How Theater Changed a Bullied Little Girl into a Queen

Above: Blowing out the candles on my 14th birthday. It was a good year and a bad year.

I've never done theater before. I've seen my friends' high school plays, but I never even knew when auditions were held because I was too busy being a competitive synchronized swimmer, a bullied teen, and a depressed Kurt Cobain fan. I also had a wicked case of stage fright from the bullying, and I once tried out for a fashion show when I was 13 and, thanks to my signature spin-and-pose move, I never heard the end of it. So why would I ever go into theater?

Someone told me about a theater school last year and I bookmarked it for later because I didn't have any interest in theater at the time. I love acting, but I never saw myself working on the stage. That said, plant an idea in my head and it will most certainly grow.

And grow it most certainly did.

Over the past year, my brain generated a list of reasons why I should study theater:

  • A lot of casting directors I've talked to are looking for theater experience;
  • I've always wanted to play a queen, and I believe theater can help me develop the gravitas necessary for the role;
  • Many Star Trek TV actors studied Shakespeare, and I wonder if it helped them act through heavy special effects makeup;
  • I have a feeling studying Shakespeare will make TV and film scripts look like a walk in the park;
  • My voice is an instrument that I would like to further develop.

I realized that last point after I realized that I discipline my cat with a similar voice inflection as Cate Blanchett's "I too can command the winds, sir!" speech in Elizabeth: The Golden Age.

So, last week I auditioned for a class at the school.

And, let me tell you, it wasn't easy to audition for theater when you have no classical training.

So, in preparation I Google'd and Google'd and Google'd again.

I chose Titania's "These are the forgeries of jealousy" monologue from A Midsummer Night's Dream because I loved that play when I was 14 and I thought it would be an interesting character for me. Not only is she a queen, but she is also a fairy. And given my desire to someday act in the role of a strong alien female on a sci-fi project, I thought it was perfect.

I also chose that monologue because of my 8th grade English teacher.

Mrs. Isler could have been anywhere from 5'8" to 8'5". She was very thin and walked with a stiff, straight back. She lit candles in her class and read Shakespeare with such vigor and mystery that everyone in the class was convinced she was a witch. Her eyes were sharp daggers that would stab fear deep into the heart of any student who misbehaved in class, and I loved her for it.

Reading A Midsummer Night's Dream in her class exposed me to a wonderful, magical world that I was excited to escape to. So, when I was required to write a speech that year, I chose fairies as my subject. Mrs. Isler was delighted by my speech and submitted me to a provincial speech competition! I was terrified, so I looked down at my papers the whole time I did my speech, but I was touched that she believed in me.

That belief was a big deal to me because that year I was bullied so badly that my amazing mother had me transferred to a new school.

So, last week I chose the Titania monologue in Mrs. Isler's honor.

Since I didn't remember much about the play and hadn't done any theater before, I prepared harder than any exam I had taken in college. In the six days leading up to my audition, I memorized the monologue in segments, re-read the entire play, watched two movie adaptations (1996 and 1999), read a number of online study guides, and worked my ass off to figure out what it all meant and how I would portray it.

I also spent some time fretting over what accent is acceptable in American Shakespearean theater, how much one should move around in a monologue, and if you should mime your words to help the audience understand.

I spent a night on YouTube looking at (mostly high school) performances of the monologue and I learned a lot about what I didn't want to do. I saw some actors who obviously didn't know what they were talking about, so it showed in their performance, and I saw other actors who mimed the entire monologue to prove they knew what they were talking about. Neither of these types of performances was what I was going for.

But then a magical thing happened. I came across this YouTube clip of Dame Helen Mirren performing the monologue in a 1981 TV movie adaptation that I had never heard of on this side of the pond. FINALLY someone was performing the scene as I had envisioned it... and then some! She surprised me with the actions she took vocally and emotionally in her performance, and she couldn't mime anything in the scene because she spent the whole time coddling the Indian boy in her arms. Genius.

After seeing Mirren's portrayal of Titania, I finally felt like I could pull this off. I'm nothing like her, but acting is about portraying a character in the unique way that only you can. So I felt confident that I could learn from her performance above all others and be the Titania I was born to be.

All that was left was my audition.

I got there an hour early out of paranoia and when it was my turn to go in I chose to go right into the monologue. I did the best I could while my hands shook uncontrollably from nerves. Things went well enough and the three teachers in the room seemed pretty impressed that I had never auditioned for theater before. I was a little bashful about it, but it was nice to hear.

And what happened next changed everything.

I had been told when I audited a class at the school that the auditions were a lot like the class; you do the scene and the teacher will redirect you to bring out your performance in the best way possible. So in the audition, one of the teachers had me get up on his shoulders and perform the scene again, this time on my "trusty steed." And, wow, what a difference! Suddenly, being on that stage atop what seemed to be my 6'5" horse, I felt power. And when I performed the scene I felt like a queen. At last.

It was like nothing I had ever experienced before and I was elated. For the first time since I can remember, I believed in myself.

I left the audition verklempt with joy, talked Rudy's ear off when I got home, and couldn't fall asleep because I was so excited about the future.

It was life changing.

All those years I spent being a bullied pessimist seemed to fade away. For the past week I've been completely optimistic about the future and believe in my potential as an actor. It's as if theater saw the chip on my shoulder and stripped it away. I've never been so happy, and all I could think about for the rest of the week was "you're exactly where you're supposed to be" - a quote from my friend Brea Grant's recent film Best Friends Forever.

And to top it all off? I've been accepted to the class.

Now if only I could tell Mrs. Isler...

Acting, PersonalCasey McKinnon