By Jason Cooper
Entire contents are copyright © 2020 by Jason Cooper. All rights reserved.
3. Teen Dream
I was a terrible student and sufficed to say little boys with gender identity issues are not generally the most popular kids in school. However, I did manage to carve out a notch for myself; I was a good singer. Let me rephrase that I was not afraid to sing in public. I always had a significant role in the school’s various plays, pageants, and programs, as well as being a soloist whenever the opportunity arose. Sometimes I forced those opportunities, for example, convincing the principle that I should sing “The Rose” at my eighth-grade graduation. That’s right; I said, “The Rose.”
Somehow, which is inexplicable to me, I made it to high school and still had not become a teen idol. I was desperate to go to the local Youth Performing Arts High School. I mean come on, I’d seen Fame, and I know what went on there. Unfortunately, due to my lackluster academic career, they took a hard pass.
“He had a very good audition, but we have high academic standards, try us again next year,” was their official response.
Again, I was not deterred, and again, fool, look at the signs, why don’t you? I was not going to let not getting into the Performing Arts High School stop me. My second professional audition was a bit more successful than my first. At this one, I scored the coveted callback audition, which I thought meant I was a shoo-in. Nope; it does not mean that at all. However, it was all the encouragement I needed to reaffirm my belief that I was meant to be a star. Turns out that the third time was the charm when I finally got cast in a professional show and earned my very first paycheck at the age of 14 by being in a play.
A professional theatre company in town focusing on theatre for young audiences put on an annual production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, and each year they cast around 20 school-aged kids to play the show’s young characters. This was the big time (to me); the show was performed at the largest performing arts center in the state and people had to actually purchase tickets to see it. This early exposure was invaluable to me; this was where I learned theatre jargon such as stage manager (as in do what the stage manager says, no matter what), stage left, stage right, upstage, down, stage (they’re the opposite of what you would think they would be), proscenium, thrust (sounds dirty but isn’t), strike, equity, break character (I’m bad at this), off-book, cue to cue and HOLD PLEASE, among others. This was also when I learned theatre etiquette; do not steal focus, do not change your performance once it is set, do not be late. And no one is irreplaceable, even children (one poor little bastard got recast.)
The cherry on top of getting cast in this professional play was, not only was I going to get paid, I got to miss half a day of school every other day for a month. Furthermore, my school let it count as my PE credit. Not only was I becoming a star, but the Gods also sprang me from the unrelenting Hell that is freshman physical education.
There was a downside, however; I was obnoxious about my new found show biz success, I strutted around like Laurence Olivier by way of George Jefferson. Additionally, my residency on cloud nine was short-lived. The show ended, and normal boring life resumed. I thought I had been given admission into some secret club. I felt that now that I had been cast, I was there to stay. Turns out, there are not a lot of casting opportunities for effeminate, pubescent boys in medium-sized Midwest cities. As per usual at school anytime anything came up that required people to be on a stage my hand shot straight up. In my senior year I got to play Charlie Brown in You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown, my first lead. Surely Broadway was the next step.
The problem – as I see it now – is that I did absolutely nothing other than fantasizing to make these dreams become a reality. I should have been taking dance classes. I took no dance classes. I should have been taking voice lessons. I took no voice lessons. I figured it would just happen when I grew up. I assumed my raw talent would take the world by storm. Moron. It would be nearly ten years before I was cast again in a professional play. It did not matter, though, because I had reassessed my plan. I was going to be a rock star.
The reality of my teen years differed significantly from what I’d imagined they would be as a younger adolescent. They were relatively normal; school, friends, parties, temper tantrums, cars, gossip, dates, fights, laughter, and movies, lots of movies. The ones we saw and the ones we made with my jammin’ 90s camcorder that was roughly the size of New Hampshire. Recently I found my Senior Book, a novelty item that we are pressured into buying so we can document all of the things that were popular during our last year of high school. For me, it was grunge music (I hated it) and Beverly Hills 90210 (I loved it.) I was curious as to what 17-year-old me had to say about his future; I noticed the following entries:
Q: What do you see yourself doing in 5 years?
A: Working as a singer.
That was my answer, “working as a singer.” I imagine when I wrote that what I meant was that I was going to be a recording artist. “Working as a singer,” is rather vague. Anyone can work as a singer; one can just sing as they go about his or her duties. In every job I ever had, I was working as a singer. I mean, at least until a co-worker would ask me to
“Please stop singing; I’m begging you.”
Technically I was working as a singer this morning when I cleaned the bathroom belting out Lady Gaga songs. Onto the next question:
Q: What do you see yourself doing in 10 years?
A: Singer or teacher.
Teacher? I do not remember writing that, but I do remember that is what I told people was my back up career. It was a bluff though; I knew I would need no backup, I was going to be a singer, and music was going to be my path to stardom.
Tomorrow’s chapter: Jesus Rock, Hold the Jesus
Jason Cooper has worked in professional, regional, and community theatre for over twenty years. After receiving his BFA in theatre performance he spent three seasons with the award-winning Playhouse on the Square in Memphis, TN. After working in theatres all over the country for a time, Jason settled in Chicago and worked with The Chicago Dramatists, Apple Tree Theatre, and Red Moon Theatre before returning home to Louisville to become a high school English teacher. Locally, Jason has worked extensively as an actor and director primarily for Pandora Productions, CenterStage, The Bard’s Town, Derby Dinner Playhouse, and Stage One.