Sponsored by Concord Theatricals, DemocracyWorks is the Educational Theatre Association (EdTA)’s annual essay competition, designed to grow student advocacy for theatre education. Each year, students submit inspiring essays on a timely prompt surrounding the value of arts education, and three winners receive prizes and recognition. This year, DemocracyWorks asked high school students “How has theatre helped you build resiliency in your personal life and academic studies?”
This essay, by Spencer Wareing, is 2022’s winner. (For more essays, click here.)
The English language lacks a sufficient number of synonyms for the word ‘bad’ to adequately paint a picture of 2021. Horrible, atrocious, nightmarish—all of these scratch the surface but fail to articulate last year’s depths. Over the course of 2021, COVID’s second wave arrived in full swing, my best friend moved across the country, and my mother was diagnosed with leukemia. However, despite all the darkness, theatre remained a constant spotlight, a glimmering hope for happiness that built me back up despite life’s continual attempts to knock me down.
Throughout the centuries, theatre has been ever-present—from the amphitheaters in Ancient Greece to the Globe Theater in Stratford-Upon-Avon. So, it is no surprise that the performing arts continued to blossom despite the pandemic. Like the majority of the world trapped inside, during the Summer of 2020, my mental health declined. Pre-COVID, theatre was my outlet, the window to the souls of characters long-since dead and ready to be revived in a dimly lit auditorium. I had the privilege of participating in three Zoom-led productions—A Doll’s House, The Laramie Project, and A Thousand Cranes—and it truly rekindled my love for the art form and my emotional wellbeing. Whether in a digital platform or upon a stage, the ability to bring life to a script re-energized the happiness COVID had taken away. Upon returning to in-person school, my theater teacher, fellow actors, and I spent four months rehearsing and filming Clue: On-Stage. We spent each afternoon together, persevering despite the oppressive darkness of the world. My Clue: On-Stage cast cultivated my favorite memories of Sophomore year.
If my choice in career was ever in question, the unbridled joy I felt performing in front of a live audience as Agnes Evans in She Kills Monsters: Young Adventurers Edition after months of recorded performances solidified my ambition to become an actor. Stage-lights bright, hushed murmurs filling my auditorium, and a monstrous dragon roar shaking the walls, I fought a grin as I brandished my sword. Agnes Evans is a role I will never forget, not because I went head-to-five-heads with a dragon—though that is a contributing factor—but because Qui Nguyen’s production blessed me with the audience’s hard-won laughter, horrified gasps, and tears of both grief and bittersweet joy. I loved every second of standing on that stage as Agnes. Creating her story of heartache and resiliency in the face of loss helped me to cope with my own real-life anguish, the experiences that had me clutching my chest and crying. Agnes lost her little sister, Tilly. I spent night after night imploring the universe to help my mom in her battle against cancer, begging for good news that seemed to worsen each month. To me, Agnes Evans transformed into more than lines on a page. She was the start of a new chapter.
My dreams don’t end with the stage. Along with performing, I plan to be an author; to create books, poems, and plays that inspire aspirations in others as literature has done for me. During Freshman year, I participated in Playworks at Arizona Thespian Festival and won the opportunity to workshop my one-act, Once Upon A Rhyme, with a professional director and compete for the Jerome McDonough Playwright Award. Though I lost the latter, I circumvented the despair the defeat had the potential to cause. Instead, I drafted Boarding For Neverland; a coming of age play that advocates for diversity and gender identity. Once again, I submitted to Playworks, writing into the long hours of the night with the notes my director gave me. I held my Jerome McDonough Playwright Award with pride, grinning as applause shook the ballroom. The winter of 2021 ended with good news: the cast list for The Diary of Anne Frank, my first equity production, and an open door of possibilities.
No one can dispute that 2021 had its fair share of darkness, but those lows allowed the flickers of happiness to burn so much brighter. Theatre, with its red-velvet curtains and blinding lights, has given me the skills needed to cope with any adversary life throws my way, whether it be dragon, competition, quarantine, or grief. So, thank you, theatre, and thank you for reading my essay.