My Master Thespian

My older son is 32. That means it’s been a while since he was in high school. Yesterday, on Facebook, one of the students from the high school’s theater program posted a message to everyone he could find from those days. One by one, the members of the Hamden High acting troupe responded with their fond memories. It made me so happy to see all their names.

My son was a shy, socially awkward kid in middle school. He so did not want to be there that he wore his coat the whole school day. Then came high school. I don’t remember how he ended up getting involved with theater. It was probably because he was sick of my haranguing him to get involved in one of the hundreds of clubs and activities available to him, so he would get out of the house and away from the TV once in a while.

He really enjoyed his first play, which was “Bye Bye Birdie.” He played dual roles: he was one of the Shriners in the scene where Rosie dances on the table, and one of the reporters gathering around Conrad Birdie when he arrived in Sweet Apple, Ohio. Not exactly top billing, but there was an audible click for him – he had found his place in the high school world.

Hamden High had an incredible theater program for many years. I believe they were eventually banned from competing in statewide contests because they always won. It was, in essence, a college-level drama program. The main teacher, Julian Schlusberg, made every kid feel special, important and an essential part of the production. On the days when the plays were being performed, the boys wore ties to school, but not just the actors. The school band members, the kids who operated the lights and the kids who built the sets also dressed up. Mr. Schlusberg wrote notes to each student involved, with personal comments about their unique contributions to the production. What a great teacher!

When D. learned that “My Fair Lady” was going to be the next play, he decided he wanted the part of Alfred Doolittle, the dustman who is Eliza’s father — sort of the comic relief in the story. We rented the movie and watched it over and over, listened to the soundtrack so D. could learn Alfie’s two big songs before he auditioned, and crossed our fingers. He got the part! That meant hours and hours of rehearsals. He would come home at 10 pm drenched in sweat. “What are you DOING over there?” I asked. He said they were learning to dance.

I bought my tickets for all 4 nights of the performance. When D. came out in his Alfie Doolittle costume, I was so proud of him. Then, when he started to sing and dance, leading a huge production number for the song “With A Little Bit of Luck,” I was stunned. STUNNED. My shy boy? Unbelievable. I wept happy, relieved tears.

Then came “I’m Getting Married in the Morning,” also a big ensemble song and dance number, proving that my son was really doing this – it wasn’t a fluke. Night after night, I sat and sobbed as I watched him bring down the house with these amazing performances.

The students performed in both dramas and musicals. In D.’s senior year, the play was “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” my favorite Shakespeare play (I had a cat named “Bottom” in college). No dancing or singing in this one, but there is the play within the play, the Romeo/Juliet-like story of Pyramus and Thisbe, performed by the little group of “rude mechanicals,” in honor of the Duke’s wedding. My son was cast as Flute, the workman who reluctantly must play the role of the young woman, Thisbe.


Not actually my boy, but you get the drift

The play within a play is performed in the last act. Wearing a lovely blonde wig and a long pink dress, my boy performed his role as Thisbe. To enhance his womanliness, he was sporting large breasts made of balloons, and at a certain crucial moment, while he was supposed to be dramatically weeping over the body of his deceased love, Pyramus, one of the balloons popped loudly. The audience didn’t know this was deliberate – that he had a little tack in his hand to make that happen – and roared with laughter. I roared with laughter too…in between sobs.

The theater kids were delightful: kind, wholesome, supportive and with a genuine sense of community. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned about the booze at some of the after-show parties. Never mind, I still like to think of them as wholesome, because they were!  You can drink and still be wholesome!

The moral of the story is that even the shyest kid can find his place in the world. Not only did D. thrive socially while involved in theater productions, he also excelled scholastically. Was it lots of down time during rehearsals to do homework? Or was it being in harmony with the universe for the first time in his life?

If you had told me, when D. was a solitary, often sad little boy, that he would someday be dancing and singing on stage, and embraced by a group of like-minded peers, I would have thought you were certifiably loony. But it really happened.

I hope all the moms out there will take heart from this story.  Here’s what I learned:

1) Children just need to find their special interest or talent and then they will shine!

2) Have faith in the rest of the world eventually seeing what you see: the amazing person who is your kid.

With a little bit of bloomin’ luck, that is.

11 thoughts on “My Master Thespian

  1. I too “found” myself in theatre in High School. I however “found” myself back stage not on stage. My school didn’t do nearly the caliber performances you list above (we did Phantom Of The Soap Opera), but it did give me a place to belong. Our drama director was my mentor and my friend. I keep in touch with him (via FB) still 15 years later. Theatre is my family, my friend, my home. While I don’t get to work backstage nearly as much as I would like, that moment when I step foot into the theatre, when I smell the air, when I feel its presence, I am home.

    A wise man (my husband) once said of the theatre industry, “We are the island of misfit toys. The range of people who we work with is amazing. They all seem to have something that makes them different. And would make it hard for them to fit in anywhere else. Tattooed CEOs of multimillion dollar companies. Corporate suits, who organize raves on the weekend. That clean cut guy in the $80 polo shirt, bantering with the million dollar client? He’s a bassist is a touring punk band. Southern gay rednecks, flaming straight men. World travelers. Rastafarians, Trustafarians, Pastafarians. Introvert hobbits who only feel at home and come out of their shells when they smell the dust of an old theater. People who can instantly morph into whatever they need to be that day. People who refuse to hide what they are. People who know what work and craft is. People who live for acrid smell when you throw open the doors of a closed up summer stock theatre. All are welcome.”

    Ladies (and Gents) encourage your kids to go into the arts. Don’t fight it (like my parents did). Sure there is NO money in it, but you know, LOVE is greater than money. Doing what you love will make you richer than Bill Gates.


    1. I loved this, Monica! It brings out a certain side of people you would never otherwise get to see. That’s what happened with my son.

      Ah, the arts. Remember them? I had a much art-ier youth and I miss it a lot but can’t seem to get myself together to return to that magical place. Or maybe I am frightened….


  2. Thank you, Kriste. What character did you play?

    I write posts like this, hoping that you young moms will remember them when you are so worried about your child’s place in the world that you can’t sleep. I want to tell moms & dads to have faith and trust that all will be well.


  3. Bravo! I love this post and I love your conclusion. Nailed it. As an aside, I too was in my high school production of My Fair Lady. I had a blast!


  4. I love every single part of this post Randi! What a wonderful teacher drama program had. I love that he wrote notes telling the students about their unique gifts. That is so wonderful! I also love how you mention you wept every time you saw your son on stage. I will so be the same way. Even now when my daughter does something incredible I tear up and she’s only 2! You are such a loving mama.


    1. Thank you, Michelle. You would not believe that teacher’s notes. They were long, detailed and so spot on about what each kid needed to hear about themselves as a person (rather than just their contribution to the production. He was, and is, a great teacher and an even better role model and mentor. I will always be grateful to him.

      I’ll look forward to hearing about your daughter’s future performances and your reaction. It’s the absolute best kind of crying.


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