There is more to musical theater than meets the eye

By Tristan E.M. Leach

As a student who came from California, I always get one question: “What are you doing here?” From there I launch into the same story I’ve told at least 50 times. I was a musical theater major who gave up the art, but Rider still wanted me. Everyone walks away satisfied with my explanation, but the truth is, I’m not even satisfied with my answer. The reality of my life at Rider is that theater brought me here and I ditched it.

Theater was in my blood from the minute I was born. My dad was a stage manager, and both of my parents sparked my love for arts and stage performing. They spent thousands of dollars to send me to ballet, voice lessons, acting classes and eventually an arts school. For an awkward kid who never really fit in, this felt like a dream come true. I had a dream to be on Broadway, and now here was the perfect training before college.

In the eighth grade I was accepted into Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA). I was to join the Musical Theatre (MT) conservatory, and I did with a twinkle in my eye. What I was met with was a world of favoritism, fat shaming and being left out. Still, I had hope. I met some of my best friends and had amazing opportunities that some could only dream of.

I woke up every day at 4:45 a.m. to drive over an hour and a half to get to OGSA. From eight in the morning till half past one in the afternoon, my friends and I went to our required classes: math, history, English and so on. After a short break it was time for conservatory classes. Some of my teachers were extremely inspiring people who made me feel good about myself and taught with compassion. The others? My classmates and I feel bad about ourselves, unless of course, you were one of the favorites of the conservatory.

It was no secret who the favorites were. There were favorites in every grade from seventh to senior year. Hand selected by the directors of the main stage productions, those students were guaranteed to be favorites both on stage and off. They got the best solos in group pieces, the best scenes in acting and the best costumes for in-class performances. OCSA claimed that everyone got equal opportunities, but I watched the same four girls and guys continuously get the lead roles. The only time this wouldn’t happen was when a new director came in or when a professional came in for Performing with the Pros.

By junior year of high school I was done. I felt defeated by the M’T conservatory and OCSA in general. One day my mom and I were sitting in the parking lot when I turned to her and said, “Do I have to do theater in college?” My mom looked astonished by my question. She sat there, smiled at me and said, “No. It’s your college career, but honey, what would you do?” 

I thought for a few weeks about that. I had always loved writing but I wasn’t exactly a creative writing type of person. And then it hit me — journalism. I presented the idea to my parents, and both of them agreed it was a great idea. Rider had originally scouted me for theater, but when I changed my mind, I was still wanted.

Senior year of high school came, and while my classmates talked about how stressed about pre-screens they were, I sat there. One day one of my teachers asked me how college applications were going for me, and I said, “I finished them. I heard back from Rider University; I’m going to go there and study journalism.”

I was proud of myself for making my own choice. I moved to New Jersey and left my musical theater past where it belonged, in the past. I always wonder if I disappointed my parents and the teachers that believed in me.

Musical theater is not an easy field of work. I tip my hat to anyone who has not let the constant “no’s” defeat them. I applaud those who work in the professional theater world and battle the many problems in the community. I smile at the children who do community theater and hope that they aren’t met with the same hurt as me.

Leaving California meant that I left behind including a part of myself that will stay forever in the past.

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