Let’s be real, you couldn’t pay me to go back to high school. Even all the craziness that comes along with moving to New York, furnishing and decorating my new apartment, trying to find a job, and rehearsing two shows at once cannot compare to the stress, anxiety, and self doubt I felt in my teen years. I’m not saying I hated high school altogether, but I think it’s safe to say that being a teenager can be hard. Really hard.
This summer, I worked with thirty-one teens in a high school musical theatre program and got the chance to review that high school experience from a completely different vantage point. I learned so much from the experience, starting with the fact that high schoolers are probably the most marginalized age group around. They are supremely underestimated in terms of drive, passion, and intelligence, all three of which these students had in spades.
But another thing I saw across the board was low self-esteem. This is obviously a problem with actors of all ages, but it definitely plagues the high school set more than any other. Or maybe adults are just better at hiding it.
The thing that always gives it away, is the constant apologizing for one’s work. Sometimes it’s verbal—“I didn’t really have time to work on this”; “I’m not prepared”; “I have a cold”; “I can’t really sing”; “this isn’t in my range”; “Sorry!”—and sometimes it’s all in the physicality—making faces after one’s voice cracks; a slumped posture; essentially fleeing the stage after the final note is sung.
So, why do young actors self-sabotage this way? It’s a multi-faceted issue, but I think the lion’s share of it comes from a lack of safe space. Being a creative teen can be difficult. Depending on where you grow up, it can be very unpopular to pursue the arts. So teens feel that if they set expectations low, they can’t disappoint their already judgmental audience.
Over the summer, I heard campers from each different artistic track — musical theatre, music industry, culinary arts, fashion industry, and film — talk about how few friends they had in school and how misunderstood they felt by their peers. Many of them were in counseling or on medication for the depression they faced as a result of this bullying. They were tortured and teased and had finally come to a place that welcomed and supported them.
Shortly after camp finished, I was working on a play and reading up on the idea of the “hero’s journey,” or the monomyth. This device, developed by Joseph Campbell, is used to describe the journey a character goes through in a traditional myth. It starts with the “call to adventure” and goes through the steps they must take to complete their path.
Toward the end, there is the “refusal of the return,” when the hero completes their task and resists returning home, because their normal life cannot compare to the magic they experienced in the outside world. When I got to this step, I realised the monomyth was the perfect metaphor for summer camp.
When each session starts, campers reluctantly file through the doors and into the unknown. They are nervous, scared, and excited, and they apologise for just about everything they do. What they find, at least at this particular camp, is a warm environment where they are free to make mistakes and bold choices and to truly be themselves. They start to stand a little bit taller and take up space, and they begin to catch themselves before the word “sorry” passes their lips.
But after three weeks, they have to go back home and face everything that zapped away their self-esteem in the first place. It’s so hard to send them back out into that big scary pond, knowing what might await them.
These teenagers are my heroes, and will continue to influence the choices I make for the rest of my life. Because even if it was only for three weeks, they took risks and pursued their dreams with their full heart and soul. And if they take one smidgen of that new-found confidence back home with them, then it was all worth it.
So, every time I want to take a day job that might pay the bills but will prevent me from auditioning, or when I feel the urge to cringe because I didn’t quite hit that high note, I will think of them. And every time I start complaining about how difficult and stressful my life is, I will abstain. Because if these teens can face what comes at them in their every day lives, then I can certainly go into that audition room walking just a little bit taller.
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