Theater Kids, Take Center Stage

By David Egan

How should one live? We’ve asked this since Aristotle. At twenty years old I’m unqualified to answer it. But in the absence of wisdom there is inspiration. Inspiration, which once meant “divine guidance,” is the creative gift of the young. What we create is ourselves and the future. What glimmers as inspiration is what suggests, despite the seductions of nihilism, that life can be lived in a meaningful way. A great engine of inspiration is the Theater Kid: the archetypal thespian. There is Theater Kid Energy. I believe it would serve us well to adopt it.

Theater kids are real people – high school casts and crews who carry their passion for theater through adolescence and beyond. But the Theater Kid is also a sensibility, an attitude. The Theater Kid is a specific type of artist. They are enthusiastic people (enthusiasm from the Latin for inspiration, frenzy) who engage sincerely with the world and who strive for achievement. This gives them their bad rap. Enthusiasm can be annoying, sincerity can be embarrassing, and striving for achievement can make people catty. Every virtue carried too far is a vice. This is not a call to emulate theater kids. Rather in the sum of Theater Kid virtues I see an ideal at which to aim, a source of moral instruction. 

Consider the improv maxim: “Yes, and.” Improvisational comedy (a scriptless performance, often used by actors in training) is guided by this rule. Accept what your scene partner says and build on it. Listen and expand. This method of spontaneous discovery weaves a narrative through spitballing. It’s a radical form of active engagement with other people. “Yes, and…” has been heralded as useful in business for brainstorming and communication. Like an improv scene, life is a performance. We perform for each other. But if we heed the maxim we can perform off the cuff: opening our minds with enthusiasm, accepting what’s given to us and building upon it. To accept life with all its flaws and limitations is to say yes. To go out on a limb, to courageously participate in the enterprise, is to say and.

Or consider the maxim, “The show must go on.” The curtain will rise and the actors will perform no matter what happens. There are no excuses. There is nothing and no one who can stop the performance. It’s metaphorically significant: in the face of suffering, failures and low self-esteem, still, it is your duty to step on stage. See it through. It is a maxim of resilience, and one that seems radical in our culture of victimhood and trepidation. The culture sees problems everywhere, and perhaps rightly so. Life is a problem. But the Theater Kid says methinks we’re in too deep, the people are waiting – put on your costume, power pose, and step into the light. Break a leg or life will break it for you.

Theater Kids need to be tough – as in sports, talent rises to the top. The actor must have technical skill, gestural flare, and the je ne sais quoi. Casting directors are on the hunt for a role’s perfect fit. No one is more competitive than a Theater Kid vying for the lead. Like sports, theater is (or should be) a sacred meritocracy where the best in business take center stage. Theater Kids know that talent is real and that not everyone has it. But Theater Kid Energy is aspirational and undaunted. The most laudable Theater Kid may be assigned the role of a background character. But they’ll be damned if they’re not the best background character that stage has ever seen. Every choice can shine with the flair of Theater Kid Energy.

This attitude is the “theatricalization of experience” described by Susan Sontag in “Notes on Camp.” Theater Kid Energy is a form of Camp. Like the Theater Kid who brings the stage’s drama into life, Camp is the “spirit of extravagance.” Camp sees the world as an aesthetic phenomenon, “in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.” Like Camp, pure Theater Kid Energy is “irrepressible, a virtually uncontrolled sensibility.” Musicals are the Theater Kid’s supreme genre, a stylized version of reality replete with song and dance. It is understandable why some people hate this genre. No one really breaks out into song and dance in real life – except in the dreamworld of the Theater Kid.

Still, the ethics one can learn from Theater Kid Energy – the wisdom of “Yes, and,” and “The show must go on,” – distinguishes it from Camp. The Theater Kid has an ethical sense that guides them beyond aesthetics. Theater is a uniquely collaborative medium. Productions, like sports teams, build family through a shared goal. And families are messy, the aesthete’s greatest fear.  There are no Camp gestures at the post-show Denny’s meal. There is earnest bonding, not between personas but between persons. The post-show Denny’s trip is like post-sex pillow talk: energy’s drained and it doesn’t matter how you look.

I am not a Theater Kid but I’ve fallen in love with a few. Except for two years of Drama class in high school, I have never been in a production. Like Sontag with Camp, who both sympathized with the sensibility and found it repulsive, I am an outsider. I find Theater Kid Energy corny and middlebrow but also life-affirming and redemptive. I sympathize with Theater Kid Energy as the contradictory desire to follow passion and amoral artistic impulses and to embrace the artifice of personality while still living a serious, ethical life. As a bisexual and devotee of gay culture I am personally moved by the Theater Kid, in whom I see a queer hero and a way out of nihilism. I hope young gay kids know you can be a Theater Kid all your life. Know there are dancelines in the Kingdom of Heaven. Step into the light. You look fabulous.

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