Back Row & Preferably Off-Center
I was painfully shy as a kid. If I didn’t know you, getting a word out of me was like pulling teeth. So, if no one was around to play with me, I was perfectly fine just hanging out by myself.
That’s me, at about age 12, just before I murdered it with Squirtle in Pokémon Blue. Video games are a prime example of how I spent time by myself, especially during summer vacations. But despite this penchant for spending hours upon hours in front of glowing rectangles, I was still somewhat active and actually had a crazy amount of energy at my disposal. My parents managed to get me to spend some of that energy by sending me to day camps for a few weeks during summer vacations.
These day camps mainly consisted of trying to get kids to deplete their massive energy reserves by making them participate in physical activities like “capture the flag” or “spin in circles until you feel nauseous,” in hopes that they would be tuckered out by the time they had to go home. Usually, we just ended up aimlessly running around screaming nonsense. These camps were the bomb.
But there was one particular summer when my parents enrolled me in an entirely different type of camp.
They enrolled me in an art camp.
Even though I occasionally liked to draw cartoons, I was still pretty hesitant to go to a full out art camp. And truth be told, I kind of thought art was for total geekazoids. But I heard my cousin was already at the camp, so I agreed to go for the last week.
I had no idea what to expect. My entire understanding of art essentially came from the sheer awe of watching Bob Ross paint lifelike landscapes on TV while I applied the do-it-yourself icing on my Toaster Strudel before school.
On the first day of camp, I remember walking in and seeing about 14 kids sitting at desks quietly working on art projects. This made me feel nervous and a bit out of my element. Where was the energy and the laughter of a summer camp? I immediately knew this was not a place of spin-in-circles-until-you-feel-nauseous shenanigans.
And then I noticed one kid sitting by himself in a tent.
In Spiderman pajamas.
My cousin quickly informed me that this was one of the camp director’s kids, and self expression in the form of Spiderman pajamas was very run of the mill around these parts. I also learned that this costumed camper was the lead in the play that the entire camp had been working on all summer.
When I inquired my cousin for more information about this play, the less I liked about it. Because it turned out that a significant portion of camp was–and would be–dedicated to producing the play, which would then be performed in front of family and friends at the end of the week. I, however, was under the impression that I would just be spending the week drawing badass pictures of badass stuff. Also, by “play,” I actually mean, an “ocean themed musical about a very crabby crab becoming less irritable.”
I know what you’re thinking, you guys. And the answer is a resounding “NO,” I suffered no traumatic physical or emotional trauma from all of the Local Theatre Awards it rained down on us that summer. Thank you for your concerns.
But, all in all, I was actually pretty happy with the camp for the duration I was there. It was the first time I had ever shown my drawings to other people, or ever had them critiqued for that matter. I also enjoyed other types of art I got to experiment around with.
And I was even more ecstatic that all the major parts in the play were already casted, so they had to have a special role written in at the last minute just for me. It was billed as Seaweed #2. I was born to play Seaweed #2…or a tree. I once starred as tree #3 in another play. Maybe I should inform them? Oh, Tim! There you go, going off on a tangent again!, I thought to myself when I heard about my new role. My only job was to wear brown clothing with seaweed colored cloth draped on me while I danced around in the background during the songs.
I felt like I had successfully bucked the system since I didn’t have to do anything significant for the play. Because while I enjoyed creating art, performing it was a something I had absolutely zero interest in, because stage fright is a common symptom of chronic shyness. I mean, I would have rather gotten my teeth drilled for hours on end by 1st year dental students than play a major part in that play.
The musical was set to have 2 showings; a Friday and a Saturday show. But a day before the premier, we were informed that the lead role of The Crab–played by the camp director’s Spiderman loving son–would not be available for the Saturday show.
And since everyone else had already memorized their respective roles, that left only one person to play the titular role. Me. Fuck.
Front and center with all eyes on me was something I had successfully avoided all my life. Give me back-left-barely-on-stage any day of the week. But I couldn’t let my stage fright let down my fellow campers love of theatre. Stepping in for the lead was the right thing to do.
Surprisingly, I wasn’t too worried about the acting. I would have the lines right in front of me and I could hide behind the fact that I was thrusted into this role at the very last minute. But I was very worried about having to sing in front of so many people. Because I am oh-my-god-terrible at singing.
I wish knew the technical terms for all the things I do wrong when I attempt to sing. I feel like I could find some solace in that fact, like it was a crutch to hide behind. But it doesn’t really matter, because I commit ALL OF THEM. And you may recall from earlier that I said that I was about 12 years old at the time. And if you know anything about 12 year old boys, you know their voices crack, like crazy.
The night before my turn as the lead, I was having serious doubts as to whether or not I could get up on stage, let alone actually go through with it. I remember lying in bed and finally thinking to myself, screw it, I’m just gonna sing those stupid songs and maybe a miracle will happen and I’ll hit all of my notes, and with that idea implanted in my mind, I somehow managed to drift off to sleep.
So the next day, when the lights came up for the performance and my musical debut, I anxiously stood on the prop rock, dressed in my slipshod crab costume. I took a deep breath and out came the flattest, most monotone voice in the history of voices.
I bombed. I bombed so hard, you could hear hair growing.
But you know what? It was okay. Because the more I sang, the funnier it became…to me. And in the process of bombing, I was discovering something beautiful. I was discovering that under certain conditions I could trigger an “I don’t give a shit” type of gunslinger bravado. People with stage fright know this feeling. It’s the switch that sometimes goes off in your head telling you that it’s okay, just finish. With that switch comes the ability to rise above, no mater how bad things seem to be going. So I kept singing–or at least what I believe was singing–right until the very end. And at the end, was the charity applause of an audience thrust into an awkward situation and the weightlessness of no longer having to carry the weight of anxiety.
I laugh now when I think about how scared I was in that moment. But for the first time in my life, I was able to crawl a little bit farther out of the shell that had seemed to engulf me for most of my childhood and see that things really aren’t as bad as I thought they were.
And, maybe in some way, I was always the perfect person to play the part of The Crab.