What West Side Story Taught Me

This is definitely the longest post I’ve published on this blog so far, so fair warning: a lengthy, indulgent personal essay ahead, reflecting on everything I learned from rehearsing and performing in my first musical.

Last weekend, we finished the final two shows of the production of West Side Story I had spontaneously joined the cast of back in mid-November. I have mentioned here before that I grew up in ballet, and so I’m really no stranger to the stage, having been in the occasional dance recitals from age 3 to 8 and then 2-5 different ballet, choreography, or theatrical shows of various sorts per year from age 8 to age 18. It had been 4.5 years since my last show before college, in August of 2014. Naturally, having been away from performing for the longest stretch of time in my life, I had been missing it; that camaraderie bred from long rehearsals, the process of learning choreography and cues, and the excitement and certain high of dancing and acting on a stage. The experience of being in this production of West Side Story was similar and yet different in many ways from my lifetime of other performing experiences, and it really had me wanting to document and savor all the memories I’ve gained from the last couple months of hours of rehearsal and performing with this group of kids and more experienced actors. It felt so deliciously ephemeral, and the whole process made me feel more present in daily life than I have in a while. I just fully surrendered myself to it, and while the commitment involved missing a lot of my typical yoga and ballet classes and consumed my free time, I was poignantly aware of how much I would miss it when it was all over. I guess it was quite the blessing to have grown up in a consistent company of performers, because every final show was never too final, just a farewell to certain choreography, knowing more would soon be around the corner with mostly the same people to spend more hours in rehearsal with.

This is the first show where I was a solo performer in a way. I was still just a small part of a cast, but I didn’t really feel like just a faceless corps dancer in this context. Because it was set up as an extracurricular program for local students, and also because of the nature of West Side Story itself, where each character has a name (not just “village girl” or “baby swan” or “friend of Giselle” like in ballet), there was somewhat more of a focus on the individual than I’m used to. Additionally, with the few other non-high-school local actors like myself, as well as a few professionals brought in as guest artists, there was such a variety of backgrounds, ages, and experience among the group that made it so interesting and fun and easy to get along because most of us were new to each other. After almost daily rehearsals every evening/afternoon over a couple months, it seems so odd that many of us may never see each other again now that it’s all over. So many hours spent together in such a short few months kind of puts the shallowness of social media into perspective, like, sure you can keep in touch at a sort of base level, but there’s nothing that replaces spending actual time with people, especially in the extra vulnerable context of something such as the performance arts. I am so impressed these kids hung in there with all their other high school obligations, but I also understand the addictive nature of it, because despite being exhausting at times, it simultaneously renewed my energy in many ways. On one hand, I felt a bit novel and mature being 5 to 8 years older than many of these kids, but on the other hand I felt accepted in that teenage confidant sort of way, where any chance to make new connections and friends over a shared experience is embraced. The choreography was also novel to me, a bit more frenzied and bold than anything in my past repertoire, allowing me to discover what I had suspected but hadn’t quite yet proven to myself: that I truly am a freer, more expressive dancer than before.

Overall, it was just so different than anything I have performed in the past, and teenage me was frankly too self-conscious to have ever been able to fully enjoy such a production, so I’m even more impressed at the talent and maturity of the kids in the show. I ended up with one line as well, which was a first for me, and it was kind of a silly/cringey one at that. However, just having a line, even (or especially) one that I didn’t like, made me feel even more clearly how much I’ve grown as a person. I felt like myself, and like a character at the same time. I felt like a performer. One of the guest actors sent us all a write-up of character development tips, and while I didn’t dig too deep, I ended up lovingly channeling a bit of my Baba’s personality (my dad’s mom). She was always a firecracker, and would tell me stories of her high school days, boldly trying to catch my grandfather’s attention by strutting past the basketball courts where he and his friends were playing in her short-shorts on her way to the grocery store. I knew she would be a good inspiration for my character, Velma. In fact, the original Broadway production of West Side Story debuted in 1957 and she was 22 that year, like I am now. She was bold and sharp and sweet, and the older I get, the more I see both of my grandmothers in the person I’m becoming. I wish I could talk to them now and show them I’m not the timid kid I used to be; to show them how I’ve grown to mirror some of their strength and wit. And sure, for this production I wasn’t scrutinizing my dancing in a mirrored studio for hours, and maybe that contributed to some of the looseness. But I felt more comfortable in my skin all the same.

I hope I can keep randomly joining the cast of productions my whole life, because that performing bug sticks with you. It’s addictive, and it’s a lot of fun, and you really do feel a fast connection with your fellow actors and actresses. We may sometimes not even remember each others’ names at first, but there’s an ease of conversation and communication that comes from just having the simple common thread of sharing a stage. And I think sharing a stage really opens people up, because it’s so easy to forget that ease of connection in most daily life situations…unfortunately, a classroom or office doesn’t quite have the same looseness, it’s often more of a stiff environment that can wear on one’s social confidence. Weeks of performing had left me a bit overfilled, I think; high on human interaction and exchange of energy, and I have been crashing back to reality this past week. I had gotten too used to going to my college campus each day and being surrounded by people with barely any interaction, which can sometimes feel lonelier than solitude.

I was beginning to wonder if these life observations from returning to theater would thread through my 2019…I wondered if this might be the year I shed some of my lone wolf tendencies and start actually getting to know more people, be friendlier, a bit more outgoing. I think WSS has definitely changed me, and I do feel like I’ve been more open in my daily interactions and in my new classes so far this year, even making a few new friends. It’s almost as if being in WSS in my spare time had given me a fun alter-ego, a tiny extra burst of charismatic energy to channel. I have no idea if I can sustain that charisma, absorb some of it back into my identity, but I do want to try, because I think I’ve earned the identity of a performer after almost two decades of it.

Some distilled points and bonus bits of what I learned from being in my first musical:

-Most “talents” are learned skills that can be improved. I had to do some singing as part of this cast, and even received a few one-on-one voice lessons in the process. It’s like working a muscle and needs warmed up and trained. While I wouldn’t consider myself a singer, I definitely feel like my voice has improved!

-It’s never too late to start something new. I was surprised to learn that two of the professional guest actors that joined our cast did not even start acting until they were in their early 20s.

-Don’t be afraid to open up to people and put yourself out there. There’s nothing like acting to remind you that it’s okay to look silly, or be a little bold or crazy or emotional. Acting can be very therapeutic, giving your fellow actors and the audience permission to feel and express different emotions with you through the story you’re telling. Theatre is a more artistic and vulnerable environment than real life, but people are often so unreasonably uptight and self-conscious in normal situations. Be more vulnerable in real life, loosen up a bit. It feels better.

-Fun busyness feels so much better than laziness. I could have been like “no thank you-oo, ooblee-ooo*” to this opportunity and spent my winter break with a lot more free time, but I was so happy to be busy with something fun and fulfilling. I was in rehearsals during finals week and during the first month of this semester, and it reminded me that I can handle a variety of obligations and have fun doing it. I think time management gets easier when you have less free time to fill, hah.

-It’s okay to be under-qualified. Learn on the job, improvise, learn from the people around you. I grew up performing but still, every performance is something new and different, and every one teaches me that I still have a lot to learn. Embrace the fun in not knowing what you’re doing.

-You will meet lots of people in life, and sometimes you are destined to only know them for a short time. These are still valuable relationships and connections. You can’t keep all your friends close forever, sometimes the people that are in your life for a brief time leave a significant impact, or maybe they’ll come back into your life unexpectedly in the future. It’s bittersweet, but c’est la vie.

And if I’m being honest, I suspect all of life is bittersweet in some way or another, with other flavors dominating at times but really no other possible undertone. So that’s my main takeaway. Be more present with your life and experiences, because they’re all temporary, but if you savor them and learn, then you’ll miss things fondly rather than bitterly when they’re over. I have so many good new memories from my first return to the stage since 2014, and if I grow a bit from each role I play in my life, then I’m excited to take a dash of Velma’s boldness with me moving forward.

*that’s it, that’s my line, okay?? It’s silly but it grew on me and now it’s iconic, lol

2 thoughts on “What West Side Story Taught Me”

  1. I love this post!! Trying something new can be so freeing and fun! I agree that its easy for me as well to go about many of my college days with very little interaction and feel completely fine. But the times i make myself be more social and do group things i never regret! Its a fun balance. And i also agree its easier to time manage on a busy schedule too! Wish i couldve seen WSS 🙁

    1. Aww thanks! Yes!! And *I think* they filmed a show, so if we ever possibly get a copy of it maybe we can watch it together (if you can stand me mouthing every line and singing along hah)

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