In the midst of the holiday season, I like to think back to my earliest performance memories. Many of them took place at my church, Ss. Philip & James Church in Lisbon, New York. The photo here is the only one I have in my possession where I’m at church, and judging by my winter coat, it was likely taken at Christmastime after I participated in a holiday program. My aunt Jeanne is to my right and her mother, my Godmother Mémé, is to my left. I’m not sure why I happened to be sitting with them and not my immediate family when the photo was taken but that’s not important right now.
I have many fond memories of performing in one way or another at my church, especially during the holidays. I don’t recall having lead roles. I think I may have been a generic shepherd on more than one occasion. I can’t remember who played Joseph. (My brother tells me he did.) I’m pretty sure a cute girl named Shannon (a year older than I was) played Mary at least once. Star quality.
The idea of working in film and television certainly was a distant one when I was a kid. No one I knew acted. Acting was like some unreachable destination. I mean, real acting. As a profession. No actors ever visited my school. No one from the area acted professionally, or at least I wasn’t told about it. [Turns out, a successful character named M. Emmet Walsh, Walt Scheel in Christmas with the Kranks, is an Ogdensburg native, but I didn’t discover that until years later.]
They say everyone starts somewhere. In my quest to create a career out of acting, I sometimes forget where my love of performing really began. In a tiny, rural town. Inside a small church and on the stage of my K-12 school, Lisbon Central. At church, we would be gathered somewhere out of sight. Eager to get started. Maybe a little anxious. Wondering if people would like what we were doing. We probably felt like stars.
I think part of my love of acting comes from a personal situation in my childhood. I grew up with four brothers and sisters so there was always a sense of competition for attention. Then, there’s my extended family. As a kid, I believe I had something close to 60 first cousins…on my mom’s side alone! It’s easy to feel lost in such a large group. Getting a chance to act seemed like a perfect way to stand out, even if only for the duration of the performance.
My memories of those times are a bit cloudy, virtual snapshots at best. I know we must have had some rehearsals. Some respected church member directed us. Perhaps she had a nativity play script to work with. I’m sure we didn’t do any intentional improvisation.
An appreciation of satire must have been forming because I remember wondering how the adults would interpret a boy and girl no older than 12 having a baby. It seemed ripe for poking fun at back then but I’m sure I kept quiet about it. The casting of a well-worn 1950’s baby doll as Jesus always seemed wrong, too. But we all suspended our disbelief, as necessary.
When I see kids now performing in church or in school plays, it immediately reminds me of my own childhood acting experiences. The desire to make someone smile. Laugh. Approve. I wonder what these little ones are dreaming of. It may not be working as a professional actor and member of SAG-AFTRA, but then I didn’t know that dream was possible at their age. Of course, as you know, it wasn’t really out of reach. I just hadn’t arrived to the place where I made the discovery for myself. Now I’m grateful for those early acting roles and my family and anyone around me who made it all feel special.
What are your earliest performance memories as a kid? I welcome you to share them here. Tell me what you learned or perhaps what you endured in those moments in front of a crowd.