I grew up as a “latchkey” kid. Not the sort of kid who is alone until her parents come home; no, to me being a latchkey kid meant friends, family, fun and magic. After school on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I went to Southwest Children’s Theatre, which became affectionately referred to as “Latchkey Theatre.” This program (which is now called Umbrella Theatre Children’s Program and operates out of Teatro Paraguas) is more than a theater class. It teaches a way of life, a state of being, that has affected every aspect of my existence. I can honestly say that without this program I would not be the woman I am today.
I acted in my first play at 4 years old, as a fairy in “The Thirteen Bells of Boglewood,” at the Greer Garson Theatre. At that time kids had to be able to read to be in the program, but I wanted to be on the stage so badly that Rebecca Morgan, the director, helped me to memorize the few lines my little character had so I could be in the show. I remember waiting in the wings to come on stage. Everything felt so big and majestic, and the lights were so bright. I stepped onto the stage and all my nerves disappeared. I loved looking into the audience and seeing their reactions to the story we were enacting. I felt brave, strong and exhilarated all at the same time. I was hooked.
From audition to strike, getting ready for a show was hard work. In addition to putting on a play in the theater, we would also pack up the elaborate sets, costumes and makeup and take them to different elementary schools in town where we would perform. Going to your own school was always the most nerve-wracking. What if you totally blew your line in front of your whole school?! It always turned out fine, because even if you did make a mistake, kids you never thought would talk to you would come up after a show to tell you how good you did, or what their favorite part of the show was. The best was when they would remember you the next day at recess. It was like hitting the big time.
That feeling of recognition fueled me to take on other challenges, now that I wasn’t afraid of being in front of people or standing out in the crowd. I ran for school office and was always the first to participate in class activities. It’s remarkable how much a regular school day is like a mini-play. The teacher is the director, and your classmates are all the different characters. Once I saw it like that, I felt like I could be anything I wanted to be, and all I had to do was keep developing my own character.
Today, I approach most situations in my life by asking myself: Which character of myself is best for this particular audience? The technique has been very helpful during job interviews, where I might not have met all the requirements but knew I could do the job. Thanks to some quick improvisational skills and a little self-assurance, I landed a job as an editor in Los Angeles after graduating from film school, and five years later I was the executive post-production supervisor for a major advertising company.
One of the biggest lessons I learned from Rebecca and Celeste at Southwest Children’s Theatre is that every person we encounter in our lives is an audience member in our own productions, and it helps to know how to play to them. I am currently the supporting actress in my real-life dramedy starring my 14-month-old daughter, Josephine, and co-starring my eclectic artist husband, Quinn. I live my life by many of the lessons I was taught at Latchkey Theatre. Enunciate and project so the little old man in the back of the audience can hear you. If you get lost on your path, improvise until you find your way again. Life’s a stage and we’re all characters on it.
Jenifer Nelson-Tincher is the new public relations director for the Umbrella Theatre Children’s Program.