On summer’s end, starting school and the solace of the stage
I was 14 years old in the summer of 1992. It was right after my eighth grade year; I had a small, tight-knit circle of friends, and we did everything together. With high school looming before us, time was precious and we knew we had to make the most of it.
For most of the summer, we worked on my family’s blueberry farm, but, once the season was over, the summer was ours. We rode our bicycles everywhere, whether it was to each others’ houses, to the park, to the old basketball courts—that were long ago replaced by Leo Park—or even, on one severely ambitious trip, to the Hamilton Mall because we were all in the mood for Cinnabons.
We were worried, you see, that high school would bring changes to us all. Once we got into high school, though, we found that, for the most part, our fears were unwarranted. Our circle did change, as do most, but for the better.
As we navigated freshman year, we met new people and were exposed to new activities. We discovered new pursuits and interests that stuck with us and helped shape us into who we are today. Some of us went into athletics, while others of us went into the performing arts.
I was in the latter category.
At the end of my freshman year I signed up for chorus and concert choir, and by two weeks into my sophomore year, I was hooked. When it was time to audition for that year’s play—Guys and Dolls—I went for the part of Nicely-Nicely Johnson. I got it, and my life was changed forever.
I found within myself a passion for music and theater like nothing I had experienced before. How can I describe the rush—the absolute thrill—of throwing yourself into a part, walking out onto a stage and convincing a darkened theater full of people that, for two-and-a-half hours, you are an entirely different person who exists in a world where breaking out into song is perfectly normal? Even now, I find it difficult to convey to those who haven’t experienced it the sheer joy that comes when the audience cries when they’re supposed to, laughs where you want them to and erupts in applause and cheers at the end of a musical number.
It is a shared experience that you carry with you always, and you forge friendships that have the potential to last a lifetime.
I was in four productions in high school, then life went on. While I have performed in the occasional choir since then, I never returned to the acting stage, and haven’t thought about it for years—until my wife became involved with Hammonton Towne Drama’s Little Women as both musical director and a member of the cast.
Though Robyn is no stranger to the stage—she’s performed in front of audiences for years and has been the choir director for Atlantic Cape Community College—this was the first time she had been in a theatrical production for decades. While I won’t presume to describe the experiences she had with the cast and crew, I can say that watching them all form such strong relationships and coalesce into a family has filled me with a longing I could not anticipate.
The challenge of learning lines. The joy of nailing a particularly difficult musical interval. The mad dashes during production week to make sure that everyone has that perfect, last-minute prop or costume addition. The fear and wonder and ecstasy of opening night. The sorrow and tears with the end of the last performance, and the instant nostalgia that begins before the sets are completely struck.
I miss it. All of it. God, do I miss it—and I want to return to it, and experience the bonds and the triumphs that captivated me so long ago.
Theater helped me discover who I was, and gave me friendships that helped me through some of the more turbulent years of my life. It gave me a creative outlet to channel the frustration and rage that comes with being a teenager into something wonderful and memorable.
The new school year is almost upon us, and if you’re in school and you haven’t yet, I implore you—give theater a try. Audition for a lead. Become a member of the ensemble. Join the stage crew. Do something.
It will change your life for the better. I promise you.
Joseph F. Berenato began as a mild-mannered reporter for The Hammonton Gazette in 1997, and returned to that position in 2019 after an 18-year sabbatical, during which he farmed, taught, became a grandfather, dug graves and wrote, but never so prolifically as he has since his return. You can email him at email@example.com or find him on social media at @JFBerenato.