What a distressing week! Y’all are probably aware by now that I’m producing my first stage play, GYNX, Off-Broadway in August. (Yay!) Before we can start production, though, we’ve gotta raise the funds. And if you’ve never lead a crowdfunding venture, then let me tell you: it’s like taking on a second full-time job as a gambler, which is stressful as f*ck.
I know I’m supposed to maintain a facade of optimism to *encourage donations* or whatever, but… that’s just not who I am. My entire body of work is about emotional honesty. I always strive to be 100% real with you guys, and that’s not about to change, even temporarily, over an IndieGoGo campaign.
So here’s my heart again: Lots of negative emotions have come up this week as a direct result of trying to stay on top of this theatrical production, and — surprise, surprise! — most of this stress can be traced back to my “trophy childhood.”
In case you need a recap:
I grew up in a cultic Pentecostal church as the goddaughter of the (very charismatic, domineering) Pastor. At age 5, they discovered my singing talent. In the 13 years that followed, they exploited my talent to accrue donations for the church — and they even got other local churches to exploit me as well. From age 5 to 18, my life was a nonstop series of rehearsals and performances that I did not want to do. I was under immense pressure to please hundreds of people. When I became a serious source of income for my church, they began planting grandiose ideas in my head, that I was this “Chosen One” who was specially anointed by God to save people’s lives with my singing voice. And if I ever refused to sing, the consequence would be eternal hellfire.
Understand me: I didn’t know I was being exploited. How could I have? I was a kid with no vocabulary to express my discomfort and no power to set boundaries; I was trapped in a cult environment, with no access to other perspectives & therefore no concept of what a healthy childhood would have looked like; and in that entire time period, not one person ever asked if I actually wanted to sing or not. Why the hell would they? The feelings of children don’t matter — even less so when that child is a girl.
It all culminated into feeling…. cursed, if you will, to feel like I’m under constant surveillance, yet completely invisible, for the rest of my life. There’s one particularly painful memory that illustrates what I mean.
(Oh boy. I actually haven’t told anyone this until now. May or may not be a bit misty-eyed right now…)
My dad had a friend who mixed tracks in his home studio. So he asked this friend (don’t recall the name, so let’s randomly name him Dennis) to make a karaoke track for me to sing to. Up until then, I had either been singing all my songs with a live (clumsy) band, a cappella, or over a CD track. So Dennis made the karaoke track and put it on a CD for me. But then he insisted on coming to our church to see me sing.
This was the first time someone from outside the church ever came to see me perform. Singing in front of my congregation was already nerve-wracking, but now there was a new judge among them. Somehow, it mattered even more what he’d think of my performance. Would he notice how anxious I looked? Would my terrified posture raise red flags in his head? Would he be the one to finally say something on my behalf? Would my cult finally be exposed for using me?
Dennis found himself a seat right in the middle of the crowd: 5 pews away from me, smack dab in the center. His eye contact was so intense. I still remember how difficult it was to perform that particular night, his critical gaze magnified by thick square glasses, his arms crossed over his chest as if to say, Impress me.
They turned on his karaoke track and I sang like usual: Stone still, except for my hand fidgeting with my bracelet. Staring at the wall so I wouldn’t have to see anyone’s eyes on me. Knees trembling. Taking calculated breaths between lyrics so I could hold the longer notes, trying to push from my stomach instead of my chest so no one would hear my voice shaking. Scared.
When it was over, Dennis didn’t say anything to me. He just left. So a few days later, I asked my Dad if Dennis had said anything.
Dad said that Dennis said, “She’s too stiff. She needs to work on that.”
That was it. That was all he had to say.
A fresh sense of helplessness washed over me.
I had no words to communicate my reluctance to accept the role of child entertainer — because explicitly saying NO to “God’s will” was out of the question. I had to find creative ways to say no. I faked a “sore throat” very often (but they still made me sing, those fuckers. So I eventually stopped bothering to fake sick). I always fervently hoped that my body language would say “no” clearly enough for me. That somebody would notice my shakiness, my eyes like a deer caught in headlights, my demure posture….
But in 13 years, nobody noticed. Not even this outsider named Dennis. He will never know how much I was counting on him that day — to be an objective eye, a neutral observer who might be able to see past all the smoke and mirrors of my cult. It was like I needed him to be a life raft but he turned out to be an anchor, securing me even more firmly to this fate. I could not swim away, but only try to stay afloat, tethered to one spot… and it was only a matter of time before I drowned.
In the first post I wrote about my trophy childhood, I made a small list of a few ways it impacts me to this day. Since writing that post, I’ve recognized even more of the after effects:
- I don’t emote when I sing. That’s actually the #1 criticism I get about my singing. My voice itself is very emotional, but my face stays blank, & my eyes go empty. I have tried many times, in the privacy of my room, to make facial expressions in the mirror while singing. Sad, happy, anything. But my face won’t move. The interesting part is that I have a WILDLY expressive face in everyday life, but as soon as I go into singing mode, some part of me completely shuts down and can’t let any emotions show. I believe this is a deeply ingrained defense mechanism I adopted to protect myself from the constant scrutiny of an audience.
- I am petrified of being watched while singing. Or even humming. I’m fine with people watching my singing videos, but even then, I have to position the camera at some clever angle that excludes my eyes or entire face.
- Even when singing alone, I feel like I’m under surveillance and can’t fully enjoy the act. It’s like there’s this looming threat of existential punishment if I hit a flat note or forget a lyric.
It breaks my heart to say this, but for all the reasons outlined above, I stopped singing about 4 years ago. I’m still a performer in that I enjoy spoken word, acting, and public speaking. But singing? Forget it.
People who once knew me as a singer often ask why I stopped making music. How do I tell them?
“I can’t sing anymore because the cult stole whatever pleasure I could have experienced from the act of singing by turning it into a matter of life and death“?
“I can’t sing because the fate of my soul depends on whether I do it well, and that’s too much pressure”?
“I can’t sing because what’s the point of singing when nobody actually hears you saying no with your entire body”?
You must be wondering how this has anything to do with the play I’m producing.
Well, the most obvious connection is that The Stage is central to both my trophy childhood and this current creative endeavor.
My first experience of The Stage was 13 years of helplessness, having no boundaries or agency at all, not even getting to choose what songs I’d sing.
Over time, I’ve (slowly, carefully) explored different ways of relating to The Stage. I’ve consensually starred in musicals and plays — which was far better than being forced to show-pony as a kid. And of my own accord, I’ve performed at open mics and given presentations and speeches — which are even more autonomous than starring in theatrical productions, because I get to choose my own words.
But there’s something so wonderfully and terrifyingly new about this particular undertaking of being a playwright and producer: this time, I’m behind the scenes.
By writing and producing GYNX, I’ve essentially found a way to reclaim The Stage without. being. on. it.
As the playwright, the entire script is what I want it to be. Every word was chosen with care, every character crafted with intention, every plot point weaved with purpose. I drafted GYNX 12 times already, and I still have the agency to change it again if I please. When the show premieres, I’ll have the joy of watching from the crowd as my words and my ideas are brought to life… by other people. So while there’s still some slight pressure to entertain a crowd, I won’t have 100 pairs of eyes on me while doing so. This will be a different kind of pressure, and I actually look forward to seeing how it will feel.
And as the producer, I’m not a dictator about it, but I do maintain a high level of creative input regarding production and casting. I chose the director (who also chose me, of course), and from there we’re choosing the remaining production team together. I’m consciously looking for people who demonstrate an ability to collaborate, so that I know my opinions will be heard and considered. Not dismissed, not ignored. Most importantly, as one of the people who’s “in charge” of this production (god, it’s so weird to say that — I have a strong aversion to any sort of leadership position, but that’s a cult recovery blog for another day…), I can’t be forced or pressured to do anything I don’t want to do.
This is all a very far cry from the helplessness of my cash-cow-childhood. From the lines that are recited, to the production team we assemble, to the aesthetic, sensory and auditory experience we create… I’ll have agency unlike any I’ve had before.
The final thing I want to touch on before concluding this post, is the question of readiness.
For cult survivors—particularly lifelong cultists, like myself—independence can be terrifying. It’s something I’ve written about before. When you’ve been conditioned in your developmental years to be submissive and compliant, that’s a very hard thing to break out of in adulthood. I’m much better now at asserting myself and identifying my own desires (instead of letting someone else’s desires become mine), but as with any self-improvement endeavor, there’s still a ways to go.
So producing GYNX is not only the most agency I’ve ever had in my relationship to The Stage…
…it’s also a test. It’s a question.
Am I ready?
When I started this post by saying this was a distressing week, I meant it was extremely challenging, physically and emotionally. I won’t bore you with the details of what exactly makes being a producer so stressful. I’ll just tell you that I cried. A lot. I questioned myself. I had to make some major decisions, especially regarding money, that forced me to re-evaluate my values. How much do I believe in my art? What price am I willing to pay in order to reclaim The Stage? During one particularly tearful phone call, I sobbed to my best friend, “If this is what I want, why is it making me feel so awful?”
Now I know the answer to that. It hurts precisely because it’s what I want. It’s what ***I*** want. Not what someone else told me to want. I am unearthing years and years and years of repressed desires, unmet needs, unexplored ideas. It hurts because I am facing every fear instilled in me from an exploited childhood, head-on, for the first time.
There are barriers that I’ve built up over time to protect myself from The Stage, but now those same barriers hinder me from reclaiming it. Beyond the barriers, so much beauty awaits me. Autonomy, self-exploration, self-expression, the joy of performance and art-making that the cult stole from me. It’s all there. On The Stage. I am faced with the choice to stay limited by the barriers, or to knock them down, scared as I am, and take back what was always meant to be mine.
Am I ready?