My mom tells this story with affection. I suppose that’s because I shook it off. I didn’t say I wanted to quit and I wasn’t afraid to show my face after messing up. She probably should have been a little worried about that reaction, though. What a little sociopath, right?
The following year, in spite of my disastrous debut performance, my dance teacher suggested that I audition for some local theater. Our community theater was run-down but very charming, and they were about to put on a production of Annie, which is going to come up a lot in my childhood. My apologies.
In preparation, I watched the 1982 film version of Annie with my family and my world exploded. These girls were dancing, singing, causing trouble, and playing with dogs—I needed this to be my life. I was too young to play Annie, but I wanted the part of Molly desperately. Molly is the young orphan whom Annie comforts with the song “Maybe.” It’s a pretty heartbreaking piece of music, and I wanted to get in there and chew some of that depressing scenery.
Alas, they went in a different direction for Molly, but I got to play Tessie. The internet informs me that Tessie is ten years old, while Molly is six, but in our version Tessie was “the littlest orphan.” Tacking on any superlative is a surefire way to get a kid excited about something, so it was a clever way to convince me that Tessie was a special character. However, Tessie should be the littlest orphan. What kind of ten-year-old has a catchphrase like “Oh my goodness, oh my goodness! They’re fightin’ and I won’t get no sleep all night!” Get your shit together, Tessie.
Doing the show was the best. I was in heaven. Being tiny was a good thing, being loud was a good thing. In everything else I’d done in my six years on earth, I’d been told I had too much energy, but here, I had somewhere to channel it all! We sang “It’s the Hard-Knock Life”! We did a dance with tin buckets and scrub brushes that was bursting with adorable scrappy rage! We got to embody the rollicking fun of being orphans! (Why are kids so obsessed with orphans?) We got to play with a dog!! At one point the director told the girls we were playing too rough with the dog and they should play with me instead, because it might tire me out a little. So maybe I still had too much energy—they’re adding a TAP number?! Let’s go learn it!
To this day, seeing a tattered brown cardigan or a pair of thin-soled lace-up boots makes my heart sing. In a costume context, not, like, on a person. I’m not some out-of-touch monster who sees real-world poverty and longs for the days of her musical-theater beginnings.
One review mentioned me. The reviewer said something nice but remarkably unspecific, yet my mother and father know that sentence verbatim to this day. I won’t bother pretending that I think that’s lame of them (I mean, it is, I just don’t think it is), because having my parents love and support me is a pretty sweet situation, as parent-child relationships go.
My next local gig was playing Baby June in a production of Gypsy a few towns away. The director was a woman with enormous black hair who seemed to bathe in knockoff Chanel No. 5 and tacky jewelry. I’d never met someone who was so unapologetic about how they looked. She sparkled like a Christmas disco ball at all times. If I’d known what a drag queen was, I would have thought, That woman looks like a female drag queen and chuckled to myself about my very first piece of lazy observational humor. Instead I thought, That woman is all the colors of the rainbow and I want to roll around in her closet.