I cried every day, and I know that’s not something you want to read about. Feelings are messy and cringey and so cliche to write a story about, and yet- There we were, in the bathroom of a theatre in Missoula, Montana, in the sweet summer of 2016. North Korea was testing its rope, and North Carolina was hung up over bathroom legislation. The musical Hamilton was the center of our attention, which had only been popular a few months but was already so overplayed. We didn’t care. This summer camp meant growth and freedom unlike any we had experienced before. We rapped those verses with style.
I sang country music too. In early 2014, I finished a performance of Beauty Lou and the Country Beast, playing Beauty Lou herself. After the show I asked my director if there was anything she knew about, any opportunities to get out of this little town, to learn theatre before college applications rolled around? She was a twentysomething touring director with Missoula Children’s Theatre, and had been in Hope, Idaho for exactly six days, and was leaving tomorrow. I was a fourteen year old girl finishing up her freshman year of High School, failing English because she stayed up all night looking at theatre memes on Pinterest. She took my information and said that there was a program Missoula Children’s Theatre ran that I might be a good fit for. She took my information and said she’d call. She never did.
Really, the crying wasn’t the important part. There were lots of things I did everyday: went to dance class, did workshops, learned our choir songs, ate hummus and vegetables in the basement of a church. We were at theatre camp, and our motley crew of 22 singing, dancing, and acting teenagers wanted to be Broadway Somebodies. We wanted our name in lights, we wanted LaDuca character shoes, we wanted to star opposite Jeremy Jordan. That meant a lot of hard work, and we weren’t exactly trained. We were a bunch of kids with dreams locked inside, bursting to get out. The problem was, those dreams had been suppressed by circumstance or parents for most of our lives. We had to get really good in a year or two, before college auditions. We knew that they would only take the best.
I really wanted to be an actor. But, as I looked at the screen of my laptop I saw figures that were impossible to reach. When the director never called, I decided to do my own research. Missoula Children’s Theatre ran two camps for kids my age: South Shore Performing Arts Camp and Next Step Prep Academy for Musical Theatre. The former was only $925, and as I learned later, was probably the one my director was talking about. The problem was, it was only a two-week program and rehearsed both Sundays. It didn’t feel right. Next, I looked at Next Step Prep, the six-week program that boasted guest artists like Seth Rudetsky and Jason Robert Brown. Sundays were off, it was geared toward kids without a lot of training. It was $5,500 to go. I remember, my heart sunk so hard when I read that figure. I could never afford that.
So, we cried: of frustration, of homesickness, of insomnia, of heartache, of hydration. We took turns with panic attacks and anxiety attacks and good old-fashioned breakdowns. There were a few the first day, a lot the last day, and an innumerable amount between. No one was exempt: boys, girls, seniors, or freshmen. The classes were really difficult, and we were running on six hours of sleep at best. Have you ever tried to learn music theory, or dance when every move has a french name and you really don’t know french? I walked out of both classes at some point, tears leaving my eyes in such rapid succession I was forced to spent the rest of the period in the hallway. I brought makeup every day: packed it in my Ikea suitcase next to my jazz shoes, leotard, tights, binders, and water bottle. The foundation hid the red on my cheeks from the heat and sweat and embarrassment. The eyeliner brought attention away from the fact that my eyes were bloodshot and ringed with dark circles. The mascara just made the eyeliner look normal.
There was over a year that passed before the camp turned from an impossibility to a goal. I got a job working in a bakery, saving money. At the same time, I wanted to run away so bad; I channeled that energy into my application. If I got in, if I got scholarships, if I could somehow manage to save enough money to go, I would be able to run away for six weeks to learn musical theatre. However, going to NSP was as much about gaining experience as it was about seeing if I was worth my salt. High school hadn’t offered me the chance to take many acting classes, and the ones I did take were group settings, taught by unprofessionals. I needed to know if I was good enough to keep pursuing it, and I wanted reassurance from people who were qualified to say. I decided to apply.
Once, I spent an hour in the dance studio, sobbing to my assistant dance instructor about how I just couldn’t, about how I was trying so much but it was so hard. She was nineteen, and was choreographing a modern group number. The steps were so hard to grasp. They kept slipping out of my head like soap falling to the shower floor. She held me and said that she was so grateful that I cared. This hurt and disappointment was a million times better than being satisfied with mediocrity. It was a small comfort, and I ended up in the front row at our performance of the piece. My pas de chats and glissades weren’t the sharpest or the most graceful, but I learned the whole routine. Sometimes the basics are enough.
Backtrack to 2015. I was actually going to do this! I asked my mom and my dad if they would let me go, as a 16-year-old, to stay in dorms in Missoula, Montana all summer. I downloaded the application, and filled it out with my very limited experience and most charming anecdotes. I asked my english teacher and my principal for letters of recommendation. I entered my information on the scholarship website. This was happening! The deadline for it to be postmarked was in January. I finished the essays, crossed my fingers, and mailed it out. I was so nervous. What if they didn’t like me? What if my application fee and hours practicing my song and monologue was all for naught? A few weeks later, I saw a voicemail from my mom on my phone right above a voicemail from Missoula. She said that I needed to call Missoula Children’s Theatre, who said that I got in! They were giving me over half tuition in scholarship, and I saved just enough to cover the rest. I could go!
On the last day, we were all on the ground. Twenty-two heads lay on tummies, like a big puddle on the floor. We listened as our director read to us a speech by his favorite man in the entire world, Neil Gaiman. He orated that the important thing was to Make Good Art, to keep trying until you can create the same caliber of art that inspires you. If you never give up you have no option but to succeed; persistence was the important part. My director said that we were talented and would do well in lots of professions, but that we could be actors. We just needed to stick with it, to show it as much love as it’s shown us. The whole summer seemed kind of perfect in that moment, with light filtering through the windows onto the piano. We were all feeling the heartbeats of each other, breathing in and out, swimming in collective appreciation. I was finally content, finally happy.
I looked up at the ceiling, and I cried. Again.