Growing up, I was a spunky, creative spirit, involved in music and dance for as long as I can remember. But in 8th grade, at the height of my bullied years, I pulled away. I started the school year and immediately decided not to return to jazz choir, nor audition for the musical. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in hindsight I know it was because those girls had swallowed me whole, leaving me with little voice left to use myself. I sunk inwards and never came back out.
Singing in front of others was always something that made me a bit nervous, but now my anxiety overrode my love for performing and silenced me completely. My parents desperately pushed me to find a hobby I could call my own, but it truly felt there was nothing out there that I enjoyed, and I eventually just gave up trying. I never quite recognized how powerful of a role self-expression played in my life up until that point. Without an outlet, I just felt empty, and had no energy or confidence to fill myself back up.
Flash forward to sophomore year of high school: one year out from leaving my middle school clique, and I was slowly starting to rediscover whom I was on my own. I was beginning to find a new community within our music department, and with their support (and a huge nudge from my mother), I decided to audition for the winter play on a whim. I felt slightly out of place and entirely unworthy, but to my major surprise, a few days later I was cast as one of the six ladies in Steel Magnolias – fitting that my first show was so centered on the theme of female empowerment and support.
Rehearsals started out with me internally attempting to convince myself I deserved to be there (and praying I didn’t make a fool of myself). But with each day, I grew more and more self-assured; I loved having somewhere to go after school, but more importantly, something that made me feel wanted and important. I will never, ever forget the night of the show; I went around to each of my cast mates, having them sign our show poster. Our director saw, and I shyly explained I wanted to keep the poster from my first play. He replied, “watching you tonight, no one would’ve ever known that was your first play.” And that was it. I was hooked.
I felt more alive than I had in years, and with each subsequent show, I noticed myself coming more and more out of the shell that my middle school years had trapped me within. I felt comfortable on stage (as long as I wasn’t singing) and increasingly more at home with my peers – although I admit, I never entirely fit the stereotype of a theatre kid. But even if the new friends I was surrounding myself with were a little zanier than I, they were genuinely, finally good people who were helping me unravel my quirky side as well.
The more embedded in the drama department I became, the closer I got to returning face to face with my nearly paralyzing fear of singing. It was the most painful internal conflict: remembering how much I truly loved singing, but feeling my voice go silent every time I tried.
My new best friend stuck by my side though – whether she fully understood the extent of my anxiety or not – and coached me moment by excruciating moment as I allowed someone to hear me sing for the first time in years. I was able to muster up the courage to obtain a small singing role in my junior year musical, and even (successfully!) auditioned to be part of the jazz choir my senior year.
But then came the final test – my senior year musical. I recognized this was probably my last chance to fulfill my goal of playing the lead in a musical, and I was absolutely determined to seize the moment, no matter how hard my anxiety tried to stop me. And let me tell you, boy did it try to stop me.
I was double cast in the lead, with my best friend and I sharing the role – the absolute perfect end to our time in the department. But to this day, those few months remain one of the greatest tests in resilience and courage I’ve had to face. I recognize how insane that sounds when we’re talking about a high school musical. But every time I had to step up to sing, I was faced with a feeling of impending doom like no other. And worst of all, I felt I couldn’t express it to anyone, when all I wanted to do was explain why the hell I was acting like this. I stumbled through solos in front of the whole cast, sat in the hallway crumbling and sobbing during breaks, and came home to sit in my darkened living room in silence. But I made it to the finish line, and pulled off two very imperfect, but in my eyes, very successful, performances.
Pride doesn’t begin to express how it felt; freedom is a more accurate description. To this day, singing in front of others can still be an emotional experience for me, reverting me to that 13 year old who wanted nothing more but to be left utterly alone. I’ve tried several times to understand why the difference between acting and singing is so huge for me. I think what it boils down to is how they each made me feel at that point in my life; acting left me feeling empowered and in control, but singing felt vulnerable, and was an all too real reminder that I was less powerful than I thought. Despite this, I regard going to NYU for acting and taking on that senior year musical as two of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. One was a dream, while the other was a nightmare that thankfully led to a happy ending. But both gave me the opportunity and space to reclaim who I once was.
I always joke that my BFA was four years of really good, really expensive therapy. It challenged me, pushed me, consoled me, and healed me in more ways than I could ever express. My first semester of freshman year, I found most of my “as-ifs” (a technique we used to integrate our real lives into the work) were screaming my long unspoken pain to the girls who wronged me for so many years. My cathartic breakdowns in voice class were rectifying the insecurities and demons that plagued me. Because when I was acting, I could be all these empowered, boundless things that nice, silenced Kiera couldn’t. But over time, those wounds began to heal, the screaming seemed less necessary, and I was being that confident version of myself, not just playing it in a scene.
What I hope others take away from this story is the reality and magnitude of girl bullying; it can strip you of more than you could ever fathom. But it cannot take away the power that lies at your core, even if you are not always aware if its presence. It’s all about finding the right outlet to let that power shine through; once you have a platform to express it, its influence will slowly begin to rebuild your sense of self. Theatre was the light that guided me out of my darkest tunnel. Go find your light.