me somebody to dance for
Give me somebody to show
Let me wake up in the morning to find
I have somewhere exciting to go.
To have something that I can believe in,
To have someone to be.
A Chorus Line
Music and the Mirror
Scenes from a Life Onstage
"Four Jews in a Room Bitching"
the fall of 1980, I took several steps forward, and a few steps
back. My school and friends were new, and so was the way I moved
through the world.
Since the campus was several times bigger than my old school, my
parents and I made the big decision; after years of getting around
mostly on crutches, I would be driving an electric wheelchair. In
some ways, this change meant progress and independence, but in other
ways it meant a kind of regression. The comfortable parental car
ride to school was gone, replaced by the long-buried rumbles and
whirs of lift-equipped buses. Like the special ed school, my high
school gave me a new kind of freedom, but it also imposed the same
old limitation, an arrangement by which I was boxed up twice a day
and escorted to and from both home and school.
I arrived at school just weeks after getting my new chair, not long
after I'd finally stopped crashing the thing into walls whenever
I tried turning around. The school building had an elevator, and
I was honored with my own key, but I felt more out of place than
special. Perhaps my expectations were too high.
After all, I was attending my mom's high school, just blocks from
where she grew up. I was going to school with a lot of other Jewish
kids for the first time in my life. And deep down, I think I felt
that unless high school turned out to be amazing, it would not be
worth the sacrifice I had made by leaving my old life and friends
behind. I wasn't consciously playing the martyr, but looking back,
I realize I'd stacked the deck the wrong way.
I pictured my friends at Hollywood High, performing at a showcase
venue, ascending to greater and greater creative heights, while
I was stuck with the nerds. And what nerds we were, keeping to ourselves,
worrying, scheming, and competing, always competing. It was the
kind of crowd where someone would get a 1460 SAT score and wonder
if taking it again would push the number higher. With rare exceptions,
we didn't mix with the drama kids, and when I looked at my schedule
and realized I would have to choose between drama class and student
government, I took the safe, expected nerd-approved path.
This choice hurt, especially when I would go to shows at Hollywood,
marveling at their quality, or see shows at my own school, realizing
in both cases that I'd crossed over and joined the audience. I could
still talk to drama people, but it was with a kind of nostalgic
longing; I was no longer a colleague. I'd become just another groupie,
a groupie with a history maybe, but still a groupie.
I felt the loss keenly, and did a lot to try to compensate for what
was missing. Student government and community activism were two
of my biggest commitments during high school, as I've mentioned
before. They made me feel good about myself in ways that my social
crowd never did, maybe because some of us were so busy taking out
our unhappiness on ourselves and those around us. But I did have
one secret refuge from all that drama, and it wasn't the drama class,
much as that would have pleased me. It was in fact that scourge
of high school for so many, a P.E. class. When I bucked the nerd
herd and chose Adaptive P.E. over the AP European History class
so many of my friends were taking during third period, I'm sure
they thought I was crazy. But I was glad to be there, although as
with so many things, I realize its value only in retrospect.
had started Adaptive P.E. in junior high school, as a substitute
for physical therapy, to buttress all my walking and monitor my
physical condition. Once my life got electrified and I began walking
less, exercise became more important. While I may have begun taking
the Adaptive class in high school out of guilt and obligation, I
grew to enjoy it, thanks to a remarkable teacher.
If I had to describe her, I'd call her a younger version of the
character Ruth Gordon played in "Harold and Maude." Short, Jewish,
outspoken, an old lefty-hippie trained in modern dance, she was
the dance production teacher, and she was on a mission with us.
She wanted us to know ourselves, to be in touch with our bodies,
to integrate mind, body, and spirit. She tried teaching me principles
of yoga, but even then she could tell I was living way too much
in my head for her lessons to take root seriously. But that didn't
stop her. She was a cheerleader for personal exploration, a true
evangelist, and something more.
See, there was one kid in our class who wasn't disabled at all,
unless being a flaming queen could be classified as such, which
considering time and place, it probably could have been. He was
the star of our teacher's dance production class, but since that
was an elective, he still needed a way to pick up mandatory P.E.
credits. So she figured out a way to get him into our class. This
way, he got credit, could spend time with his favorite teacher,
and was spared the humiliation of dealing with a huge class of obnoxious
guys, not to mention the trauma of everything associated with the
locker room. It was strictly speaking a manipulation of the system,
but one with the best of intentions. It was also, I realize now,
an act of hardheaded compassion from a woman none of us fully understood
When you hit the age of eighteen, adults around you get sappy, talking
about new beginnings, bright futures, endless options on display.
Well, between all my public involvements and the escalating isolating
tempest that often characterized my social existence, I was burned
out. Far from envisioning new beginnings for myself, I saw an ending.
Both in public and in private ways, I felt like I'd lived more than
most kids I knew already, and I needed to shift into a different
gear. I needed to get out of high school and go away from home.
Like the chair I drove all day and plugged in at night, I needed
to recharge. What I didn't know is that theater would once again
help to transform me, and that I'd be going back on stage within
a few months of graduation.
"If You Want to Know Who We Are"
mentioned before that the two colleges I was considering represented
a stark choice between joining the masses and joining the select
few. One high school classmate told me contemptuously that there
was no substantive difference between my choices, and that the only
advantage of going private was the chance to brag at cocktail parties
in later life. (Of course, he ended up going Ivy himself. Like I
said, our crowd was that way.) In any case, I chose to be part of
a smaller freshman class, and launched myself 400 miles to the north.
Some of my college classmates have told me they felt like we were
all lab rats in a social experiment, plucked from everywhere, chosen
to bask in the sun, and closely observed. I never felt quite that
alienated; my basic metaphor for college was family. After all,
we were sixty freshmen living together, the university had blessed
me with a warm and kind temporary brother in the person of my roommate,
and my father had even served as an informal consultant on the access
modifications that had enabled me to live in the dorm itself.
Like any family, we had our conflicts and difficulties. I pursued
several crushes in vain. I watched friends have initial encounters
with alcohol. One guy down the hall even came out; you'd think the
constant stream of Billy Idol references would have clued me in,
but I was as surprised as everyone else. We all thought of dorm
life as a maddeningly intense soap opera, which it was I guess,
but still, after high school it felt like vacation.
I had a pretty intense academic schedule freshman year, and being
away from home for the first time was a challenge, but I knew I
wanted to get involved in something fun. When I found out there
was a campus Gilbert and Sullivan society, I got very excited. These
were shows I knew, with songs and scenes that required acting, and
a minimum of dancing. The more I found out about this group the
happier I was; it was a true community theater for the campus, encompassing
students, faculty, staff, alumni, and other aficionados. Singing
some Tom Lehrer and a few snatches of Allan Sherman, I auditioned
and became part of the male chorus for "The Mikado."
Even though this was several years before the ADA, people already
seemed to be aware of what reasonable accommodations were; since
I couldn't stand without crutches, and since either kind of wheelchair
would have been out of place in the town of Titipu, the set and
prop people decided to craft a sedan chair for me. As the most senior
and venerated Japanese gentleman in town, I would simply be carried
by stout and trusty bearers. Of course, this solution not only accommodated
me, but it also gave me the grandest of grand entrances, and I had
a great time.
Of course, this would not have been a truly Danny theatrical experience
without a secret crush or two. I noticed a couple of women in particular,
but I also remember being very impressed with at least one member
of the male chorus, not to mention our very handsome Nanki-Poo.
I felt like part of a diverse and creative theatrical family, and
the bonds solidified; after our run ended, some members of the cast
went down to Los Angeles to perform excerpts, and they stayed with
The whole experience was such a pleasure for me that I did another
show on campus the following year, playing John the Baptist in a
dorm production of "Godspell." I got to participate fully and even
had a song to myself; the venue was new, the stage ramped, a first
in my onstage life. I don't know if the show was the best I've ever
done, but it was certainly the most I'd ever been asked to do. The
following year, we were going to try doing "Oliver!" and I was convinced
I had a good shot at playing Fagin, but the show never happened,
not because Fagin on wheels would have been an incongruity but because
finding kids to play Fagin's gang ended up being too complicated.
With two successes to be proud of and one project that never got
off the ground, I finally felt, for the first time in my life, like
a real actor.
The confidence I gained onstage jousted strenuously with my anxiety
about life after college; the one thing both impulses had in common
was energy, adrenaline, part hopeful, part panic-stricken. This
is what fueled my transition to graduate school so soon after graduation.
Perhaps my sexual awakening had a similarly ambivalent power source,
but I would find out more about that soon enough.
"Put Your Dimple Down...Now You Know"
I came out long before I managed to wheel onto a Berkeley stage,
but I didn't mind the delay. I was snowed under with ideas, feelings,
work, pressure. I knew performing was something I wanted and needed
to do, but I was not in a rush. I was busy studying, teaching, writing,
getting involved in student government, and trying to make friends
and date without having the two processes screw each other up.
I started seeing shows and getting to know the drama crowd on campus.
Because I was once again seeing Genuine Serious Talent, I occasionally
felt old fears resurfacing, but I put them aside and went out on
several auditions. Two graduate students and one undergrad ended
up using me in their experimental theater pieces; I got to do fun
things like recite Whitman and Melville in the middle of a Noh play
about the frontier. Because these projects were strange and unconventional,
I felt liberated; since realism was discarded, the in-your-face
quality of my disability became less of a hindrance to my being
I still yearned to play an actual character in a known, pre-existant
piece. I suppose that would have reaffirmed my sense that I was
truly competing fairly with other actors. When I found out there
was a student-run musical theater group on campus, I zoomed over
to check out auditions, thinking fondly of Titipu and Conrad Birdie
the whole time. I auditioned and got into a show. Not just any show.
A Sondheim show. Since I'd spent years memorizing them, learning
selections and inflicting them on my friends, I was in heaven.
Of course, I realize now we had no idea what we were in for. "Merrily
We Roll Along" was only in its tenth year of challenging performers
and audiences when we did it, only halfway through a complex journey
which still continues. Its tortuous and tortured history would make
a great book someday, and maybe I'll be the one to write it, but
all I know for sure is that I've never worked harder or been more
terrified. On top of everything else, we rehearsed in an inaccessible
space, and I didn't get accurate blocking instructions or practice
using my electric wheelchair onstage until we loaded the show into
the theater two or three days before opening night.
People always tell stories about shows that drive performers crazy,
the kind where tech rehearsal and final dress can run til three
in the morning and still provide no definitive evidence that the
show is ever going to work. Luckily, things never got that bad for
us, but we still had lots of anxious moments and late nights. We
played to appreciative crowds, but the student musical theater group
still lost lots of money and took years to recover from the experience;
perhaps we just did too good a job recapitulating the original Broadway
production, which featured great performers and wondrous music,
but ran for only sixteen performances.
"Give Me a Place to Fit In"
Our production of "Merrily" took place over ten years ago. I did
more experimental theater before and after that show, but I haven't
been on a stage to perform in many years. (I don't think singing
in informal talent shows or karaoke places counts, but maybe it
does.) These days, if I get up in front of a group of people, it
is usually to do a presentation, or to lead services at my synagogue
in San Francisco. People assume that my stage training makes these
It does, and it doesn't. I'm certainly less afraid to speak or sing
in public than many of my friends are, but I have come to distrust
the confidence as much as I value it. If I give a presentation to
a class, I want my audience focusing on content; if I lead services,
it really is leading, facilitating, not performance. Though I still
get ego boosts from my public roles, most of them aren't about me
at all. In fact, if I catch myself getting too actory, I try to
stop. I never want to slide into artificiality, or use my skills
to "put over" a shoddy piece of work I should be rewriting instead.
The song which gives this long essay its title is the heartfelt
cry of a former star aching for one more chance, which she is willing
to take even if she ends up back in the chorus line she came from.
I don't think of myself as a star reliving past glories, but I do
relate to her quest for meaning, for a sense of purpose. Like Cassie
and her fellow dancers, I too realize how much clearer this quest
becomes when you're onstage; whether I get back there soon, or whether
I've used up my time in the lights, I know I'll always miss it.
Places, everyone . . .
©2002 Danny Kodmur
of two parts.
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