Give 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.
Edward Kleban,
A Chorus Line

The Music and the Mirror
Scenes from a Life Onstage
Part II

by Danny Kodmur


Act Three:
"Four Jews in a Room Bitching"

In 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.

I 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 or appreciated.

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.

Act Four:
"If You Want to Know Who We Are"

I've 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 my parents.

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.

Act Five:
"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 cast.

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 tasks easier.

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
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BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/November 2002