stand on a stage and tell people stories. I stand on the floor and point them in the direction of a good story. That's my role.

So I'm a librarian, not a stage hand. However, as Kate's parent, I didn't feel right just shrugging it off and saying, "I don't know how to build a stage set for a musical." That's the thing about kids. We think we'll be our children's best teachers, and in many ways we are, but they end up teaching us so much more than we ever thought possible. I've learned how to sing goofy songs and read ridiculous stories out loud. I've learned how to teach Sunday school. I've learned how to make crafts using safety scissors and glue sticks. I've learned how to coach girls' basketball. All because of my daughter. All because I want to give my daughter as many enriching life experiences as I can.

And, because it's my job to show her that it's OK to try things even if you're not very good at them.

So I showed up at church in the multi-purpose room, ready to build some rocks. Actually, just by looking at me you never would have guessed that's what I was there to do. I'd just stepped out of the shower and into my car. My hair was still wet and hanging down all around me. I'd forgotten my hair tie at home. I was wearing a dress and sandals, my basic uniform whether I'm at work or at church or at the grocery store. I'm not really a jeans person. I like dresses for the same reason I like robes. Nothing to bunch up at the waist when you move about your day. I would totally wear a mumu if they were more socially acceptable. Instead, I settle for nice, comfy Lands' End dresses.

But I wasn't thinking when I threw on one of my Lands' End dresses and headed to church to help build part of the set. When I saw the woman I was supposed to help work on this project--building a Yahweh altar, whatever that is--and I saw that she very smartly wore a sweatshirt, jeans, and tennis shoes, all worn and splattered with previous project's paint, I realized how unprepared I really was for my job.

It never stopped me before. I am the queen of unpreparedness. Dead Boy Scouts are more prepared for life than I am, but at least I show up.

And you know what? I built some freakin' rocks, like a rock star. If, by rock star you mean a middle-aged mom using a Dollar Store serrated knife to saw through some blocks of donated Styrofoam. It was awkward and I made a mess, and most of the time it felt like I had no clue what I was doing, but after an hour and a half, I had successfully turned blocks of Styrofoam into rock-like objects that could pass for a Yahweh altar, whatever that is.

"Wow, Mom, those rocks look great!" Kate said in the same voice she uses when she compliments the coloring skills of the four-year-olds in my Sunday School class.

"Thanks, Punk. Be sure to tell Grandma Bev what you saw me do today. She'd be proud of me," I said, of course. Always looking for validation.

My mom is an artist who only feels comfortable with a paintbrush or a scroll saw in her hand. My whole life I've never seen her go a day with making something. My father, on the other hand, cannot hammer a nail into a wall without destroying something, usually his pride. He was not the builder, the artist, the fix-it handyman of the family. He went to work at the office every day. He paid the bills. He paid for the paintbrushes and scroll saws and never minded the messy house that comes with living with an artist. That's how he supported the arts. But he never offered his hand at building anything.

Mom tried to get me to follow in her artistic footsteps, but I never had the patience. I loved to draw when I was a kid, but once I discovered that I could tell stories with words instead of pictures, that became my thing. Well, after a couple of years of deluding myself into thinking I could act and sing.

"Yes, those look great," the other woman working on the Yahweh altar project said.

"Aww, shucks," I said, feigning modesty, when in fact I wanted to say, "Yes, yes! Keep the praise coming!" I couldn't say that though. No matter how much of a show-off I am. I knew that this project wasn't about me. It wasn't about showing off my talents. It wasn't about proving I could do something I'm not very good at.

I knew this because of the other woman working on the Yahweh altar project. When we first began sawing through the blocks of Styrofoam, I asked her if this was the first year she had worked on the stage production for the youth musical at church.

"No. I've been doing this for a few years now," she said.

I asked about her background, how she got roped into being in charge of building sets and running lights and sound and doing all the "behind the scenes" work. She explained that she volunteers each year to do this work because she loves it.

"I have a theater background," she began to explain.

"Oh, did you act in high school, or college or something?" I asked.

"Not too much. I'm an artist, so what I really love is building the sets. In college, I majored in graphic design and minored in theater. I love the theater, but acting wasn't really my thing. I love working behind the scenes." She smiled so sweetly, so shyly. I was awestruck.

"Wow, that's great," I said. "Now I feel like a jerk."


"Because I was never that person. In high school I tried out once and when I didn't get on the list of call backs, I dropped out. I should have tried to work behind the scenes. Support the team, you know. But I was too self-centered and arrogant. I wanted to be the star. Instead, I slunk away, feeling rejected."

Kate put her hand on my back and said, "That's OK, Mom. Not everyone is good at the same things."

The other woman and I looked at each other like, "Who is this kid?" and smiled.

Later, in the car on the ride home, I said to Kate, "Well, that was surprisingly fun."

"Yeah, Mom. When you told me you were going to help build rocks for the Yahweh altar, I had no idea how you were going to do that!"

"Thanks a lot."

"No, what I mean is, you know, you don't really like to build stuff. You don't even play 'Minecraft'! I never really thought of you as a builder. You're a writer and a storyteller. That's what you're good at. But you know what else you're good at, Mom?"

"What?" I asked. My heart was pounding in anticipation of what this eight-year-old child was going to say about me much more than I care to admit.

"You're good at trying things you're not good at," Kate said.

"Thanks, Punk. I haven't always been good at that, but I'm trying."

"Well, that's all you have to do, Mom, is try."

"And not be afraid of looking like a dork," I added.

"Yeah, well, you should be used to that by now!"

At least I know if Kate loses interest in singing and acting, she can always get a job as a comedian.