I always think back to my high school theatre teacher for creating one of my vital life lesson, not for what he did for me, but what he didn’t do.
My last semester in high school, the theater’s program play was some obscure Russian performance. This was no Shakespeare or Grease, but I was still excited for the lead female role. Over the previous years, I had put in the hard work (grunt work) with the theater club. Playing roles like servant number 2, working the sound board, striking the set. Now as a Senior, it was “my turn” to play the lead. I was nervous at the audition, like anyone should, but confident being my only competition was a freshman. I was also asked to stand in for the supporting female role to help the other boys audition.
The teacher/director liked my performance better in the supporting role instead of the lead. Well you can image the shock - the utter shock to see Ms. Freshman as a lead, and me as the supporting female role (This is where we would get into the discrepancy of male-to-female roles in theatre productions, but remember this is high school, so I hadn’t been introduced the feminist literary theory yet.)
Well of course, the only sensible thing to do, in my still-developing-teenage brain, is to walk up to Mr. Andy Penn, and tell him that if I couldn’t play the lead, then I just wouldn’t be in the play at all. “There, that will show him”
Mr. Penn didn’t talk me out of it. He said he liked what I had done with the character in the supporting role. He understood my disappointed and hoped I would choose to stay in the performance.
Stay I did. Still enjoying my friends, the theatre atmosphere and the ensemble work, which was critical to my future understanding of teamwork. (I bring up theatre as an example whenever there is talk of my kids joining a sport. ‘They will never learn teamwork!’ ‘They’ll join a theatre troop.’)
Beyond teamwork, Mr. Penn thought some heavier life lessons in his department. ‘It’s my turn’ or ‘I’ve put in the work, give me the job.’ Don’t always hold up in the real world. Sometimes the chips don’t land in your favor. You get to adulthood and don’t land a promotion, you can’t really walk into your bosses office with a ‘give it to me or I quit’ soliloquy. (I mean, I guess you could, but you better have a good cushion, because the boss is likely to say, ‘there’s the door.’)
And sometimes you can want a role desperately, but what your are truly skilled in another area.
As I look a back at my professional career, the missed opportunities hurt, but ultimately they wouldn’t have lead me in the best direction.
The “supporting role” turned out to be more than just a backdrop. I got my emotional redemption during a particular sluggish dress rehearsal. After the performance, we would all gather on stage to get the director’s note. (It’s a little like kneeling on the field during half time and listening to the coach - see just like sports.) In the chronological order notes came negative comment, after corrections, after negative comment. A teacher frustrated that the team was so close to playoffs - I mean, opening day - and they still struggled with the pass - I mean, get their lines down.
My turn was up “Zoe, thank you!” Mr. Penn said. “But one great performance alone cannot carry the whole show….” The criticism kept coming, but I stood in a beam of praise.
Loosing the lead may have been the first time I didn’t get what I wanted, and yet ended up where I needed to be.
Thank Mr. Penn for teaching us that “there are no small roles, just small actors.” And for the various life lessons you taught along the way.