I have a friend who, when asked "How long have you been acting," always replies with something along the lines of "All my life!" Well, that's technically true of me, too, at least in the sense that she's using, but I don't like to count things like church pageants or plays and skits made up with my friends and sisters for our parents or the kids around the apartment complex I grew up in. I figure most/all kids do that sort of thing, at least to some extent, so I just count those memories as part of my childhood rather than part of my theatrical career.
Nevertheless, as I'm sure my mother will attest to, I was almost always seeking an audience as a child. I always wanted someone to hear me sing or watch me dance or videotape me telling lame jokes, after which I would dance. (It's true, my parents have still got the tape) What was needed was a place to channel this innate entertainer that lived within me, a form of structure that was outside the realm of my everyday experience where I could strut my stuff and spread my wings in an environment where my energy, enthusiasm, and creativity could be challenged to grow.
That opportunity came when I was nine. The Wellington Community Theater was holding auditions for an upcoming production of Larry Shue's The Nerd. Apparently they had planned this show for earlier in the year, but had to cancel for some reason, and when they started things back up the boy who was playing the only child's part decided he'd rather use the month or so of rehearsal time to play baseball. (I know this little detail because I found out much later that this other kid was none other than my best friend David from church. Who knew?) Therefore, there was an audition for the role of Thor, the terribly bratty son of architect Willum's boss, the inexplicably-named Warnock Waldgrave ("Ticky" to his friends). In Willum's best friend Axel's words, Thor was the "poster child for planned parenthood."
The details are fuzzy as to how I got involved in the audition for the role. I'm pretty sure my mom asked me if I wanted to do it, and I thought it sounded like fun and said sure. She may have read about the audition in the good old Wellington Daily News. More likely, however, she may have gotten wind about it from our landlady. You see, our landlady, a wonderful older lady named Connie, lived directly across the street from our house in Wellington. She also happened to be the President of WCT's Board of Directors at the time, and the audition was at her house. So it's entirely possible she asked my mom if I'd want to read for the role.
So, to recap: the opportunity was only available because the other kid (my best friend) dropped out, and the play was cast by my landlady (also Ms. Wellington Community Theater herself). Natch.
I believe there were two other boys at the reading audition. I read better than both of them, and I got the part. So, when people ask me when I started acting, there's my answer: 1992. Wellington Community Theater. The Nerd, by Larry Shue (one of my favorite plays, to this day)
The Nerd was directed by a college student from Southwestern in Winfield, about half an hour east of Wellington. In truth, there weren't many Wellingtonians involved in WCT at that point. I believe only one other cast member (of the 7 total) was from the Wheat Capital of the World. I don't remember a ton of details about the production process. I remember having a lot of fun. I remember all of the adults loving me and thinking I was really smart and talented and funny for someone my age. I remember eating up that sort of talk. I also remember the director asking me if I knew what the fourth wall was, and even though I didn't I was able to figure it out on my own, so he thought I was a dramatic theory prodigy.
I don't remember what sort of audiences we had for that show. In my mind, there were over a hundred people at every performance. My history with WCT tells me there were more likely 30-50. I really can't say. I do, however, remember VERY clearly that they all laughed. Every one of them. To 10-year-old me (the show was right after my birthday), it didn't matter how many people were in the audience; the laughter drowned out any awareness of the numbers my mind may have had.
I also remember watching the show from the wings of the Memorial Auditorium. (I don't know what the auditorium was memorializing; but I know every nook and cranny of that place after the hours I spent there) Thor is only in the first scene, so the lady who played my mother (Clelia Waldgrave) and I climbed up the steps--all the way to the THIRD STORY--and watched the show from high above the action. The laughter reached my ears all the way up there as I saw the show from a vantage point no one in the world except the actor beside me would ever share. I lived in both worlds.
It was magic. And when the show ended, I knew somehow that the magic was far from over.