No, I'm Not a Theater Major, I'm Just a Low Key Thespian
I've had a complicated relationship with theatre, even though I love it very much. Like any other art form that I put my time into, it has brought me much pain and even grief, as well as some of the most satisfying and joyful moments of my life. Perhaps what makes it most difficult sometimes is that theatrical circumstances can often strongly mirror real-life issues for me as a mixed-race woman of color, but maybe that's just because theatre doesn't exist in a vacuum void of social context.
When my seventh-grade self wasn't cast in the first middle school I attended's (before I transferred to private school) winter musical, I cried. A lot. I then swore off acting for the foreseeable future because I had internalized a gross and whitewashed image of who got to be onstage in front of an audience, and basically concluded that because I was this mixed-race girl that looked like literally no one else the directors had seen before (meaning, a white girl with perfect hair), I shouldn't act. I'm pretty sure that none of this would have happened if Hamilton had already existed, but my experiences in seventh grade have been fuel for me to keep on doing theatre. I didn't act for another four years after that, until in a fit of rebellion (yes, this was the furthest extent to which I rebelled in my high school years because I love my parents too much to do otherwise) I signed up for the fall play, Metamorphoses, when I was in the eleventh grade.
It was my experiences in Metamorphoses that spawned my love of acting. Though I didn't have a huge part in the show, which is understandable because I had no idea what I was doing with my arms during the auditions, I learned a lot about how to use your body to tell stories onstage to an audience by observing my fellow cast members during rehearsals. I also benefited from having a director that is one of the most approachable, encouraging people I've ever met, who valued every member in the cast equally, and made me feel included in the production as an anxious newcomer. For the first time, I felt that theatre could be a place where I was welcome, and where my experiences could be expressed. Metamorphoses showed me that theatre wasn't reserved solely for the white and able-bodied in school and in society, but that a multiracial girl with speech problems could also find her place in it as well. Also, I just remembered that my full name is Juliette (I go by Jules because I got tired of having to spell my name out to people/seeing it misspelled all the time, and Juliette is a lot of syllables to walk around with on a daily basis), so maybe it's just a self-fulfilling prophecy that I would go into theatre.
So what has theatre looked like for me at Oberlin?
At first I was unsure as to how much theatre I could actually do at Oberlin, because I'm not a Theater major, and I've never actually taken a theater class. But I've found that there's a vibrant student theatre scene on campus, and that there are opportunities for non-majors to act in the department shows that happen each semester.
The beginning of the second semester of my first year, I ended up kind of accidentally joining the Oberlin Student Theater Association (OSTA) board as a Co-Technical Coordinator. What I mean by "accidentally" is that I saw an event for an OSTA meeting in my class's Facebook group, and decided to show up because I wanted to have a bit of transparency with how student theater works at Oberlin. Little did I know, board elections were happening, and I ended up walking away with a position on it (and completely by my own volition, too).
Being part of OSTA is a beautiful thing, especially now that I have had enough experience with being a Co-Tech that I can do my job really well (in my opinion). As a Co-Tech, I work with the director(s) for one of the two plays that we produce each semester and supervise their set builds and take-downs, and provide any additional technical assistance that they may need. This usually takes the form of running up to our (OSTA's) storage closet and grabbing some power tools, and channeling Thor, son of Odin as I wield a hammer. My job also calls for me to essentially spend the entire show's tech week with them (tech week meaning the week before performances where all the technical ends of the show are worked out during very long rehearsals), and so after watching the show rehearsed for so many times, I become very attached to the production that I've helped make possible. It then makes me really happy when the show opens and people get to see the cast and production team's fruits of labor come alive. Considering that it's the Oberlin Student Theater Association, I think it's amazing that we do this all on our own.
Recently, I have found that the experience during theatre set builds is similar to film set builds, or even just filmmaking in general, with regards to an ugly thing called mansplaining. I'm a five-foot-three Asian woman with an ectomorph body type, so I'm not exactly physically imposing (though I have a contralto vocal range with a low tessitura that makes me vaguely sound like Bob Belcher when he says "oh my god"). I prefer not to Anna Wintour myself in order to not be mansplained to, because I've found that it's exhausting to keep up a tough, deliberately emotionless persona, especially in a situation where I'm there only for fun. I used to do the emotionless, powerful android thing, but besides it being a waste of energy, I didn't like how people came to understand my personality as being perpetually dead inside, because that totally isn't the case. What I do now is either just tell the mansplainer in a calm, but firm voice, "yeah, I know. It's my job" and carry on, or I don't even acknowledge the mansplainer's words and keep doing what I'm doing because I know that what I'm doing is right.
In terms of acting, I've been in two shows so far: an OSTA production of Caryl Churchill's Love and Information the second semester of my first year, and I was in a department/Lab Series production of Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi this semester. The shows differ pretty dramatically in terms of how I approached doing my actor homework for each, despite both being ensemble shows, because Love and Information does not have any specified characters or contexts, whereas Corpus Christi is a re-telling of the life and death of Jesus Christ with trans women, queer women, and non-binary people (originally it was written to be performed with a cast of gay men, but the director re-worked parts of the script for our performance), where I played the disciple Bartholomew, a real person. I was raised Catholic, and was also Confirmed under the name Jude, so Corpus Christi was an incredible experience for me because I got to inhabit a figure that always seemed so distant in Catholic teaching and find and share their humanity. Additionally, because our performances were in the wake of the election, I experienced firsthand the power that theatre can have for society to understand the times we live in, and to also foster empathy for each other.
Love and Information was an expansive exploration of the nature of human connection in our world, to be incredibly broad. Because the show is made up of vignettes of scenes in completely different contexts, I got the chance to experiment with my range as an actor. But most importantly, Love and Information required me to collaborate with my scene partners and director to work out the context of the scenes we were in based on our interpretations of the script. I was very nervous about how LAI would be received by an audience, because it's ultimately a pretty wacky show, but people seemed to be really into it and how experimental it was because it was performed in Harkness lounge.
Being a part of OSTA has also opened doors for me to dabble in playwriting for the first time. Earlier this month, during reading period before final exams, I participated as a writer in the 24 Hour Playwriting Festival, put on by OSTA and our sibling organization, OMTA (Oberlin Musical Theater Association). The 24 Hour Playwriting Festival happens every reading period, so twice a year, and it consists of 12 hours allotted to playwrights to write a short play (roughly from 7 PM to 7 AM) that actors and directors will then rehearse for the next 12 hours (7 AM to 7 PM) until it is performed that same day. I had participated in 24 Hour as an actor two semesters ago as a first-year, and wanted to put myself in a situation where I was forced to complete a play and get over my screenwriting inclination. Thankfully, I finished my play in a little under four hours with minimal grief, and am really happy with how it turned out! I filmed the performance of it, which you can watch at the end of this post.
My experiences with acting in both OSTA and department productions have been demanding in their own ways as theater productions usually are, but I've never felt ill-equipped because I haven't taken an acting class before. I feel lucky that I go to a school like Oberlin where I can continue my love of theatre and the almost therapeutic effect it has on me without making major sacrifices to my academic goals and schedule in general. I do run into problems sometimes as a mixed-race actor with race-sensitive roles or shows, because I feel that most the time when a character's race is specified, a mono-racial person is in mind. This is perhaps part of a larger problem for me where I'm concerned about how my appearance informs others' perception of what my racial background is, and it's been something I've been working to get over. Perhaps it is natural then that I grapple with issues I've been faced with since birth in the context of acting, If we go with the belief that art imitates life. I think at the end of the day, theatre's a great place to unpack and digest issues in our society today, and I feel blessed to be able to do it in environment such as Oberlin's, because I feel welcome to discuss these types of things in the first place.
Given how fraught my relationship with theater was for many years, it's oddly satisfying to think that I'm still doing it on the level that I am right now. I feel that at Oberlin, I've moved so far away from the original reason why I started to do theatre again in high school, which was to get a better understanding on how to direct actors by actually stepping into their shoes. Even though I've been in only two productions at Oberlin, I've grown enormously as an actor, and have put a tremendous amount of psychic space into the art that I create with my performances that only seeing theatre as a means to an end is a completely alien perspective to me. I think because my directors and fellow actors hold themselves to such a high level of artistic integrity that it has inspired me to go further with my own work. There's something special about working in environment where you can feel that everyone genuinely believes in the thing that everyone is creating together.