Monday, February 23, 2009

Seeing "A Chorus Line" on Academy Award Night

When I was 12 years old, if you had asked me to envision my adult life, I would not have talked about poetry or teaching English. I'd have assured you that I was going to be an actress--on Broadway, thank you very much, none of that tacky movie or television work for me. No, my art would stay pure--and yes, I was so much of a budding drama geek that I probably would have used that language.

Clearly, my adult life has not gone as my teenage self would have planned.

Seeing A Chorus Line last night brought back a flood of memories. I find it fitting that I decided to go see a travelling Broadway show--one that's over 30 years old--instead of staying home to watch the Academy Awards. I loved seeing it, but I have no idea if I would have loved it so much if I didn't have that emotional connection. My sister and I memorized the whole album when my mom got it for Christmas in 1977, and in 1979, my fearless parents took us from Montgomery, Alabama to Atlanta to see the touring Broadway show (I was 13, and my sister was about to turn 9). This show has been part of my life for a very long time.

Would I love the show as much if I had been, say, an aspiring astronomer? If I had grown up to be an accountant or a marine biologist? My spouse, who went to the show with me, says no, I wouldn't love the show, that I'd see these dancers as silly dreamers who need to grow up and get real jobs.

As I watched the show, I thought about how preparing for the grown up life as that I thought I would have as an actor has prepared me in unique ways for the grown up life that I do have as a poet and an academic. For one thing, I've known from a young age that I need to have a tough skin when it comes to rejection. I'm not one of those poets who shrivels up and refuses to submit any poems for half a year when I get a rejection slip. Nope, I just send out the next batch of poems and keep hoping for the best. In the past, when I've applied for full-time teaching work, I've realized that the odds were stacked against me, and I haven't taken rejection personally. As in acting (and book publishing) there are only so many slots, and there are so many more qualified applicants than slots.

And my drama background has prepared me for a life in front of students. My classrooms are rarely boring. I have an amazing energy, and I have a wide range of techniques to keep people riveted. At the very least, I know enough to vary my vocal tone, which is something that so many faculty and other public speakers never seem to understand. I have read so many plays and poems and other types of literature out loud that I have no problems with cold readings.

I worry that we're about to see the same kind of contractions in higher education in the coming decade that Broadway saw in the 1970's onward. We've seen a lot of tenure track jobs evaporate, so that academics have a lot in common with dancers and actors--working gig by gig, stringing together enough work to pay the bills. Now I worry that we'll see a lot of schools and colleges close in the coming decade, and academics won't even be able to find adjunct jobs.

But I'll take a page out of the songbook: "Won't regret, can't forget, what I did for love." I'm lucky that I've been able to do what I love: college work in drama, journalism, radio; graduate work in British literature; a wide variety of teaching work; time to craft poems, stories, and a variety of types of writing. If I had a chance to do it all over again, I'd sign right up!

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