My generation, the oft-forgotten Xers, grew up with vinyl albums. I had a small collection when I was a little girl: the soundtrack to The Sound of Music, Barbra Joan Streisand, Barbra Live in Concert at the Forum, and the original concept album of Jesus Christ Superstar. Unusual for a six year old, I admit.
While visiting NYC in 2008, I saw this revival of Gypsy with my son on a day when Ms. LuPone had to perform in her house slippers due to a foot injury. Even in her fuzzies, she brought the house down as beleaguered Mama Rose. My son bought me this record, I love to sit and listen on the leather recliner when my husband isn’t home.
Music is an enchantment. Story is great magic. Solitude is a gift. And the love of my son is priceless.
Did you go to camp as a kid? I did: Camp Pettijohn Springs just over the Texas-Oklahoma border. I started going when I was about twelve years old and went every summer until I was eighteen. It was both a broad, flat red-dirt plain and hilly, tree-covered wood. The girls got the cabins in the shady trees, the boys got the cabins on the sun-baked expanse.
The pool was at the bottom of a hill, and its deep end was full of algae and weeds, so that when I jumped off the diving board, I would curl my legs up under me, lest my toes brush those creepy leaves.
The mess hall was a favorite place. Here is where Bible Bees happened in my younger days, meals were wolfed down, and talent shows were put on.
We had an annual talent show act performed by our youth minister, a stand-up routine in which he acted like a silly little boy with a sideways baseball cap and puffed-out cheeks, then two of the senior boys set up that daffy thing you’ve probably seen where one guy has his hands behind his back and the other one does the actions- including the eating of whipped cream and squirting of ketchup and such. We laughed like maniacs every single year. All the singers, including me, would perform Contemporary Christian numbers, and I think I remember someone playing the spoons. Right outside the mess hall was a propane tank emblazoned with the word “Danger.” We sat on it like it was a horse, lots of harmless flirting happened around the Danger.
The traditional Sunday night arrival supper was baloney sandwiches, but for the rest of the week, food was pretty good. KP duty meant your cabin stayed after meals to wipe down tables and mop up cement floors. At meal times, you were not permitted to put your elbows on the table, if you did and were caught, a song might ring out:
“Get your elbows off the table, David H!
Get your elbows off the table, David H!
We have seen it once or twice and it isn’t very nice,
Get your elbows off the table, David H!”
It was always followed with another song, “Round the Mess Hall You Must Go,” which finished with a stipulation. You might have to run around the mess hall skipping backwards, perhaps hopping like a bunny or singing loudly. If you were lucky in love, you’d be assigned the direction “holding hands,” and the whole Mess Hall population would wait with bated breath to see who you picked to hold hands with.
I saw my first tarantulas and centipedes at Camp Pettijohn. I was so traumatized by the centipede that I could barely sleep for fear that one would crawl, with its hundred nasty little legs, into my sleeping bag.
There was a small metal building that served as our canteen, and twice daily we queued up to get sodas and snacks with our canteen punch cards. My favorite was peach Jolly Rancher sticks dipped in a Sprite, the candy would give just a hint of peachy goodness to the Sprite. When we were teens, boys and girls might use their canteen cards to buy their crushes treats.
The only air conditioned building on the whole site was the chapel, which was a sweet little brick building overlooking a drop-off covered with trees. The windows at the front of the little chapel gave us a glorious view of Oklahoma sunsets over dense green leaves. If memory serves, it was carpeted with some sort of green turf. There were gorgeous devotionals in that chapel, and mid-day Bible studies in shady cabin breezeways.
I always came back from camp with an awesome tan, a suitcase full of dirty clothes smudged with sweat and red dirt, and a list of new pen pals. I slept for about eighteen hours, then got up to head to Sunday morning church, full of light and joy.
As a youth minister’s wife, I spent several years in my 30s attending a different camp, this one in Texas Hill Country along the Medina River; while it shared some traditions and characteristics with the Camp Pettijohn of my youth, it had its own beauty and rituals. Here I was cabin counselor and lifeguard, trying to love on girls while calming my own introverted spirit. A cabin of thirty noisy sixteen-year-olds can be a lot to take in! I loved Bandina for the years I got to attend: its traditional camper vs. counselor softball game, its rope swing, its large, shady gazebo. The food, cooked lovingly by a team of folks from the various churches, was fantastic- way better than the food at Camp Pettijohn (sorry, Pettijohn peeps). Evening worship and talent were in a sweet little outdoor amphitheater, and hymns were accompanied by the sound of hundreds of feet shuffling the gravel that lined the aisles. Late night devotionals happened on the rocky riverside. During the dark hours while campers were sleeping, deer always came out to find snacks and crumbs left on the wide open field around which all the cabins were encircled. My favorite times were the singing sessions in the screened-in dining hall, when 500 people sang songs both silly and holy with every bit of their bodies and souls. The very best memories, though, are spending time there with my own kids. When my youngest wanted to be baptized in the river, I drove to be there and walked into that river with my baby girl and her big brother, who baptized her.
It made me sad when the folks who ran the camp told me I couldn’t come any more because I had switched to a different flavor of church. That sort of closed mindedness, that denies people whose walks might be a little off the approved path, can make it hard for folks to stick with church. At least, it did for me.
The best part of camp was always the friends. In both of these camps, you spent quality time with kids and adults from other churches, other towns, other states. You made real friends. I still have a handful that I am in touch with. Back in the 80s, you had to write real, honest, paper letters; and we did. Now, kids get to follow each other on Instagram- so cool! Camp creates connection. We all need it.
I have been asking people to share old camp stories, and have gotten some great responses:
“A raccoon ate my toothpaste.”
“Finding out I was very naturally good at archery, when I was struggling and behind on every other activity out there. It was nice to find my ‘thing.'”
“Breakfast in bed for having the cleanest cabin.”
“Pranks, kitchen raids, spying on others, building campfires – I worked camp staff for years. We had the most fun when getting in trouble was a possibility.”
“Hiking up Hermits Peak and holding hands with a guy by the time I got to the top.”
There have been a few stories that are sad: abandonment worry, being shunned, getting hurt. I guess every good thing has some dark stuff, too.
My life now is defined by a mission to recognize magic in an ordinary life, and to share it; and I believe that for many of us, summer camp was, and is, magical. Whether church affiliated or not, camp gets us into nature. We swim and hike and tell tales under the stars. We sing- have you ever heard of a camp without songs? Whether it’s “Big Booty,” “On Top of Old Smoky,” or “El-Shaddai,” music is pure enchantment. We use our hands to make cool crafts. Best of all, camp creates friendship, and love between people is about the best magic there is.
Recently, while perusing the gift shop area at a Buccees on I-10 between San Antonio and Houston, I found myself surrounded by Texas paraphernalia: earrings in the shape of longhorn steers, bluebonnet shaped magnets, bronze Texas star yard art (every block in Texas is required to make sure at least one house has one of these over the garage door. It’s a law, I am pretty sure. On my block, it’s the neighbor two doors down).
I attended my first rodeo a couple of weeks ago. I was pretty nervous, afraid the animals would be mistreated (they weren’t) or that the country music concert would grate on my ears (it didn’t). The animals were beautiful, the horsemanship phenomenal, and Little Big Town put on a hell of a show. I didn’t dress any differently than I normally do, and I wondered if people would stare at my bootless, hatless self and banish me from the grounds for not being a true Texan. But for every bona fide cowboy or cowgirl whose boots and jeans looked authentically worn, there was someone in spanking new Wranglers and fringe looking like an extra from a movie about a dude ranch, and for every one of them, there was someone like me- in soft pastel jeans or hipster skinnys or urban baggys. There were as many Toms, Converse, and Nikes as Justins and Tony Lamas.
I come from a long line of Texans. Though I was not born here because my Texan parents were temporarily living in Tennessee where my daddy got his first post-college job, I have been here since I was three, all of my memories are of living in Texas. I love my state (though it’s become a little harder lately, not sure if that’s because the politics keep shifting to the right or because I have just leaned a little more to the left), but there are assumptions that folks have about Texans that I would like to set straight:
We don’t all wear cowgirl boots.
We don’t all listen to country music.
We don’t all own guns and/or horses.
We are a pretty famous place. I guess it’s because of so many western movies, maybe our performers like Beyonce and Matthew McConnaughey. Or maybe it’s because of George W. Bush. Being President during the 9/11 attacks makes you a household name, like Churchill or Roosevelt from WWII. When my daughter, who lives in Australia, mentions where she’s from, she’s always quizzed about all sorts of “Texasisms”
My youngest daughter’s Australian boyfriend is in Vietnam, and he just sent us a photo of a fast food joint called Texas Chicken. Basically, it was the logo from Church’s Chicken.
You can be a Texas girl without wearing cowgirl boots and listening to country music.
What we do do:
1. Love bluebonnets and have requisite bluebonnet photos: Right now is the time of year when driving on a Texas highway you’ll see families pulled over with their little ones squatting in the fields of bluebonnets. We all have these photos, except for the poor folks who live out in the panhandle. Bluebonnets don’t grow out there. Their kids take photos with tumbleweeds.
2. Most of us own at least one piece of James Avery jewelry: I actually own two charm bracelets (one for theatre keepsakes and one for family), an angel bracelet, a necklace, and a ring. My eldest daughter has just one ring and a charm bracelet, and my younger daughter has at least three rings, a charm bracelet, and a necklace. She jokes that all sorority girls are required to have at least one piece. I sort of took the ubiquity of James Avery for granted, until a recent trip to Arizona. While there, I received frequent questions and compliments about my jewelry. A Texas silversmith out of the hill country, James Avery makes beautiful stuff that has a distinct Texas aesthetic. I love mine.
3. We always clap four times when someone sings “The stars at night are big and bright…” Do you remember, in “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” when Pee Wee proves he’s in Texas by singing the opening lyric and everyone on the street stops and finishes the line? That really happens here. It’s ingrained in us starting in our early education classes. However, on rare occasions, it flops. Recently I was in San Antonio for the state music teachers convention, having a drink at Durty Nellie’s Irish Pub. The piano player, knowing the room was full of music teachers, started the song. “The starts at night are big and bright…” Nothing. I think the music teachers needed a break.
4. Use the words “fixin’ to” and “y’all”: These are the best words ever coined by Texans. When a Texan visits a place for any length of time, the people around her will, without realizing it, adopt these words. Especially “y’all.” It is the perfect pronoun for a group of people. Inclusive and succinct. Gender neutral and much more pleasant than “you guys,” it works in any situation. “Fixin’ to” is what we say instead of “about to.” I don’t really know why, but I do know I like it better.
5. We all know where to find our area’s best chicken fried steak: In my case, it’s either Mel’s Diner or Goodson’s Cafe, both in Tomball. Both of these restaurants bring enormous crispy steaks out, swimming in cream gravy. You never want to finish the whole thing, lest your rump get as big as the Texas panhandle.
6. Texans have big open hearts to match our state’s big open spaces: Once you get out of our sprawling cities and suburbs, Texas is full of vast open scenery of all sorts- piney woods, beaches, desert mountains, dusty plains, and grassy prairies. It’s breathtaking, really. Equally so? Our kind hearts. Texans love to help folks out- whether it’s with food for the hungry, care for animals, or hugs for suffering kids, we just can’t bear to walk away when someone needs us.
But I don’t think that’s uniquely Texan. One of the traits that ties us all together, whether in Texas or Minnesota or India or China, is that people love to help each other. It’s how most of us are wired.
So whether you wear a cowboy hat, sombrero, or beret, look around today. Appreciate your home’s flora, music, and customs. Love your neighbors. And y’all come visit us here in Texas. We’ll feed you chicken fried steak!
It’s a beautiful sunny morning in San Antonio, Texas. The weather is unseasonably warm (highs of 80 degrees in February- paradise!) and I decided to walk along the River Walk to reach the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center. As I neared the massive building, I found myself walking with many members of the All State Choir. Clad in black dresses and tuxes, chattering like magpies, clutching black folders, I could sense their nervous excitement. One young lady who walked up the stairs in front of me had two enormous patches on the back of her high school letter jacket, one proclaiming her a member of the 2014 All State Choir, another the 2015, and she had left one big hole on the bottom right side for this year’s patch, which she’ll get to pick up while she is here (that’s confidence in one’s own ability, that is).
I get so melancholy when I am here. It’s my third time at this remarkable convention, a gathering of music teachers of all stripes: elementary through collegiate, vocal and instrumental. An estimated 25,000 people are here. Rumor is that the city doesn’t charge TMEA for the convention center because with every downtown hotel bed booked, they make enough in hotel taxes to offset the convention center rental. We do things big in Texas, y’all.
I get melancholy because I didn’t get to attend as an All State second soprano, which was my number one goal from the day I set foot in my high school choir room, a dark room in the basement of the performing arts center in my suburban high school near Dallas. My choir director didn’t let freshmen audition, I got laryngitis on the day of round one auditions my sophomore year. My junior year, I made it through every round, then when I got to the finals, my nerves got me. I can deal with all of those circumstances.
The one I have never quite recovered from was my senior year. I made it to the final round again. I did. But I blew it. And every year now at this time, at this conference, I beat myself up privately.
But this year, I am going to try a different tack: forgiveness.
I had a really fantastic voice. With a beautiful clear tone and a sharp ear for tuning, and the acting ability to help me do more than just hit the right notes, I had a lot of promise.
But my senior year, I was a mess. I lived in a mess. My mom was tormenting us, violent and dangerous, she would spy on us or break into our house and steal things. She would come see me at school and scream at me or hit me in front of my friends. Once, she visited me at work and my boss locked me in the stock room to protect me while he called security. I was in a relationship with a guy who turned out to be abusive, sexually and emotionally, who also spied on me and demanded all of my time, didn’t allow me to have friends, and threatened to commit suicide if I broke up with him.I had to work because my dad was strapped, so if I wanted clothes or voice lessons, I had to pay for them.My house was not a safe haven. Rehearsal in my bedroom was impossible with younger brothers who didn’t exactly enjoy listening to me sing.
There were a lot of strikes against me.
Now, I know there are so many inspiring stories of young people who overcome overwhelming odds to become genius academics, superb athletes, or stellar performers. But I wasn’t one. I just couldn’t get my mind clear and my shit together enough, and when my less-than-adequately-prepared-self got to the identical room where my nerves had betrayed me in the final round of auditions my junior year, I just could not pull it off. My heart was not in it.
Soon after, I tried to be in the chorus of my high school musical, but missed the second night of the show because of the demented boyfriend’s prom (there was no way I could explain to my directors why I had to go to his prom, they just had to assume I was choosing a boy over my art. Which I was, but not for the reasons one would think).
I managed to struggle along until May, when I finally told my dad what was happening with my boyfriend and he gave me the courage and protection I needed to end that relationship. Things with my mom never did improve, but when I left for college and met and married my beloved husband, I had the security and distance to cope with her.
So when I am here, and I see all these tremendously talented student musicians, whom I know have worked so hard to be here, I feel guilty and sad. But I think this year, I have to put that aside.
So, here is what I will say to that 17 year old girl:
You did the best you could, without enough life experience to help you make better choices. And pretty much, that’s all we can hope for on any given day.
All state patches are great, but they don’t make you a whole person. You won’t have a giant chenille Texas shaped hole in your soul just because you didn’t make the choir.
Your own failures will help you be a better mom and teacher. When your own sophomore daughter gets sick the week of the district round, or when the soprano who stakes it all on making All State her senior year doesn’t, you’ll understand.
You can still sing for joy. Not for a chair.
And to my grown self, I will say keep singing in the car, Babs is still the best singing partner for the car (her cover of “Make Your Own Kind of Music” is the best anthem), and really, not one of your friends or family love you less because you didn’t make the All State Choir in 1985. A magical life does not require certificates and accolades.
It’s easy to wish we had taken different paths, usually the ones that would have brought greater glory or less struggle (two completely opposite ideas). But I wouldn’t trade who I am now for anything. I love my husband, my kids, my extended family, and my job. I have a house that I am comfy in, and health that allows me to do lots of stuff I love (as long as I don’t do deep lunges- those are hell on my knees). I’ve gotten to study theatre, do theatre, and take a break from theatre. I have the introvert’s ideal- just enough friends that I treasure. Life is good. Maybe I should just start singing here at my booth. It can be my own TMEA debut. Tra-la!
Anyone out there seen the classic and hilarious film, “Waiting for Guffman?” It is the perfect spoof of the unique world of community theatre. Travel agents, a Dairy Queen cashier, and a dentist all come together to create a piece of performance art for the delight of local citizens. In community theatre, a bunch of oddballs can become minor celebrities, recognized at the Piggly Wiggly like local versions of Patti Lupone or Hugh Jackman.: “Didn’t I see you in…?” “Why, yes! yes, I did play Rosie in Bye, Bye, Birdie! It was so much fun, thank you for coming to support us!”
I love community theatre. It’s chock-a-block full of regular folks who love theatre, but for whatever reason, don’t make it a profession. For some (like me), marriage and stability were a better option than the gamble of New York, Chicago, or L.A. For others, they discover their creative side later in life and volunteering at their local community theatre is the most accessible route to artistic expression. For others, the community theatre becomes a surrogate family, a place to let your quirky imagination out to play without the judgement of straitlaced cubicle mates.
I have spent most of my adult life in rehearsal at the community theatre house for one musical or another. In my 30’s, I had the chance to play dream roles like Marian the Librarian, Sarah Brown, Julie Jordan, Nellie Forbush, and Annie Oakley. I have sung the great ballads, from “Moonshine Lullaby” (Annie Get Your Gun) to “How Could I Know” (Secret Garden). I’ve performed Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Berlin, and Sondheim.
Moving into my 40’s, the roles began to be harder to come by, though I have had the utter joy of playing The Chaperone (Drowsy Chaperone) and Joanne (Company). Community theatres like to play it safe. They have aging audiences, and they are afraid of alienating them. Chestnuts by Rodgers/Hammerstein or Lerner/Loewe are proven ticket sellers. I get that, I really do. But younger audiences (and by younger, I mean 55 on down- not exactly spring chickens) like to see shows written sometime after 1980. I know- it’s radical to imagine doing a show that’s got thirty years on it, instead of sixty!
Interesting roles for women in their 40’s and 50’s are being written. Roles full of interesting character, gripping dilemmas, heartache and humor, and problems that don’t always find resolution in a wedding march. Dammit, there are great roles in musical theatre for women who are somewhere between Laurie and Aunt Eller: no longer the ingenue, but not ready for the granny wig.
Of course, all musical theatre aficionados recognize Mama Rose, Miss Mona, Adelaide, and Miss Hannigan. Gypsy, Best Little Whorehouse, Guys and Dolls, and Annie are community theatre staples. Wonderful shows. Tried and true. Worn and exhausted, some might say. Cliche, even.
Hollywood has long had a problem with this, constantly forcing women in their 40’s to play the discarded wives, or heaven help us, the mothers to their forty-something male counterparts. But the stage has always been willing to take risks on women in their middle age, when their talent is ripe, their life experience rich, and their voice in its prime.
So as a forty-something actress/singer who longs to play great roles, maybe even alongside actresses in her own age bracket, I present the following list of musicals for the local community theatres to take a look at. They are great shows, they will sell tickets, they will capture new audiences, and they will excite your theatre ensembles. As an added bonus, they feature major roles for women in the middle:
Light in the Piazza: Margaret Johnson is a mother visiting Italy with her developmentally delayed daughter. Her marriage is dying as her daughter falls in love with a young Italian dreamer. The vocal score is exquisite, the emotional journey heart wrenching.
Kiss Me, Kate: Lilli Vanessi is an aging star. She gets to sing “I Hate Men” as Kate, and “So In Love” as Lilli. It’s Cole Porter and Shakespeare combined. The 1999 revival ran for two years and received numerous Tony nominations and several awards. It’s a crowd pleaser!
Mamma Mia has three (!!!) fantastic roles for women in their 40’s. They don’t have to be movie star gorgeous with size 2 figures! They still get to be fun and sexy! With a score built upon the songbook of Abba, it’s got a guaranteed fanbase.
Ragtime is just the most beautiful musical. And it’s got fantastic roles for all sorts: age, color, body type, vocal range; it’s all there. Including a plum role, Mother, a woman who discovers that her sheltered life is not fulfilling and takes the plunge into uncharted territory.
Nine to Five is not necessarily a masterpiece of the Broadway cannon, but with the popularity of the movie and name recognition among those over forty, its catchy numbers and physical comedy are sure to be popular.
Next to Normal’s Diana Goodman is bipolar. Not exactly the feel-good premise that community theatres often go for. But this story is contemporary, relevant, and resonant. The music, a rock score, reverberates long after the notes have faded. For a theatre that takes risks, this one is a powerful choice.
I did a little reading on roles for women over 40, here are a couple of articles/blogs I found that had good stuff to say:
A few weeks ago, I went to a Bette Midler concert. It was everything I hoped it would be. The Divine Miss M is still in full voice, wears fabulous costumes, tells filthy jokes, and even appears as Winifred! Nearly at the end of the concert comes the big one, the one I have been waiting for all night. She warns everyone not to sing along because there is room for only one diva in the arena (though we got to sing along at the chorus). She starts singing, “Some say love…it is a flower…” and I am transported. But in the rapture is an equal measure of grief. Gut wrenching, heart swelling, breath halting grief.
When I was in the eighth grade, I sang my very first solo in front of an audience: “The Rose.” It was for my school’s talent show. I remember I was terrified: my parents and grandparents were there, the cafetorium lights were dark, the spotlight was blinding, and it felt like I couldn’t breathe. Then I heard the piano intro (you all know it, too: da-da-da-duh, da-da-da-duh) and I opened my mouth and sang. It was magical (well, for me, anyway).
I was in a new school and I was pretty shy, so I hadn’t made a whole lot of friends. But after this, suddenly people wanted to sit by me on the bus, and they would ask me to sing us home. Singing “Hopelessly Devoted to You” as we rounded corners dropping off crazy middle school students, I began to understand who I was meant to be: the singer.
I sang all through high school, competing for slots in choirs, musicals, and talent shows. I had a really beautiful voice, a clear Julie Andrews-styled soprano with a soaring range. I dreamt of being the next Barbra Streisand, or maybe a singer in New York. In college, I started as a voice major. I soon discovered that I was not meant to be a classical music major- I needed to sing show tunes and jazz standards. Musical theatre was really where I belonged.
But then I fell in love and got married, started a family, and kept singing when I could, mostly in community theatre shows, sometimes in churches, occasionally in choirs. I sang in lots of weddings. I sang “The Rose” for my grandfather’s wedding, then again at his funeral.
I had a repertoire I sang to my kids when I put them to bed: “All the Pretty Little Horses,” “I Love you, fill-in-the-blank” from the musical Bye Bye Birdie, “You Are My Sunshine,” and “Goodnight, My Someone.” I think they liked it.
I don’t really sing much anymore. Though it is mostly healed now, I lost my voice for over a year, due to spinal surgery that paralyzed one of my vocal cords. Now I have a prosthetic one, so I can sing. But still, I don’t. Earlier this week, I wanted to change my profile picture on Facebook to a photo of me singing. I wanted to have a constant reminder to myself and others that that is who I am. I couldn’t find a picture of myself singing. Because I just don’t anymore.
I used to be asked to do singing gigs, but that has not happened in a long time. I don’t have little ones to sing to sleep. I don’t even sing in the car, because I am never alone in the car anymore!
What do you do when you find yourself mid-journey and a little lost? When you either need to go back and rediscover who you are or forge a new identity?