5 Things I Had to Unlearn From High School Theatre

An investigation of unhealthy practices I developed in my high school theatre department. Photo Credit: Corduroy Graphics

In recent years, the legend of the theatre kid has been lovingly recreated in media – mostly through Saturday Night Live’s “Crucible Cast Party”, “Cast List” and of course, the “High School Theatre Show” sketches. I cannot emphasize enough how accurate these are. 

Though most of my memories from high school theatre are delightful (I went on to major in theatre and work in the professional industry today), some recent personal experiences have made me reflect on my darker memories of being a theatre kid. While theatre departments indeed offer a place for the misfits to gather, they can also harbor toxic cultures that lead to the creation of unhealthy habits that take years to unlearn. So, while we are in a period of re-examining societal practices that have become normalized, I’d like us to take a hard look at the ways we recovering theatre kids interacted with our high school theatre departments.

1. The Show Must Go On, No Matter What

I learned very early on in my high school theatre department, if I was not 110% committed to whatever show we were doing, I did not deserve to be there. If you were too sick to go to school, you were still not too sick to go to rehearsal

My senior year of high school, I had an allergic reaction to a vaccine I received at a routine doctors appointment. I was dizzy and on the verge of passing out. If I had been a normal high school student, I would have asked my mother to drop me off at home and put me to bed. Instead, I gritted my teeth, stumbled to rehearsal, and found that my eyes had become so sensitive to light that I could not stand on the stage without the fear of falling over. So, I sat backstage with tears streaming down my face while the stage manager read my lines. 

This is a pretty extreme example, but after a little bit of investigation, I found this was not an uncommon experience. From a friend who remembers “almost passing out due to lack of food in a rehearsal” to another peer who spent all day in the emergency room and still turned up to practice, IV bandages and all, the lesson was clear: being sick and basically non-functional is better than not showing up at all. 

Me before a production of The Servant of Two Masters in 2012. Photo Credit: Anastasia Vayner

As one friend I surveyed said, “educational theater is definitely where ‘the show must go on’ mentality turned unprofessional and toxic in terms of working though unsafe conditions/bad health”. This attitude carries into the working world. In the early part of my career, I was terrified of taking a sick day, or even a mental health day. There are many jobs where it is much more difficult to miss a day of work – missing a day means losing out on income, or in the case of medical professionals, putting a patient’s life in danger. However, especially in today’s world, ensuring that your body and mind are cared for is sometimes much more important than slogging through another shift on two hours of sleep. If you can, take the sick day. Sleep in an extra hour. You only get one body and one mind in this life and no boss – or theatre teacher – should dictate how you care for them. 

2. It is Acceptable and Necessary to Exploit the Female-Presenting Body

I’m going to preface this with a disclaimer: I am a cisgender, straight, white woman with a slender figure. I realize that my body type is widely represented in popular media, and from my sophomore year onward, I was always cast in leading roles that matched my gender expression. 

I will also say, I was fifteen years old the first time I was shirtless on stage. There are still pictures on my high school theatre department’s website. At the time, I was desperate to impress my theatre teacher. In addition to playing the butler in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde I was cast as a prostitute who had to have words carved into her back with a knife (yes, you read that correctly). After that, the running joke in my department was that I was always the actor who had to take my clothes off on stage. 

Another show had me start off the play in only a slip, and in a third show, I: 1) took my underwear off (don’t worry, I was wearing two pairs) and climbed in the lap of another actor and 2) had my shirt violently torn off by a second actor. I was always proud of the fact that I felt confident enough in my body to be able to do these “stunts”, and never thought more of it. But as I moved on to college and spent more time in the world of professional theatre and film, I learned the difference between gratuitous and narrative-driven body exposure, and saw how differently I was treated when having to semi-strip on a professional set.

The main difference? Respect. My body, and my feelings about my body, were respected. 

My high school’s production of Servant with Two Masters (pictured with Will Larsen). Photo Credit: Mary Scheps

Though my theatre department was happy to show off my body as a teenager, colleagues of mine with different body types have other stories. One describes a fitting she had for an opera in college; 

“The director look[ed] at the costume she bought for me…. and [said], ‘you might need to lose a little weight for this.’ I had ZERO awareness at the time that this was not ok. It seemed like a perfectly acceptable thing for her to have said to me. A 20 year old junior. The crunch I felt in my heart was my own problem and so was my weight.”

Another friend spoke of the ways girls of different sizes were treated in her department; 

“During “Beauty School Dropout” [in Grease], all the skinny girls wore the same blue sequin dress, but me and another heavy set girl were given a different silver dress because the blue one didn’t come in our size. Rather than get dresses that fit everyone, this just made us stick out even more.”

The same friend spoke to me about the “pressure to lose weight for shows” and the sense that she was being type-cast because of her weight: 

“I was obviously overweight in high school and always got type-cast as an older woman, the comedic relief, or even a man once. I loved all my roles, but there were absolutely times I wanted to be a prettier or younger girl character, or even thought I would have played the part better, but was never given the opportunity.”

Yes, these are all issues that exist in today’s media and have for a long time. Young girls are oversexualized and “bigger” bodies rarely get a chance in the spotlight. According to an IPSOS poll from 2018, 83% of women are dissatisfied with how their bodies look. 95% of people with eating disorders are between the ages of 12-25. Though we can’t link all of these societal issues back to high school theatre departments, there is no question that educational theatre often forces young people into vulnerable positions that they do not have the tools to deal with. What’s worse is that theatre by nature forces its participants to compare themselves against one another. Until teachers actively work against these stereotypical castings, normalize the use of quick change booths, eliminate non-gratuitous exposure, and approach costuming from an empathetic perspective, these narratives are going to continue to plague the minds of theatre students. 

3. Teens are expected to negotiate boundaries and consent without the guidance of an adult

In high school theater, we rarely had intimate moments directed for us – we were often left to fend for ourselves, and the success of asking for consent was only as strong as the bond between cast mates. 

Let’s take my high school production of The Crucible as a case study. I played Elizabeth Proctor, the protagonist John Proctor’s wife. In the final scene, Elizabeth and John share one final kiss before John is (spoiler alert) executed for witchcraft. My castmate and I pantomimed this moment right up until the tech rehearsal. When we had gotten to that scene, and stopped to fix a sound cue, we looked at each other and one of us said, “are you ready to kiss for real this time?” and the other one said “yes” and we did. Our teacher never guided us through this moment. It was just expected that we would figure it out ourselves.

Me, after a performance of The Crucible in 2012. Photo Credit: Savannah Chorley

In a different scene, the actor playing Danforth, the judge presiding over the witchcraft trials, forgot his lines during a particularly passionate moment when he was questioning my character. Instead of ad-libbing his way out of it, he stormed over to me, grabbed my shoulders, shook me, and screamed in my face. Terrified, I wrenched myself from him and ran straight towards the actor playing John Proctor, prompting two of the other actors on stage to catch me and gently guide me back to the witness stand. I used to tell this story as an example of being so committed to the emotional throughline of a role, that I knew exactly what my character would do in that moment. In reality, I was scared and I ran towards the person I trusted the most on stage..

This incident, where I was violently manhandled by another actor without warning or consent in front of a full audience, was never mentioned by my teacher. And the student never apologized. Not because he was a terrible person, but because no one expected him to. We were all expected to fully commit our bodies, our personal space, and our emotional well-being to the performance, no questions asked. 

I didn’t, and I still don’t, have a ton of personal space boundaries when it comes to acting, and I think it’s because I was told that I shouldn’t. No one wants to stop a castmate from giving their best performance. On the other hand, there have been innumerable times when my body has been treated like a prop by other actors. Something happens in a performance when it is difficult to separate the actor from the character. The character is an abstract thing, interpreted from a description on a piece of paper. The actor is a human being. In performance, we live in this weird in-between world where you’re still you but you’re also someone else. It’s hard to manage yourself when you’re in between states.

I’m able to talk about this separation between actor and character now because I have a degree in theatre. But it was something I didn’t understand as a 17 year-old. And it doesn’t change the fact that these boundaries need to be set by the adults in the room. I should have never had to negotiate these potentially dangerous moments as a child. 

4. Whitewashing a show is a way to learn about another culture

Educational theatre departments, particularly those where White students outnumber BIPOC students, are often the places where “young actors get taught to have entitlement over any role they want and to step over-marginalized people to tell stories that aren’t theirs,” (a direct quote from a friend of mine who is a Latinx & Indigenous professional actor). I am no stranger to this. 

When I was a senior, I was cast as a Mexican woman in a play about a Mexican-American family. I dyed my hair and spoke with an accent. Half of the cast was white, and half were of Latinx heritage. All of the characters were of Mexican descent. Our teacher convinced us that it was okay, because the parents of the Latinx students didn’t say anything, and because he supposedly knew the playwright, who was “okay with it.” I never felt quite right about it, but at the same time I accepted the role. And for that I am, and always will be, deeply ashamed. No matter how much “research” I did, and no matter how respectful I tried to be, that role was not written for me. It was not a story I should have been telling. 

But, as I’ve said over and over again in this article, this is not an uncommon occurrence in high school (and university) theatre departments. In recent years, more stories have come to light about whitewashing practices in all sorts of media – from Scarlett Johannsen and Emma Stone playing Asian characters in films, to a professional theatre company in Chicago whitewashing In The Heights we are starting to call out this trend more and more, as we should. But the point is sometimes considered moot when it comes to educational theatre. 

Arguments in favor of letting white students take on roles written for people of color fall on the side of doing it for the purpose of education. That somehow allowing a white student to inhabit a role that is not written for them gives them a deeper respect for the culture at hand. However, as Xanthia Walker, a cofounder of a youth theatre company in Phoenix, AZ said in a 2016 article, “To cast white young actors to play people of color enforces the idea that white bodies are the default onstage — that white is ‘neutral’ and ‘flexible’ and can tell anybody else’s story…It also tells students of color…that the theater isn’t for them — because we are telling them that their stories are powerful, but their bodies in performance, in the positions of power, are not.”

Whitewashing has deep ramifications, not just for students who choose to engage in the professional world of the theatre, but for former theatre kids interacting with our cultural landscape as adults. Whitewashing a production of In the Heights teaches white students and audiences that this practice is not harmful, and therefore the casting of white actors in non-white roles, and the general lack of diversity in the media becomes acceptable. It teaches students of color that their stories may be important, but that their bodies aren’t. Kids put in these situations are so young and desperate for community, they go along with those practices that are set by the educators without realizing the greater cultural (and personal) consequences.

5. The Tyrannical Director is Acceptable 

A pen. An apple slice. A shoe. A package of baby wipes. These are all items that were thrown in my general direction by a frustrated theatre teacher. 

Now I get it: theatre departments are often severely underfunded, teachers are not properly compensated for the time they spend putting a show together, and high school students are, and will always be, brats. However that does not excuse this behavior. Theatre teachers sit at the top of the complicated social structure of a theatre department. Those who are favored by the teacher get the best roles and constant praise. Those who are not favored by the teacher are given two choices: grovel or quit.

As I moved closer to my senior year, I began to notice a pattern in my department. My teacher would pick one student per show, typically a senior, and pick on them for a majority of the rehearsal process. When it was my turn, it seemed as though I could do nothing right on stage. After three years of being a star student, I was suddenly getting at least half of the notes in each rehearsal. I began to dread going into the theatre classroom every day, for fear that my mere presence would disappoint him. 

Getting ready for Anatomy of Gray. (This is what qualified as a selfie ten years ago.)

A friend of mine described having to “unlearn that all of my validation came from directors who used affection as a tool for obedience”, and I believe that succinctly sums up why many teachers act this way – creating a system of director-worship can be an effective form of classroom management. This method, though, carries consequences far into the future. As I entered the working world, I became utterly obsessed with how my boss thought of me. I assumed that every little mistake I made on the job would lead to me getting fired.

I must emphasize that this does not describe all theatre teachers. Many of my peers and colleagues head their own programs, and I see firsthand how their love of theatre and commitment to arts education led them to this vocation, and not their desire to maintain power over a group of people. 

Even after getting all of this off my chest, and even after speaking to many of my former classmates I’m still happy to have been a theatre kid. I wouldn’t change any part of my experience, because it shaped me into the person I am today. But I hope that current theatre kids can read this piece and demand better practices for themselves and the theatre kids yet to come. I hope teachers read this and understand how the examples they set in their departments carry ramifications far into the future.

Calls to Action:

Current Theatre Kids:

  • Call out your schools! Demand better representation! Boycott shows if they are inappropriate for you and your peers.
  • Ask your teachers to walk you through intimate or potentially dangerous scenes. Always ask for consent before you touch a co-star. 
  • Do not put rehearsal over your health and personal life. 
  • If your school or teacher doesn’t listen to you, make the work you want to see. Tell the stories in the way you think they should be told. You have power as a young person. Use it.

Theatre Teachers & Schools

  • Recognize that theatre departments, like schools, are made up of children. Do not exploit their bodies for ticket sales. 
  • Look for stories that represent your student population
  • Prioritize the experiences of the students over the end product

Former Theatre Kids 

  • Support work where artists are paid 
  • Support work by smaller, local organizations that do not subscribe to the typical regional theatre model that are representative of the community you live in
  • Investigate where your unhealthy practices came from and help yourself (and others) unlearn them

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