When I was 14, I did a summer theatre intensive at The Pittsburgh Playhouse. At the time, they had a youth acting program that was pretty aggressive and well-respected. After auditioning, I was admitted. Because the Playhouse was in Oakland, I was allowed to commute by my parents. This involved a bus and trolley. In case you don’t know, a trolley is our version of a subway in Pittsburgh. Often seen on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, the trolley travels above ground.
Having a career in the arts sometimes means you grow up rather quickly. I knew my cousin Mandy was pretty much shipped off every summer from the time she was ten to do ballet intensives taught my world renowned instructors. When she was 14, she moved to New York City where she attended Professional Performing Arts School aka Fame School. I was starting on the same journey in a way. My first few days at the Playhouse I realized how wet behind the ears I was, and how green I was when it came to life stuff. Yes, I was a kid. No, it wasn’t a good thing.
For years, I had been a weird kid at school. Not only did these kids take the cake, but they made me realize how sheltered I was. While my parents supported my career path, they let me know the second there was a change in attitude or a slip in grades the fun stopped. These kids on the other hand were a more sophisticated, much different animal that would have scoffed at such a memo.
Most of the kids had aged into the teen program through the junior program, and so they knew all the instructors, and all the instructors knew them. Not someone who was part of the feeder system, I was seemingly odd girl out. Right away, my classmates proved vicious gossips, and I heard all about the “favorites.” Yes, in theatre the person the director gives all the plum roles to. These kids trained, sang, and knew plays. I didn’t.
The population of the summer program was a mishmash of various kinds of people. There were the elitist kids from prep schools like Shady Side, and money loaded districts like Mount Lebanon, Upper St.Claire, Fox Chapel, and other places containing big houses with no furniture. Trust fund babies, they wouldn’t be caught dead working a summer job and they let anyone and everyone know it. Many also wore designer clothing to class. Granted, it was difficult to move in, but that just proved their point. This population knew all there was to know about designer coffee, and fulfilled every horrid theatre person stereotype there was. With their affected speech, they let the whole world know they were theatre people in case they had forgotten. Then again, these kinds of theatre people are the reason the world hates actors. Either way, these kids all got expensive cars as birthday gifts. No, they would never take the bus. That was beneath them.
I asked one of these girls, Katherine, if she did her high school plays. Katherine snidely purred, “I don’t do school theatre. It’s beneath my training, and it’s beneath me.”
After these kids were the city kids. Some went to the CAPA (Creative and Performing Arts) High School. Others went to Alderdice of Schenley. These kids were off the chain. Many were much more independent than I could ever dream of being, and took the bus and trolley at all hours. Their parents didn’t dare ground them, and it seemed like their parents barely cared to begin with. Many of these kids partied hard, and partied on the regular with fake ID’s. One girl, Charlotte, was dating a 30 year old dude and lying and saying she was 23. Another girl went braless one day because she had lost hers in a drunken state the night before and hadn’t gotten home. Then there was Rachael with the pregnancy scare. Emily turned to her and said, “Get an abortion. It’s no big deal. I got one two months and it was very cheap. Oh, and it’s just a day in bed.”
After the city kids were the fringe kids. These kids were basically screw ups and their parents were at the end of their rope. So they stuck them in the theatre. These kids went to alternative schools, aka holding tanks for those who couldn’t hack it in regular school. In this group there was a teen alcoholic named Mari who had just gotten out of rehab and was attending the program by day and AA by night. This was of course including but not limited to Hailey, a girl with OCD and Panic disorder, who cut herself. Add in a bi-sexual Wiccan Chandra and every stereotype that resides in the nightmares of new parents was represented. Often, they exchanged notes about which psych meds they were on which freaked me out.
Then of course there were the scholarship kids. Translated, the poor black kids. The Playhouse often went into the community to try to farm talent from less fortune homes, often from The Hill District and Homewood. Yes, the neighborhoods the cops don’t go to. While these kids were intimidating for the rich snobs, I clicked with the scholarship kids the best. None of them were perfect, heck one even had a 2 year old daughter. Note: Baby Mama and child came to performances and were wonderfully supportive of us all. However, I always found them the most real and easiest to stomach.
One in particular I took to was DeShawn Forrester. DeShawn lived in The Hill District aka The Home of August Wilson. As a matter of fact, DeShawn even did an August Wilson monologue once. A kid built like a tank, DeShawn told us it was either Broadway or the NFL. While he didn’t touch on it much, once he mentioned he had three brothers who had two different fathers. So yeah, his home life kind of sucked. Whenever he stepped on the stage, DeShawn was funny like Chris Farley. Born without a filter, DeShawn always said what was on his mind and didn’t seem to care. While it got him in trouble, it won him my respect.
As part of cast bonding and mediation, we did a drill called Jump Circle. Done no where else in the world but the Pittsburgh Playhouse, the cast stands in a circle. If one cast member has a problem with another, they walk up to them and confront them. They yell it out until the conflict is squashed. A Jump Circle is and should be supervised by a director or teacher. This way, confrontations don’t get out of hand, and a third party that isn’t directly involved can be peacemaker.
During our first Jump Circle, one of the elitist kids, a girl by the name of Heather, walked up to Deshawn and told him she was struck by his “bad attitude.” Heather then finished off by telling him he swore too much.
DeShawn quickly replied, “Well girl, all I ever hear you do is complain. You want to talk about bad attitude? If we hear one more time about how you don’t know where to park your 16th birthday present that is more money than my house costs I think we will all knock you off your fucking block.” We all clapped in the Jump Circle. DeShawn 1, Heather 0.
Young DeShawn was rather unsupervised, and had many girlfriends in his neighborhood. Every time I spoke to DeShawn, he was having sex with someone new. We teased DeShawn about being a pimp and a player, but DeShawn shrugged. He couldn’t help it. DeShawn was happy to send his days at the Playhouse so his ladies couldn’t compare notes. Oh problems, problems, problems.
One thing I liked about DeShawn was that he went out of his way to be my friend. Each morning, my mother made me call her when I was safely at The Playhouse. My mother always feared I would get raped or killed, even in broad daylight. It is the way she has always been. In case I was attacked, she gave me every mace and screeching device there was. One morning, I was talking to my mother and DeShawn saw me on the street. He took my mace out of my bag and sprayed it in the air. Luckily it was not a windy day. Out loud he said, “Shit, this is the stuff my mailman carries!”
Just then he reached for my screeching device. The mace had been a close call but this was going to be just plain funny. Just as I hung up the phone, DeShawn pressed the button on my screech alarm. “What the hell is this?”
“My mom thinks I am going to be attacked.” I explained. “She has protected me in every way possible.”
“Damn. You are over protected.” DeShawn observed.
“Tell my mom that.”
“Tell her you are having mad, passionate sex with a nice chocolate looking dude and you are eating him up.” DeShawn suggested. I burst out laughing. It was one of those moments where I had a friend that I would not have ordinarily met under normal circumstances, and I liked that friend.
DeShawn would go on to be my friend in other ways that summer, too. A few weeks later, as our play rehearsed, we had another Jump Circle. One girl, Stacia, had been saying some horrible things about me and my anger management problems. She claimed it was because the monologues I picked were broad characters and crazy people. This had nothing to do with me as a person, these were roles I played well. It was called acting.
Looking back, Stacia longed to be one of the cool kids in the program. She was also jealous I got a sizeable supporting role first year in, and she was stuck with a bit part. In order to fit in with the cool clique, Stacia bad mouthed me at a party. Well, the cool clique thought of her as a hanger on, and Scott, a dude who I was friends with in the in clique told me.
During jump circle I let Stacia have it. The fake little Barbie Doll had tried so hard to be one of the cool kids but wasn’t. I even told her that. Additionally, I also told Stacia that if she had something to say about my characters, she could say it to the playwright because clearly she didn’t know the first thing about acting. I also informed her she hadn’t gotten a good role because she didn’t have good talent. Stacia got in my face saying acting crazy wasn’t talent, and I only proved her right. I said I proved she was phony. The director and his assistant had to pull us apart.
After Jump Circle, DeShawn found me and gave me a hug. “You were right to give it to her. She’s a bitch.” He informed me.
“You think so?” I asked.
“Girl, I know so. Look, you are crazy, but you don’t hide it. You don’t bother anyone. She wanted to start with you and she got owned.” DeShawn observed.
The outcome of that jump circle had been that Stacia found out Scott had told me about the trash talk at the party. This of course was from our friend Mira, who wanted to squash this whole ridiculous situation. Stacia apologized to me, and in unison we turned our rage on Scott. The way Stacia went off on him, she put my so called anger management issues to shame. Then it came out Scott had a history as a shit stirrer, and he became persona non grata by the entire cast. Oh Playhouse memories.
That summer, I had spent all my time with sophisticated adolescents, so the idea of going to a suburban high school was stifling. Translated, I was slightly flipped out and my parents had a hard time containing me. I felt more adult than the “children” I shared class with. My knowledge of taboo things had grown. I was so adult. Truth: None of us anywhere were adult. We were all kids. When it came to adult things, we were all actually really dumb. Yet we thought we were so worldly, which is scary, because the state could have put a needle in our arms if we screwed up badly enough.
Time went on, and we all became grown ups, this time for real. Some of the elitist kids continued in theatre, some didn’t. Katherine ended up attending Oberlin and now works as an art curator. Her bosom buddy Chesley went on to attend Bard and then NYU graduate school and is a talent booker out in California. Leanna, who was actually kind despite her trust fund is now working as a drama director for disadvantaged kids in Washington, DC. Of course, this was after she came out as a lesbian during her first semester at Smith. It was funny, because Leanna was boy crazy but anyway….
The city kids varied. One girl, Charlotte, went to rehab after the intensive. She sobered up, and attended Marymount Manhattan on a dance scholarship. Sadly she relapsed and overdosed a few years after college. It was no surprise given the speed many of these kids were living their lives.
However, of the city slickers most did manage to turn out alright. Many attended Point Park, because CAPA and the university have the same faculty. Charlie went to college for musical theatre, but abandoned acting to become a kindergarten teacher. He’s married with two kids. Rachael with the pregnancy scare ended up going to The Art Institute of Pittsburgh and is an industrial designer. Emily with the abortion is now a professional bodybuilder and physique model. She trains other women, and from the looks of it her life is on track.
The fringe kids all managed to grow up too. Chandra became a gay activist. Hailey went to law school. As for Mari, she made the most of her experience by becoming a drug counselor for troubled adolescents.
Stacia got rejected by all the big name acting schools and decided to be a teacher. Now she lives in Portsmouth, Maine and works with autistic children. Scott continued on in theatre, but quit and now sells used cars. Mira actually lives in LA, and has been on TV several times. Aside from me, she is the only one of us really still acting.
The one I never got an update on was DeShawn. Even after numerous internet searches. No updates, that is, until recently. Yes, I found DeShawn Forrester on facebook. From the look of his wall, it looked like he was pursuing a career as a rapper. For a time, it also seemed like he attended college at Penn State, but didn’t finish. I couldn’t tell whether DeShawn was a legit rapper in the studio banging out albums, or he was a “rapper” to impress women. Either way, his handle was the terribly unoriginal D-Zilla. Still, DeShawn was being creative and hadn’t burned out. That was a victory in itself.
Deshawn’s profile photo looked like it had been forced, as if he was taken out of bed and interrogated beforehand. Yes, an interrogation where he was yelled at by detectives. Then it occurred to me of course it was. DeShawn’s profile pic was a mug shot. There he was in state “I own your ass” orange. My mouth hung open. DeShawn was in prison!
Then as if that wasn’t enough, DeShawn had several photo albums on facebook. One was appropriately named, “Live from Federal Prison.” My mouth hung open in disbelief, disgust, disappointment, and horror. I laughed not because it was funny, but because I didn’t know what else to do. In several photos DeShawn was posed against the wall like a hardened thug. In others, he was with fellow inmates flexing his muscles. All the guys were covered in a combo of prison and street ink. Each had hands in prayer tattooed on their arms, ironic because they had at least broken one commandment to get into the predicament they were in.
As if that weren’t enough, some woman on the outside photographed a letter DeShawn had sent home. Of course she called him D-Zilla, DeShawn had been law abiding and as we know, and to some women that is so not sexy. D-Zilla was a dangerous thug, and that was hot. Did she know D-Zilla could quote Shakespeare? If she knew, he would lose his sex appeal because that woman only wanted straw for brains.
DeShawn did not disappoint his lady love going for the lowest common denominator with his letter. Mixed with rap speak and just plain atrocious grammar, DeShawn relayed that he was innocent and been framed. However, he was keeping his head up. The DeShawn I knew was so smart. Who was this moron alien that replaced him?
The gravy were DeShawn’s facebook posts. One classic was, “A lot of guys say that when you are in jail, you go gay. Bullshit, I am getting ripped. #Institutionalized.” Sigh, priorities, priorities, priorities.
Another was, “Prison upkeep, $100,000, Weight equipment $39,000, Father/Daughter time, priceless.” My mouth hung open. Then again, of course DeShawn had a child. Why stop at one bad decision when you can make a thousand?
This was followed by another post, “Daddy’s in the box and my baby girl made the honor roll. So proud of my smart little princess.” Yes, and hopefully she will make the tax payers proud too by staying out of prison.
Of course this was in between a rant against snitches. Then there was a longer rant against snitches written in all caps. Mind you, DeShawn was in minimum security, perhaps because he had snitched in the first place. Of course, DeShawn accused his fellow rappers of snitching out of jealousy. He opined, “U put D-Zilla in da den. Fuck corrxtions.” No, correct your grammar, D-Zilla.
Then our favorite rap superstar was informed by his fans that prison was just a minor setback and it would only make him stronger. DeShawn also revealed he was spitting rhymes with other inmates. Better than knife fighting or joining a gang I suppose. Then DeShawn blamed his lawyer for the mess he was in, and told the internet world he refused to pay the guy. Out of curiosity, I scrolled back further. DeShawn had been facebook posting throughout his trial. Apparently he didn’t like the judge. Wow, easiest conviction ever. D-Zilla, you are one sad Tupac rip off.
I wanted to scream, “You went to theatre camp with me! What happened! We did Jump Circle! We were in acting class all summer. I liked you. You had a shot. When did you become suck a fucking loser wreaking of failure!”
Then I realized for as grown up as a lot of those kids thought they were, they really weren’t. They were kids. Each was wrestling with their insecure skin fumbling their way throughout the world. For some, the world was already too much. While the city kids were off the hook, it was really a reflection of the lack of adult supervision some of them had. At the time, their antics were funny. Looking back, they are actually kind of sad. Same with the elitist kids who got cars or whatever they wanted. Sure, my parents sheltered me in comparison. However, they knew adulthood had to come naturally, not with the snap of your fingers. As an adult, the memory of some of these kids makes me cringe in a way. Actually, it is an act of God more of them didn’t join Charlotte or DeShawn.
Looking back, despite all the chaos we all had the ability to be creative. When the lights came on and the curtain came up, we put our differences aside because it was show time. Through the different perspectives each of us brought, we gave The Pittsburgh Playhouse a hell of a show. Perhaps our instructors knew what they were doing when they put us all together. That in itself shows the magic of theatre and the importance of art education.
Sure, DeShawn has basically wrecked his life. However, he isn’t joining a prison gang nor is he working as an inside enforcer for a drug dealer. He is rapping. Perhaps without his Playhouse summer, DeShawn wouldn’t have that instinct let alone outlet. Also, underneath is still my buddy. Maybe he irresponsibly created a child, but at least he acknowledges that child and takes part in her life wherever he is. Can’t say the same for some of the dudes I met who have never tested the judicial system.
When he gets out, I hope he drops an album. I would buy it. After all, the rap game is filled with so many posers who grew up in suburbia that have never run the streets. In the words of Eazy-E, at least my boy is “no studio gangsta.”