There’s a very good reason I am not a performer in any legitimate sense of the word. At an early age, I was infected with a virus that, like all viruses, has no cure; one which tends to cause facial spasms, sporadic outbursts of song, and, above all, a crushing, insufferable need for approval. You may recognize these symptoms in certain celebrities, such as Lea Michele, Kristen Bell, and Neil Patrick Harris. It’s called Theater Kid, and it is the worst.
From ages eight to thirteen, I worked almost exclusively at a children’s theatre in Bakersfield, California. At North of the River Junior Theater, I played such roles as “The Lory” in Alice in Wonderland, “Whoville Photographer” in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and “Friend of Becky Thatcher” in Tom Sawyer. My high point in the NORJT-verse came when I won the prestigious Toby Award for my work as the Peddler Woman in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. However, after about five years at NOR, I as beginning to scrape the walls of my terrarium. Not having been blessed with parents who were willing to donate significant amounts of money or join the board of directors in order to guarantee me bigger roles, I was forever stuck in do-nothing parts while my fellow actors — whom I (perhaps erroneously) perceived as far less talented than myself — landed the leads. After being cast in the made-up role of “Jojo’s Teacher” in a production of Seussical the Musical, I promptly quit the show and exited stage right in search of greener pastures.
Greener pastures arrived in the form of Bakersfield Community Theatre, a shabby 150-person house situated in a grim ghetto in the southeast part of town. BCT was not the ritziest theater in Bakersfield, not by a long shot, and yet it had somehow attained the status of being the “snob theatre” among the NOR crowd. How this actually happened is beyond me. BCT has the distinction of being California’s longest-running community theatre, yet it always seems to be one sparsely-attended matinee of For Colored Girls… away from shutting down entirely. The actual theater itself was a big metal warehouse separated into three parts: the house in front, a wood and workshop in back, and a dim greenroom in between them (poorly lit, I assume, to hide the layer of dust and grime that had surely been accumulating since the place was built in the late ’20s). The greenroom held two smelly communal dressing rooms, a wall of makeup mirrors, a number of decrepit couches that had probably at one point been set pieces in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and a prop loft only accessible by a rickety, questionable ladder. There was another structure on the property, a minuscule box office and costume shop crammed full of sparkly bowler hats and hideous ’80s dresses that had been used in almost every production, from Steel Magnolias to Hot September. The box office also had a tiny living room space of sorts attacted to the side, used primarily for auditions and to house early rehearsals while the actual theater was occupied with whatever show was already running. The turnover was fast, but the box office was not air-conditioned, and it smelled like hot dogs. During a clean-up day, the theater’s creative director discovered a feral cat living in the box office bathroom and was subsequently sent to Urgent Care for a rabies shot.
Needless to say, we were not snobs.
Upon my arrival at BCT, I discovered that the youth program was unofficially “run” by a group of teenagers who called themselves the Theatre Geek Mafia, or TGM. These kids were, by and large, pasty evangelical Christians who wore black fedoras every day and addressed one another as “dawg” long after it had become passe by hip-hop standards to do so. While youth community theatre is generally a haven for young homosexuals and the robust teen girls who harbor fruitless crushes on them, the TGM was essentially a high school Young Republicans club with more jazz hands. As a dyed-in-the-wool godless progressive heathen, I frequently found myself at odds with my new friends’ conservative views, but we managed to put our differences aside and just have a good time. To this day, I’ve found that even the most fundamental lifestyle issues can be forgotten with the help of a well-timed Princess Bride reference.
Aside from being the weirdly conservative nerd haven where I spent most of my Friday and Saturday nights in high school, BCT was also the site of two of the most momentous occurrences of my adolescence. The first took place during an audition for a production of Aladdin. (This was not Disney’s Aladdin, by the way, but rather a low-rent straight play titled Aladdin and the Magical Lamp. The differences between this play and the Disney movie were innumerable, but the three most egregious were that there was no monkey, the genie didn’t speak in Robin Williams tongues, and Jafar was replaced by a generic “evil magician,” who my friend Aaron gamely played as a tribute to Arrested Development's Gob Bluth.) The director, assistant director, and all the auditioners were crammed into the cramped, sweaty box office on the hottest day of August.
I was called to read for the role of Scheherazade, and, without knowing the character, I affected a deep, raspy bark for a voice, something akin to Katherine Hepburn after gargling gravel. My physicality resembled a Louisiana truck-stop hooker on her lunch break. (It wasn’t until after the audition that I found out that Scheherazade is actually supposed to be a lovely courtesan. Whoops.) After cold-reading the part, the giggling director and AD asked, “Can you stay up here? We’d like to talk to this character a little more.” Over the next few minutes, we delved into a complicated, completely improvised character study, and something amazing happened: I killed it. By the end, both directors were collapsed on the table, tears in their eyes from laughing so hard. It felt amazing
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not recounting this moment in order to illustrate my prodigious comic genius. I would go on to attempt many, many comedic bits, onstage and off, that would bomb harder than the Manhattan Project. But this particular moment stands out to me because it was a First: the first real laugh I’d ever gotten. My first kiss was utterly unmemorable — a ninth-grade boyfriend with cold hands who awkwardly asked my permission before pecking at my lips. But that first laugh — seeing two grown men actually shaking with mirth — well, my knees still go weak when I think about it.
Speaking of weak knees, the other major moment occurred during the run of Aladdin. I ended up being cast as the Genie, and during rehearsals, I developed a massive crush on the young man who played Aladdin. I’ll call him Josh, as that was not his name. Josh was an excellent example of what would go on to become my “type”: cute, musically-inclined Jewish boys who generally ignore me unless I show signs of having a better prospect on the horizon. Josh and I bonded over our shared love of indie rock and distaste for Republican politics. (In case you think that “not hating gays” is a tenuous quality on which to base your teenage attraction, let me remind you that this was during the 2008 election, in the most conservative city in California.) Josh was a year older than me, a newly diagnosed clinical depressive who played guitar and aspired to attend USC for screenwriting. He was skinny and funny and very, very cute. During rehearsals, we’d huddle together, making each other laugh, and on Myspace he’d send me the lyrics to songs he was writing, stuff like “All the cute girls are bad girls/Except for my girl.” So, I mean, obviously I was smitten.
It wasn’t all perfect, obviously. As much as we both obviously liked each other, we both had trouble expressing it. This all came to a head when, after two months of awkward flirting, we found ourselves alone backstage in the middle of a performance, during a rare five-minute break for us both. In the midst of a whispered conversation about nothing of importance, seemingly out of nowhere, Josh kissed me with what felt like the passion of Marlon Brando and Clark Gable combined. He then whispered in my ear: “Will you be my girlfriend?” I nodded yes, we embraced, and then we both went back onstage and finished the show, Josh punchier and funnier than usual and me distracted, noticing bits of the purple glitter that made up my genie makeup still clinging to his skin.
Unfortunately, that was more or less the apex of our brief relationship. We gave it the old college try, but outside of the theater, we just couldn’t make it work. I found many of his tastes and affectations pretentious, such as his love for New German Cinema and tendency to use old-timey phrases like “the bee’s knees,” and I’m sure he found my own tastes offensively base and unsophisticated, evidenced when he mocked me for my love of the Jimmy Fallon romantic comedy Fever Pitch. The low point came during a disagreement over which film we wanted to see on a date. I wanted very badly to see the new Paul Rudd comedy Role Models, but when I suggested this, he physically recoiled as if he’d been bit by a snake. “Judd Apatow?” he said with a sneer. “Come on, Liz.” We ended up at a second-run showing of the Michael Cera rom-com Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, which was a perfect metaphor for our relationship: he was high-brow indie, I was low-brow dick jokes, and when you put the two together, nobody was happy. I had to buy my own $1.50 ticket, and during the film where Michael Cera lovingly finger-bangs Kat Dennings on a couch, we sat as far apart from each other as physically possible, arms crossed and each trying not to acknowledge the other. After the movie, we took a walk around the parking lot of the strip mall in which the theater was located, and in the late-November drizzle, in front of the Burlington Coat Factory, we broke up. Then I went home and watched the Rosie O’Donnell variety hour on NBC, a metaphor for the failed venture that was my relationship with Josh if there ever was one.
If my life were more cinematic, there would have been a satisfying third act to this story. After the breakup, I did get very, very sad for a while, but this was less of a signifier of Josh’s importance to me than of my inability to feel emotions in moderation like a normal human being. In general, if I’m not absolutely ecstatic, I’m despondent, and I’m known to swing back and forth between the two extremes six times a day. When it comes to guys, I’ve either got a massive crush or I’m completely indifferent. So when my massive crush came to a swinging halt, I basically fell apart, and spent a good two months lying in bed listening to Tegan and Sara: “Maybe you would’ve been something I’d be good at, but now we’ll never know." But after our relationship ended (not with a bang, but with a fizzle), that was that. Josh went off to a Southern California film school known as "the poor man’s USC," and I moved to New York City a couple years later. We remained Facebook friends, and over time, I’ll occasionally check out his page, scanning it partly with the hope of reassuring myself that his life did indeed peak the night I walked out of it and that it’s all been downhill from there. But why do we do this? Why are we as humans so obsessed with thinking that we were the best thing ever to happen to our exes? Last I checked, he was dating a pretty Asian girl, and I wish him the best of luck in life. May he forever find new and exciting people to stick his penis in.
But I just have one thing to say. Hey Josh? Role Models was directed by David Wain, who’s one of my personal heroes. And fuck you for not knowing the difference, and fuck you twice for being a snob about the things I liked. That’s a grudge I’ll never let go.
From my future memoir, Straight Outta Jesusland, coming spring 2022 from Random House.
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- crocodileemoji said: I adored this!
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- cyborglovesong said: I kept visualizing things as if it were such, even though it was 2008. I think it means your writing is on par with said comedians.
- shut-up-erin said: Well done, and fuck yeah, David Wain!
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- nerdbynature said: I thoroughly enjoyed reading that!
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- alexleefitz said: All the bits about community theatre make my stomach hurt, because that was me from the ages of 5 to 17 because I was a fucking idiot. But seriously? I love the way you write and you damn well be writing this memoir.
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