Toward the end of the show, after a laser-fast costume change, we would run to wait behind the curtain at center stage. On a musical cue, the drapes would open and a small circular spotlight would hit us. The harsh, bright light made us blind to the audience, but I could feel a buzz in my tummy as a sold-out concert hall of 1500 people would scream and applaud as we sang at the musical’s climax. It was the greatest high that a 10-year old could feel and a moment that repeated for a three-week run of shows that forever changed my life.
Three months earlier, callbacks featured about 20 to 30 kids sitting on the edge of the stage. A younger me looked around nervously. I didn’t recognize any of the other kids, the room, the building, or the adults speaking to me, a strange experience for any child. Under the pretense that I desperately wanted to be a child actor, my parents had dropped me off at auditions for University of Northwestern’s Sound of Music, which was in need of child actors to play the Von Trapp children opposite Northwestern undergrad and graduate actors.
I got the part, but I had no idea how impactful the experience would be. The Sound of Music is about a family, and being a part of the production felt like being part of a family. Watching the university production come together was a huge learning experience for my fifth grade self. It built an awareness of the village it takes to put on a show, from the musicians in the pit to the set designers, the costumers, and the box office staff. As a minor, I was assigned a handler to watch over me, help me with my six or seven costume changes, and make sure I didn’t wander off or crumble under the pressure of a sold-out 1500 seat concert hall. Other than that, I was treated as a professional.
Rehearsals were long, expectations were high, and I discovered I was capable of more than I could imagine. As a little kid, the reasonability of carrying a role in such a large production was empowering. It told me I had value, I had talent, I had a brain, and I had the capacity to rise to the occasion. It was also the first time I experienced the performance buzz. The excitement of being onstage would rush in like a drug at pivotal moments in the musical; moments where the drama, music, and audience’s energy would align. I began living for the spectacle, and the feeling of those moments.
I think about it a lot: a little John Mark waiting behind the curtain. It reminds me of why I love to perform and why I choose to make my livelihood in a creative economy that’s unpredictable to say the least. When the synergy of the performers is right, the audience is engaged, and the level of production is appropriate, there’s an explosion of positivity that occurs, the taste of which keeps people coming back for more. As artists, we live for that moment. It can be fleeting. It can be hard to find, and sometimes impossible to recreate, but the journey is often dedicated to the end described above.
Arts careers are diverse and ever-expanding. If you ask an artist why they do what they do, some may say for expression, some may say for change, some may say for glory, and others might just shrug. For me, it’s the high. I’m an addict, still chasing the thrill, still just a little boy waiting behind the curtain.