Life’s a Cabaret

me!    By Julien-Pierre Campbell

The first time I saw “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” I was scandalized. I was 11 years old and convinced I’d been scarred for life. Fishnets and sex! Murder and cannibalism! Aliens with ray guns and pelvic thrusts! Not for me, the budding actor. I would stick with nice, clean shows like “Hairspray”, “Phantom of the Opera”, and “Les Mis”, thank you very much!

 

The next time I saw “Rocky,” I was entranced. I was 16 years old, dressed in little enough clothing to stun my mother, and so excited I could have burst. At the Clinton Street Theatre, I watched actors perform in front of a screen, a “shadow cast,” they called themselves. They were dressed in perfectly screen accurate costumes, performing the movie as it played along behind them. Every word the characters said, the actors would mouth. Every dance move was done in sync with the screen. Every minute finger twitch or foot shuffle was perfectly synced up. It was incredible.

 

The audience was lively and intense. They shouted vulgar callbacks at the screen. They screamed and hooted and hollered. It was irreverent and ridiculous, over the top and perfect.

 

I went to see the show again and again. I dragged all of my friends to see it with me. They enjoyed it, but didn’t have the same obsession I did.  One day, the director cornered me after a show. “I’ve seen you here a lot. How old are you?” he asked me.

 

“Eighteen,” I answered. By about two months. I was still skeptical of my alleged adulthood.

 

“You wanna audition? We’ve got open rolls.”

 

It was like the world had been handed to me on a silver platter.

 

The first time I performed in “Rocky,” it was one of the best nights of my life. I had no idea what I was doing. I’d never been so scantily dressed in front of so many people. I didn’t know half of my cues. I’d only just memorized my lines. I was so nervous, I almost threw up. It was beautiful. The audience cheered for me like they’d never seen a bigger star. My castmates welcomed me to the family. I crept along the stage, cringing as my hunchback handyman character. I smirked at Brad and Janet, I danced the Time Warp. I came sprinting onstage to kill half the characters at the end of the show!

 

I’ve been performing with my cast — my family — for a year now. My college friends associate me with “Rocky” now. They know where to find me on Saturday nights. I’ve never been happier, or fit in anywhere better. It’s a strange group of ragtag queer kids, theatre kid burn-outs, and those who have just wandered in. This is what makes life worth living. This is sheer joy. In the mire of work and college, this show has given me life.

 

I sometimes think back on the horrified 11-year-old who first watched the movie. If only he could see himself now…

The Mirror

me!

 

My mirror is dusty. It sits in my carpeted bedroom, all but unused, and I cannot bring myself to clean it.

 

“Every teenager is self-conscious!” my mother has always chided. “This is normal. It’ll pass.”

 

The thing is, I don’t hate how I look. I’ve got a killer jawline, curves for days, and an adorable haircut. I don’t hate the way I dress. My fashion sense lies somewhere between a wannabe punk and a 2005 emo. I love my black skinny jeans and grungy beanies. But the crippling dysphoria, oh, how it kills me.

 

When people look at me, they see a tomboy. An androgynous one, perhaps, but clearly a girl. In the words of a less than kind friend, “You look like a punk butch! It’s, like, your whole thing.”

 

But I am not a tomboy. Not a girl. Not a “punk butch.”

 

I’m a boy.

 

I see the way my beloved black jeans hug my hips and I cringe. My cut-up band T-shirts reveal my chest, small, but forever a tell. My face, even with the square jaw and high cheekbones that make me feel like a Greek god on my best days, looks feminine.   

 

I try to romanticize myself. A feminine young man, a dandy. A 19th century fop. A young, androgynous devotee of Apollo back in ancient times. But then I look in the mirror and my illusion shatters.

 

“I identify as a guy who likes guys,” I correct the friend, the less-than-kind one. “I mean, I’m pansexual for sure. But when you call me a lesbian, it invalidates me. It’s crushing. I’m trying to look like a guy. Not like…whatever your image of a lesbian is.”

 

It’s an endless cycle of frustration. Of invalidation. People should be able to look however they want, no?

 

I wish I had a clean solution for all of this dysphoria, but I don’t. I have hope and excitement about my future, but please, everybody — be sensitive to your trans friends. Our everyday life is a battle.

Hope(less?)

me!

 

Sitting at my computer in my drafty little apartment, I’m sure I’m just a few mouse-clicks from insanity. I’ve got company tonight and work tomorrow, an essay due the same day, a lengthy blog, an essay Thursday — and about 500  pages of reading. All must be done within days of each other. I’m barely 19 and this seems awfully overwhelming.

Work to pay the rent. Go to school so that you can one day leave your food service job. Perform on the weekends so you don’t go crazy. Remember to be an attentive boyfriend, help your friends heal from their extensive traumas because they simply cannot on their own. Ignore your mental health and need for sleep. Finish that book. Make that discussion post. Attend that rehearsal. Watch your spending.

I push the laptop away.

I’m wrong, I decide. Overwhelmed is just too small a word for it.

Such is the life of a college student.

And yet, as I type and type, read and read, I don’t feel unhappy. Swamped and unmoored, sleepy and irritable, yes, but never unhappy. There is a spark inside me that work and school cannot put out. A happiness that my dear friends’ pain cannot quash. A stability and faith that my own mental illnesses cannot kill.

I have hope: That one day I will be in the career I want. That my friends will not be tormented by their minds. That my workload will be manageable.

There’s no panacea for college stress. Yoga and color-coded planners work for some people. Isolation and crappy dining hall food works for others. Diving into my workload and insomnia works for me.

All I know is that I am happy. Imperfect and overwhelmed, but happy.

I log back into my laptop. I smile at the screen. And back to work I go.

I love political science…right?

me!

 

It’s fall 2017, and I’m sitting in my freshman honors class. “And what’s your major?” my professor asks.

 

“I’m a political science major with a double minor in legal studies and theatre arts — and I’m on the pre-law track.” There’s a beat.

 

“Wow,” the professor chuckles. “That’s…a lot.”

 

glow. See, I’m the kind of overachiever who needs to, as I say, “major in everything.” I’m only 17 and academia is my thing. I know I’m smart.  My teenage bravado is real.

 

Winter term comes and I pile on even more credits, a political internship, an ex officio board position, a cabaret I perform in, my job, my social life. My political science classes are starting to weigh on me. Theory and economics wander into my dreams. My internship is overtaking my normal homework.

 

“Can’t wait to see President Jules!” one of my cabaret friends jokes one weekend. I glow. See, I only sleep tl3 hours a night, and my glow might be a little burnished now, but I’m an overachiever! I love politics more than anything!  Right?

 

I ignore the fact that I do much better in my English classes. It requires much less effort on my part, but I WANT to put in effort. English is the one place I feel free. But I’m going to the president one day! Politics is my thing. Right?

 

The spring term comes. I up my hours at work, keep up with my credits, and only take political science courses. I slowly notice my grades slipping. This is infuriating! I’m an overachiever! I get a tattoo that says “Nonstop” in a vain attempt to grab my passion back. I’ve made so much of myself political at this point that I can’t face how miserable I am. My weekend cabaret becomes the only thing that makes me happy. I drop the internship and board membership — really, I just let them slip away.

 

On comes the next fall term — I’ve turned 18 by now, still full of teenage bravado, still the overachiever. I did take 16 credits and work twenty-five hours a week all summer, after all!

 

I take a deep breath one day, staring at my computer screen. I carefully select “ENGLISH” as my major and political science as my minor.

 

And I glow.