let them choke
Truth be told, I’ve been dreading trying to write out my thoughts on this. The people I went to school with know me as a verbose anti-authoritarian, not one to shy away from loudly voicing my opinion when the time calls. But this has been harder to talk about, because I’m afraid what I have to say isn’t what people are expecting or hoping for. So I’m going to do this the only way I know how: I’m taking a shot of whiskey and doing my best.
I attended Trinity from 2009-2013, a season of my life that was fraught with angst and tension as I reconciled the trauma that came before and did my best to prepare for the trauma that was yet to come. It pains me to admit that even my fond memories are clouded by the frustration of hindsight, and it’s hard not to look at them all like a bowl of hooks… I can’t just pull one thought out at a time, they all come up as one sharp and tangled mess.
My high school years were spent in the most geographically isolated place on the planet, shrouded within the cultural confines of my parents’ workplace: the world’s largest evangelical missionary organization, a place that thousands now recognize as a verified cult.
Being the unplanned youngest child in a family of 6 meant that my parents were mostly too exhausted to pay much attention to me, but I was nonetheless burdened by the guilt and shame of making them worry for my eternal soul. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around the concepts of Hell or free will or why every characteristic of an abusive lover could be found in the descriptions of the Old Testament God and that I was just supposed to be okay with it. I spent a lot of time arguing with teachers and pastors, and even more time in detention with my unanswered questions. In one way or another, I was told by every adult in my life that I was too much, too loud, and took up too much space.
I chose to attend Trinity because - like so many countless others - it was the only place my parents would “let me” apply. I mean, I’m sure I could’ve applied elsewhere if I really wanted to, but all the schools I was interested in had $100 application fees, a steep price tag for a part-time barista at Starbucks. Trinity was also one of the few schools that recognized my parents as missionaries and not as “unemployed,” which meant I qualified for more student loans. (Yes, I said that correctly: the children of missionaries require more financial assistance than if their parents were unemployed, but that’s a topic for another time.)
I am telling you all this because it’s crucial that you understand where I came from. For 17 years I was told that I was dirty, broken, and sinful, and by the time I came to Trinity I was fucking pissed. As far as I was concerned, I was jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. How could one tiny, private Christian school be any different from a tiny, private, Christian university? As it turns out, it was just a different bowl of hooks.
Part of me is extremely nostalgic for the 17 year old version of me who walked into that building for the first time, because I was about to finally find the first place that felt like home - a word that to this day I can’t say without becoming emotional, because it’s a place I’ve never been able to hold on to. I remember the warmth and kindness of the older students, who weren’t intimidated or put off by my eyeliner and cigarette stench. “We like weird here,” I remember being told. More importantly, I remember they meant it. These were people who spoke my language, who respected my baggage, and who weren’t afraid of my anger.
Up until that point I had wasted so many hours of my life trying to explain through broken tears that I did not hear God’s voice, I did not feel God’s love, but when I acted onstage I knew with every fiber of my trembling body that I belonged there, that I was doing what I was born to do. And for the first time, I was surrounded by people who knew exactly what I meant.
I honestly don’t think I’ve gotten a restful night’s sleep since the last time I passed out on that rotten beige couch, swaddled in the heavy black curtains we kept in a pile in the hallway. The white noise of students rehearsing somewhere, the tinkering of paintbrushes in the art room next door, the smell of sawdust coming from the shop.
But there’s another part of me that is terribly heartbroken to relive this all, because when I look back on those years through the eyes of an adult, it is so painfully evident to me now how fucking unwanted we always were.
Most theatre departments have a Green Room, you know, for the lead actors to prepare in - which would necessitate multiple other rooms for the rest of the cast. We had 2 rooms, and a hallway, which we warmly embraced and called the Green Hall. We pretended it was in an attempt to abolish the political hierarchies that often plague theatre departments, but it was actually because we literally did not have the room for more.
In my first year, there was a big scandal about the girl’s volleyball team, because a private donor funded them with thousands and thousands of dollars for a new locker room - according to legend, it had wall to wall carpeting, so the girls could “feel more at home.” I have no idea if this was true or not, because I was too busy trying to find a ride to The Barn that we rehearsed in, which was a 5 minute drive away from campus, and was almost always too rainy to walk there. It was never fully explained to me how this place came into the possession of the Trinity Theatre Department, which only lent more towards the fact that it was clearly haunted. Two stories of bitter cold, whistling wind, broken heat, one sad toilet that barely flushed, horrendous parking in swamps of mud, and lights that often went out, especially in the winter. This was where we rehearsed (and where some of us had our classes), because our presence in the main building that we shared with the English and Philosophy departments had been deemed “distracting.” We were too much, too loud, and we took up too much space.
One time I accidentally caught a theatre professor in tears. She confessed that she had just left an hour long ass-chewing from one of the Trinity board members, accusing her of “pushing theatre students to be more sexual.” The class they were referring to was her Scene Study 101, where the students picked their own scenes. But a parent had found out about what their horny, sexually repressed kid was doing in theatre class and decided to take it out on an easy target.
After years of religious trauma and purity culture caught up with me, I unfortunately found myself in a deeply toxic relationship. I am of the ardent and unmoving opinion that Christianity grooms people - especially young women - to find themselves in situations like this. After all, God was my first abusive relationship: he was the one who taught me to “die to myself,” to endure silence and being ignored, to equate suffering with showing love. So it did not take much for this young man to convince me that any art form that required an audience was a “dirty one,” that all performance art was essentially spiritual prostitution.I still believed that I was dirty, broken, and sinful, so why should I be loud? Why should I take up space?
To appease him, I chose to direct a play in my last semester instead of acting, and every other goddamn night there were complaints about my play: it had “too much” sexual content, it had “too much” drinking, it had “too much” darkness. Too much, too much, too much. Even when I was being as silent as possible and taking up the least amount of space I could occupy, I was still told by the Powers That Be that I was too fucking much. …Oh, and I swore “too much.”
At the time, there was something almost romantic about how bitterly our Department had to fight for even the smallest of crumbs. It bonded us together, the way that trauma does. We were unwanted but we weren’t alone, because we had each other. Damn the man, he never understood us anyway!
But I don’t find that romantic anymore. I might be wrong, but from where I’m standing now, it seems to me that the reason we were so isolated, ignored, even starved, was because theatre just didn’t fit into the “Christian culture.” We existed in the worst possible space of somehow being too much and not enough.
In my first month at Trinity I was so excited to find out that they had an LGBT Alliance group on campus. I still identified as just a deeply closeted “ally,” and was eager to attend. Imagine my horror when I discovered it was just an incredibly awkward Bible Study led by a clearly confused young gay man where we read aloud each and every single verse that had anything to do with homosexuality and then talked about how it “made us feel.” On the other hand, it only took until my second year for my head professor - bless her heart - to kindly sit me down and ask why I kept picking monologues and scenes with lesbians in them. I was far from the first queer kid in the Theatre Department, and I would not be the last. When I heard the news about the fate of Trinity’s theatre department, I think the first actual words out of my mouth were “well of course, if you don’t want queer kids on campus you just take away the one safe space queer kids have always gone.”
But as much as it pains me to say, the very nature of our unwanted existence as a Department did not only inspire us to create the family we’d always longed for - it sometimes unintentionally festered us into a dysfunctional one as well. Because we lacked the support of the school as a whole, we were forced to fill those gaps and become each other’s support systems. It is an unfair and unsustainable structure. The tribe can’t go on like this forever.
There’s a part of being in theatre school that is pretty notorious for excavating the deepest and darkest parts of your soul in the name of “art,” and despite the genuine and concerted efforts of the theatre professors to do the exact opposite - to intentionally teach us how to be healthy artists, and not starving, broken ones - it was my experience that the confluence of spirituality in a setting that was already so ripe with delicate emotions actually made it hurt even more. Even though my theatre professors were nothing like the teachers I’d had in high school, we were all still using the same language - Christian language, the language of my abusers.
I was embarrassingly well known in the Department for suffering an extreme lack of connection between my mind and my body - something I now realize is a glaring sign of C-PTSD - which rendered our mandatory Voice and Movement classes a particular thorn in my side.
Perhaps one of the most striking memories from my entire time at Trinity was one of those classes: we were in that freezing goddamn barn, and our professor was going through our journal entries we had written for that class. We were supposed to write about a time when we felt truly “in our body,” and then he would take the specifics of that experience and make us re-create them in some way while we were working on our monologues. For example, I think someone wrote about being on the beach, feeling the water touch their toes; so he had that student walk around the room as if it were a beach, and then stop at an imaginary point where the water was, and I think he even had other students hop in and pretend to be the ocean or some shit, you know how weird theatre kids are.
Unfortunately for me, I did not know this was going to be the assignment. My journal entry for that week was about going out to a bar, getting very drunk, and then trying to recreate the parking lot scene from Fight Club. In my defense, that was the first time in recent memory that I had felt truly “in my body” … the sting of the pavement, the winter wind on my knuckles, the way my heart screamed in my chest, the way our friends cheered us on for all 45 glorious seconds of it. I didn’t think much of it, until my theatre professor called me in front of the class and asked me to recreate it. He asked me to hit him as hard as I could.
Looking back on it - I really fucking wish I hadn’t held back as much as I did before collapsing on the ground in tears. He thought I’d had a break through, when what I actually had was a panic attack. I know his intentions were good, he just wanted to get my mind and body to connect, and I had literally told him that violence was a successful way to do that. But what I really wish is that instead, he had thought to ask me why. Why do you only feel “in your body” through violence? Why is that the only time you feel like “you?”
It has taken me literal years to unpack, unlearn, and deconstruct the harmful theologies of Christianity to get to the core of why that particular class was so fucking hard for me. The truth is, I had not only been taught my entire life that I was dirty, sinful, broken, too much, too loud, and took up too much space: at the root of it all, I had been taught that I was not my own. That I was bought at a price. My body did not belong to me, it belonged to somebody else.
I spent the first half of my life working for so hard and for so long to give myself to God. And now I want myself back. It’s no wonder that I only felt like myself while committing an act of violence - my whole life had been one fight after another: fighting to be seen, to be heard, to be loved, to be accepted, to have space, to have agency, to have a choice. Fighting to take up space.
And now that I am starting to lay all the little hooks out on the table, uncurling each one from the other, I am afraid to say what’s been in my heart since the moment I heard Trinity was exiling their Theatre Department:
Good. Fucking good.
I am so tired of fighting. What a relief; in the same way that one one is relieved to hear of a loved one with cancer finally being free from the ravages of illness. To be clear: the Theatre Department was not the cancer; the School was. And now she’s free from it. I can only imagine how bitterly unfair this feels to the professors and students being torn away from this place they’ve come to call home… but she’ll find you again. She always does.
If the Theatre Department could speak, I think she would say:
“Why are you fighting so hard to take up space somewhere that does not want us? Why are you fighting so hard to be loved by someone who does not love us? I refuse to settle for crumbs anymore, and I refuse to break myself down into smaller pieces so that others may feed. Let them feast, or let them choke.”
See, it’s not that I believe Theatre has no place in a Christian School, it’s that I believe Christianity has no place in Theatre. She doesn’t worship your God. She doesn’t worship anything. Or rather, she worships everything. She is worship. And we could argue for centuries about how the “God of Harmful Christians” is not the same as “Your God” or “The One True God” but honestly I don’t really care. I’m so tired.
I think a better way of putting it might be not that “Christianity has no place in Theatre,” because it does. That’s the whole point. Theatre has space for everything. For everyone. Which means she has space for all the other religions too, and for the folks who don’t have one anymore. She has room for every creed and color and story and sin and every queer kid who ever smoked a cigarette on the train tracks and then walked into their stupid RELS class 25 minutes late. She has space for every curse word, for every god and every demon and everyone of us in between. She has so, so much space. You could never take up too much of it.
So why are you trying to fit her somewhere she has outgrown?
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