Art connects us all

February 17, 2023

The first night I felt like a true part of the BB&N Upper School performing arts community was during cabaret of my freshman year. When cabaret night rolled around again this February, the experience felt surreal because suddenly I was one of the seniors, and this would be one of my last shows here. I looked through my repertoire of musical theater pieces and picked two that were meaningful to me and fresh enough that I could pick them up in a week. That may sound like a long time, but outside of my Thursday voice lesson, my schedule left little time to rehearse for yet another commitment.

Luckily, this left little time for perfectionism. Although I had to stop and start each song in my rehearsal with the pianist an hour before the show, I took it as a victory that I wasn’t suffering from intense anxiety. I’ve accepted that a “perfect” performance doesn’t exist and instead learned to find the beauty in each iteration. No point stressing if I’m here to have fun!

As I sat in the audience, I realized that my two songs, “Alyssa Greene” from The Prom and “Flight” by Craig Carnelia, told a story together that reflected my life at BB&N and where I was now. Not everyone knows this, but the true art of cabaret is made not just of songs but scenes and monologues. As my peers (and a couple teachers) sang a variety of genres, I took frantic mental notes about what I wanted to say to give my performance structure and engage in that power of storytelling at the heart of musical theater.

When I stepped into the spotlight, a wave of joy immediately washed over me. I told a couple jokes to get the audience laughing, and once we had established a rapport, I dove into my story. I sang “Alyssa Greene,” about a closeted, lesbian high schooler feeling immense pressure from external forces, and discussed my journey overcoming perfectionism at BB&N during the interlude.

I felt the words of the character deep in my body, her grief and frustration at living in a world that expected her to be someone else. As a queer woman at an elite school, I’ve always felt pulled in multiple directions and identities, and it’s taken a lot of work to figure out who I actually am aside from all the noise. I’ve never unintentionally brought myself to tears onstage, but watching the way my classmates’ faces changed when confronted with this relatable pain, my eyes welled up at the end of the song too.

I closed out with “Flight,” a song of hope for the future, of letting go of expectations and the things that no longer serve you and embracing yourself. It felt like I was flying with the character. When the song ended, everyone cheered and I did a little happy jump. My mom embraced me, and my peers reached out their hands to me, tears streaming down their faces. “You almost ruined my mascara!” one of my castmates said.

I genuinely hadn’t expected this reaction from the audience. For a few minutes, the whole room connected through art and emotion. Even parents were crying.

I’m always coming up with new ways to explain why I love the performing arts, and this is one of them: When you see something moving, you allow yourself to simply exist as your purest self. Art can touch something deep inside of you, letting you feel raw emotions and process the things you don’t let yourself think about during the day. Through that shared experience, you’re suddenly connected to every person in the room.

It’s a feeling I haven’t experienced as much as I’d have liked to in high school. The pandemic paused everything, and a school that already held assemblies dedicated to sports, but could barely fill a few rows for spring shows, now rendered the performing arts practically invisible. Whether you consider yourself a hardcore athlete or a “theater kid,” engaging with the performing arts is a wonderful way to connect with and express yourself. Putting yourself out there in such a vulnerable way can be difficult, but it can also provide immense growth for yourself and inspire others.

In the pandemic, for example, people turned to artists to cope. Actors kept us entertained on television, painters brought a touch of joy to our homes, and singers allowed us to process our experiences. Even in the scariest times, and partly because of those times, we kept creating art.

Regardless of the visibility of artists at BB&N, art has helped so many people get through the pandemic, and art will help us heal if we only embrace it.