With our ruthless and bejeweled director at the helm, the Biddeford City Theater production of Gypsy was actually pretty good. Looking back, I’ve wondered why she was so demanding. It was just community theater. Why did it have to be so perfect? But I’ve also now been around enough people who have a low opinion of anyone who is creative in a nonprofessional realm to know that that’s ugly and ignorant. People don’t have to do things by half measures because they aren’t getting paid for it. In fact, that’s all the more reason to throw every ounce of passion you have behind it. I think she could have yelled a bit less for the sensitive types like me who need to be told they are wonderful every half hour to accomplish anything at all, but I respect that she pushed herself and everyone around her.
The show paired me with an onstage sister, a.k.a. MY DEFAULT NEW BEST FRIEND! Virginia was an unsuspecting tomboy with maybe eight months on me, which was a lifetime of experience. She was unaware that we were going to be best friends, but after a while I wore her down and she introduced me to the excitement of the occult! The theater we were in was a beautiful 1890s opera house, and we played with a Ouija board in the balcony between rehearsals. She told me stories about Helen, the ghost that haunted the theater, and how if we played with the Ouija board too often, Satan would have enough power to bring Helen back from the dead to destroy us all. Kids are dark.
We stayed in touch for a while after the show, mostly because Virginia was very excited about becoming someone’s pen pal. At her suggestion, we promised to write each other letters, and as the show came to a close, she began to add more and more detail to her plan for our epistolary adventures. She said we could enclose small items like “beads we find” and smear the paper with our current favorite lipstick and circle it to ask, “What do you think of this shade?” The level of specificity rattled me.
Even at eight, I could tell that this was a contrivance based on something she had read in a book or seen in a movie. In her first letter to me, I found a handful of beads and a smear of lipstick. I still enjoyed the letters and tried to participate in the suggested spirit of her requests without doing exactly what she’d described. I sent her shells from the beach by my grandparents’ house and pictures I cut out of magazines. She sent her next letter with nothing inside, and we volleyed for a few more weeks until it petered out. Don’t try to participate in anyone else’s idea of what is supposed to happen in a relationship. You will fail.
The show also introduced a dangerous new concept to my family. Gypsy and the main character of Mama Rose explore the effects of the “stage parent” on both child and mother. My parents immediately saw in Mama Rose a blueprint of everything they wanted to avoid. We hadn’t met any stage parents in real life yet, but if I was going to be playing around with this theater thing for a year or two (little did they know), no one in my family was going to push anyone into doing anything, and for the next decade my parents went on high alert for signs that I wanted to stop. (I think they might still be waiting. Maybe that’s why my mom is always telling me she loves me because I’m a good person or whatever.)
I get embarrassed about being a “child actor.” Probably because I spent a lot of time around child actors when I was one. They’re crazy. When people ask me how I got started, I’ll usually make some crack about how I was one of those “freaky kid actors,” and how “all that’s missing is the drug problem.” I want to get in front of the story so I can control it! Maybe people don’t have judgmental feelings about child actors. I just worry that it conjures images of pushy parents, or tiny diva hissy fits, or Star Search. Okay, I did audition for Star Search, but I didn’t get on the show, so I hope you’re happy.
At ten, I stood in a modest office in Manhattan and sang “Tomorrow” from Annie (I warned you) for a children’s talent agent. That was basically it. That was all I had to do. That, and cry in the lobby beforehand, because I got nervous and my mom had to remind me that my cousin Tina wasn’t going to get married thirty minutes from New York City every weekend.
When I first moved to Los Angeles, occasionally a friend who was struggling would ask me how I got my agent, and telling this story always made me feel like a lucky little jackass. I would try to make the story funny, like I didn’t know they were hoping to glean some actionable piece of wisdom out of it. The truth is, I had nothing to offer in the way of advice. Cold-call a talent agent? But first, be ten years old?