For as long as I can remember, I have always been entranced by the power of a good story. As a child, I was an avid reader, devouring books of all genres, topics, and sizes, barely digesting one before I was halfway through another. My appetite for stories – for a better understanding of the human condition – could not be satiated. I watched the world around me with curious and eager brown eyes, constantly on a quest to better understand others – and, whether I realized it or not, through that, to better understand myself. I wanted to know the why behind the what. I craved context. I wanted to know the motives that drove actions. Are people born wicked? Or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?
When I was young, going to the theatre as a family was always big production. Together, we annually attended the musical put on by my local high school. And, even though we were just attending a show at the high school theatre, my mom always made us wear dresses – with tights. It was much ado about nothing, if you asked petulant seven-year-old me. We always lamented about being subjected to dress up to attend the shows – “but mo-o-o-om, no one else has to!”
However, whatever anguish we suffered at being subjected to dressing up was quickly forgotten as we settled into our seats, the curtain went up, and we got swept away with the story.
The lights. The music. The intensity and frailty of live performance. The palpable adrenaline and rawness of it all. It’s truly inexplicable. My breath often caught in my throat more than once, and it had nothing to do with the constricting waistline of my tights.
I don’t even remember the specifics of most of the shows that I saw. I do, however, vividly remember the first time I realized that the stage was accessible to me. We were leaving the high school theatre, the Indian River Theatre of Performing Arts, (or IRTOPA, as it is affectionately nicknamed through its acronym) after watching a family friend perform as the fairy godmother in Cinderella. Seeing someone I knew onstage changed my perception of theatre entirely. Suddenly, the people who played the characters I saw depicted in shows ceased being these larger than life caricatures as I had fabricated – untouchable and unattainable beings. Instead, I understood and recognized them for what they were: people. Mere people: daughters, sisters, students, sons, friends. Yes, the cast of a musical was a conglomeration of immensely talented people, united toward a common goal. But they were still simply a group of people, nonetheless. I left the theatre determined that I would join their ranks and be among them (that is, as soon as I was old enough.) There was a million things I hadn’t done, but just you wait. The world was gonna know my name. I intended to break both legs on that stage.
Little did I know then that theatre would save my life.
I landed my first speaking role as a sophomore. I depicted the Mayor of Munchkinland in The Wizard of Oz. (Believe me, the irony of that being my first speaking role didn’t go over my head either.) The following fall, I played the endearingly spoiled Amy March in Little Women. I then played the despondent eleven-year-old Alena Lederova in A Child Shall Lead that winter, a play based on Terezin, a concentration camp that the Germans put the more prominent Jews and children in during the Holocaust. It was a “show” concentration camp of sorts, as disgusting and horrifying as that prospect is. I transitioned from hating dressing up for shows to willingly dressing up in order to put on a show.
I loved it all; the entire process. The auditioning. The rehearsals. Blocking. Memorizing. Props. Sets. Doing character work. The excitement of opening night and the sorrow of closing night. The comradery and the community. IRTOPA became my home away from home and my fellow cast members became my second family. Through the roles I had the honor of depicting, I was beginning to gain a deeper understanding of myself.
My senior year, I landed my first lead role as Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker. There aren’t words to describe the elation that I felt upon seeing the cast list for the first time. I was entirely overwhelmed and ecstatic. I had been dreaming of this day for years. I couldn’t believe it had finally arrived.
A short few months later, The Miracle Worker closed and the time to audition for my senior musical was rapidly approaching. I spent hours honing and perfecting my audition piece. I was determined to realize the dreams of 2006 Amy and make her proud. I would dare to dream the impossible dream.
On December 9th, 2011, I walked into audition for Annie. It was a Friday night, so I wouldn’t have access to seeing the cast list until Monday.
Fortunately, much to my relief, later that night, I received a call from the director:
“You did it. You’re Annie.”
In that moment, if you had asked me to fly, I could have.
I’d done it. I was Annie. 2006 Amy could rest easy, knowing all her dreams had been fulfilled. I sprinted up the stairs to tell Nancy and my mom. Breathlessly, I panted, “I’m Annie. I’m ANNIE!!”
Nancy wasted no time engulfing me in a hug. “I never doubted for a second that you’d get it. I’m so unbelievably proud of you. You’re going to do so well!”
My mom smiled broadly and squeezed my shoulder. She knew how much this meant to me.
That night, I went ice skating with Nancy, Jeriah, and my sisters, alongside a small cluster of our friends. In truth though, I was floating around the rink. I was Annie. Annie.
My cheeks burned from smiling so much.
It only makes sense that I would have to come back to earth eventually. But I wasn’t expecting for it to happen so soon nor so abruptly.
The weekend wasn’t even over before the cloud I had been floating on dissipated and I found myself free falling, entirely unprepared, toward the harsh reality of earth. I hadn’t even had the chance to see the cast list for myself yet.
I suppose there’s no way for you to ever be adequately emotionally prepared to sky dive. But the show always must go on.
December 11, 2011 brought a plot twist into my story that I never could have prepared for. Nancy’s passing broke parts of me that I didn’t even know I had, much less that those parts could be broken.
My cheeks burned from crying so much.
I had never gone sky diving. I was going to have to rapidly teach myself to deploy my parachute blindly, or be dismembered by the rocky reality awaiting my descent into grief.
I opted to deploy my parachute. Theatre, by the grace of God, simply afforded me the tools and instruction I needed in order to do so.
The show must go on. And I intended to be a part of it.
I immersed myself in Annie. It provided the ready distraction I needed to limp through those first few months after Nancy’s death. Nearly everyday, I sang some portion of the phase: “The sun’ll come out, tomorrow. Bet’cha bottom dollar that tomorrow, there’ll be sun.” I lived and breathed those words. They became my mantra. Yes, “weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). Annie was suddenly much bigger than simply the realization of 2006 Amy’s dreams – it salvaged and rescued 2012 Amy. I had to make Nancy proud. I had to finish what I started. For me, it wasn’t a choice; it was a duty. Nancy would be so disappointed if I dropped out on her account. I couldn’t disappoint my beloved sister.
I would never wish that anyone lose someone close to them. It is a wound that never entirely heals, it’s merely a wound you learn to live with. However, God, in His omniscience and grace, brilliantly timed the death of my sister in a way that allowed for the imminent and immediate distraction of both me and two of my sisters, KristiAnn and Emily (who were also cast in Annie.)
Annie became my parachute. And for that, I’m forever grateful.
Even losing Nancy was an act of inexplicable grace. Whether I had realized it or not, I was still living a predominantly works-driven, legalistic faith. Legalistic faith is an unsustainable one, and wreaks havoc to the soul. I didn’t understand the gospel. I didn’t understand grace. I only understood performance. But when you lose someone so close to you, there’s no room for performance. Simply functioning requires any energy you possess. The masks, the make-up, the costumes you wear in your daily life are stripped away, and the truth of who you are is spotlighted: a broken vessel, in desperate need of grace. However, while the performer in me was entirely incapable of saving me, God still made use of the performer in me to save me. It’s this beautiful, glorious oxymoron.
God is good.
The Miracle Worker is the story of how Annie Sullivan drew young Helen Keller out of the dark, lonely world she was living in and taught her to speak through sign language. Annie is the story of an eleven year old orphan living in the slums of New York City. Through a stroke of incredible luck, she meets and is eventually adopted by a millionaire, Daddy Warbucks.
Both of them are stories of rescue; of people discovering their voice through immense hardship and tragedy.
God wanted to equip me to do the same.
The first Broadway show I saw was Wicked. For my sixteenth birthday, Mark and Tami Adams, my best friend’s parents, bought both her and I tickets to see it when it came to Rochester.
The May after Nancy died and after Annie closed, I got to travel to New York City on the Drama Club trip and see Wicked in the Gershwin Theatre on Broadway, due to the immense generosity and determination of my friends (they both convinced my parents to let me go on the trip and fundraised for me so that I could go.)
Both times, I was was overwhelmed and amazed by Elphaba’s (the green “wicked” witch) bravery in the face of immense pushback and misinformation. She had the courage of conviction to do what she knew to be right, even when Glinda, her very best friend, didn’t.
And she wasn’t celebrated for it. In fact, she was persecuted for her honesty and bravery. She was rejected and detested by the people of Oz. (Mark 6:4)
I deeply craved that certainty of purpose. However, I failed to count the cost (Luke 14:25-33). I failed to recognize that to much is given, much is required. (Luke 12:48)
I have been given much, so much. I had the opportunity to not only be Nancy’s sister, but to also be her very best friend. I also have been given much through her death, in being afforded the opportunity to know God intimately, in a way that few my age are able to.
For a long time, I resented these things. I’m only 23 but my mind is older. I hated being “different.” I idolized normalcy. I resisted drawing as near to God as He was calling, fearing loneliness and further separation from my peer group. I feared ending up alone if I sought God too closely. I feared rejection.
Fear was choking my joy.
But God is a jealous God. He will not be upstaged by our petty desires. He was not interested in playing a supporting role in my life. He wanted to play the lead. He wanted me to trust that He was sufficient to meet my every need.
I’m ashamed to admit how long I resisted allowing God to take center stage in my life. Even now, it’s a daily choice, a daily commitment. But I had to realize, like Elphaba, that any “love” that require I pursue God less comes at much too high a cost.
I may not have chosen to go sky diving. But I think that while I’m here, I’ll try defying gravity.