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"Can I Have Your Autograph?"

If you're going to the theatre for the very first time, there's plenty of rules and suggestions to take into consideration. Be sure you're dressed for the occasion, not necessarily in formal wear, but also not in a sloppy manner either. Go to the bathroom before the show starts or during intermission, but NEVER during the performance. Don't eat ANYTHING in the theatre during the performance. The sounds of bags, wrappers, or even crunchy snacks are very distracting to the cast and crew and your fellow audience members. Talking during the show is absolutely prohibited. Turn off your cell phone because of the bright screen is distracting to other audience members and the ringing of the phone during the show is a big faux pas no matter which theatre you go to. Don't wear too much perfume or cologne or anything heavily scented when sitting in the theatre. And most of all, BE ON TIME! It's considered rude to arrive at the theatre late, and if you do, please don't argue with the stage manager who will do his or her best to get you seated as soon as there is the right time to get you to your seat. Don't worry if these rules are intimidating. Going to a live performance is truly a fun experience. Seeing a story come to life through acting and dancing, or hearing a concerto from a renowned symphony orchestra, or even being immersed in the music and vocals of an opera is a wonderful way to spend the afternoon or evening. And besides, there is a special tradition to do after the performance is over, even more than the applause and standing ovations. There's going to the STAGE DOOR. Have you ever wanted to meet a specific actor or musician in person? Did you ever want the chance to talk to them for a minute or two, or even say how fantastic they were in that particular performance? Are you an avid fan of their work and would follow them to every single play or musical to show them your support? Or are you interested in having your playbill autographed by them? This is a tradition that should be considered a requirement for going to the theatre. It certainly was for my friends who have been attending shows longer than I have, but just the same, it was an important thing to do when I got the chance to do the same. When I lived in Chicago - aka Northwest Indiana, going to NYC was NOT an option. Primarily because of the expenses. The closest I got to see a show was at the Cadillac Theatre in downtown Chicago, and it was Wicked back in 2006. Ana Gasteyer as Elphaba blew my mind away! She had so much power and creativity in the role, and I never forgot that day. There was just one thing I wished I could've done differently. I wish I could've met her in person to tell her how fantastic she was. But if you recall my previous blogs talking about living with my abusive father and sister, I don't think they would've had the patience to wait for Ms. Gasteyer to come and sign my playbill. Or even get a picture with her. Once I moved to Maryland in 2012, one of the things that surprised me was how close I was to NYC. Only about a four-hour bus ride from DC or Greenbelt, MD. That was enough for me. NYC, HERE I COME!!!!!!!! I took the bus ride up to NYC for the very first time on 16 July 2013. What was my very first Broadway show that I saw, you ask? It happened to be one that I hoped would become a show after I saw the movie - Newsies! The whole day was unforgettable - Times Square was hustling and bustling. I saw probably the largest Disney Store in my entire life. I saw the Naked Cowboy in all his glory. The lights, the smells (it didn't smell bad, unlike New Jersey as I've heard), and the food were glorious. But once I got to the theatre, I felt as if I stepped into another world. The huge marquee with "Newsies" all lit up with a picture of a newsboy in all its glory was a sight to behold. Everything was organized, and the feeling of general excitement was in the air. The show itself was amazing - Corey Cott as Jack Kelly, Andy Richardson as Crutchie (he was in for Andrew Keenan-Bolger for the matinee performance), Ben Fankhauser as Davey, Ryan Breslin as Race, Ryan Steele as Specs, and Kara Lindsay as Katherine. Of course, we all gave them a deserved standing ovation! After the show ended, many of us, myself included, congregated to the stage door to see which one of the actors would come out. I can assure you many of us hoped Corey Cott would come out to see us. But we were just as excited to see Andy Richardson come out! I was extremely happy to see Kara Lindsay come out. She is a genuinely sweet lady and was more than willing to share a smile with me. (Of course, I'm generally clumsy with selfies, so I'm amazed many of them turned out so well! In this case, someone was willing to help me out with the picture.)

The pure joy from my face in that photo could not be contained. And here is the first lesson I've learned from being at stage doors: many actors really do appreciate the compliments, support, and well wishes. To hear it in person means a lot to them, and the fact that a performance, role, or song made someone smile, cry or have it be relatable to them as a human being does make a difference in their career and in their lives. Of course, the actors generally try not to let all of the praise go to their heads. There's a select few that believe in their own press and think they can push others around, but that's not very nice and would probably make it hard to get acting jobs in the future. From that moment on, I always looked forward to getting to the stage door. Sometimes, I would have to ask the front of house staff where it is so that I don't get lost or miss my chance. How do I know which show I want to see? Usually, it would be performances I see on television, such as the Tony Awards or late-night shows. But most of the time, it's something I'm interested in seeing. In this case, the next two shows I wanted to see were Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella and Aladdin, both occurring the week of my birthday the next two years. Both instances when I was in NYC for an afternoon at the theatre were incredible. The shows spoke for themselves, and everything was if you excuse my corniness, magical. In the case of Cinderella, I got to meet both the lead and supporting roles. I even got a picture with Laura Osnes, who was quite lovely as Cinderella! (I always have a hard time keeping my eyes open when I'm smiling, so you'll have to excuse my expression with this particular picture with Ms. Osnes. But the smile was authentic, I promise!)

When I went to see Aladdin, once again my toes were tapping to "Friend Like Me" and my eyes widened in surprise at the magic carpet ride during "A Whole New World". (How they were able to make the carpet fly is still a mystery to me.) And once again, I kept my tradition to head to the stage door at the end of the show. I was able to meet and receive autographs Don Darryl Rivera, and the two stars, Adam Jacobs and James Monroe Iglehart. I even got something special from the Genie himself - I told him it was my birthday and he wished me a happy birthday. He then gave me a hug! Wow! (He gave an amazing hug, by the way! But I will say that I did ask him for a hug, out of courtesy and respect. That's another important rule - don't invade their personal space without asking their permission. This includes hugs!) In all honesty, I was hoping to meet Mr. Iglehart at the stage door the most because I saw his performance on the Tonys, and he blew me away with his excellent comedic timing and superb performance. Of course, one thing that really made me smile was when he was receiving the Tony Award for his performance, he did a little praise shout and dance. If you don't know what that is, watch this clip: One thing I've noticed when I was at the stage door this time around was a gaggle of little girls getting increasingly excited and agitated at their desire to meet Jasmine, played by Courtney Reed. Time went by for a while, but she didn't come out. I left without knowing whether or not she actually did come out to sign autographs. But I was happy nonetheless. I saw both Mr. Iglehart and Mr. Jacobs, and that was enough for me. This brings me to the next lesson I've learned from this particular experience. Don't keep on asking cast members or crew members when a start they want to see is coming out to sign autographs, or if they're even coming out at all. I believe that this makes the other actors feel bad that their performance wasn't good enough for your praise or even that one performer is more important than the other. Here's something to remember: you can't have a show without ALL of the parts. This includes the ensemble, stand-bys, swings, dance captains, and replacements. They matter just as much as the main lead roles and the main supporting roles. Without those parts, the show wouldn't be as fantastic if it were just left to one or a certain group of people. How do you think the harmonies would work if it were just left to one or two people? How do you think the dance numbers would have their pizzazz without at least 8-10 people backing the lead roles up? Besides, many of the actors have lives outside of the world of theatre. They need to go home and rest, have lunch or a very late dinner, get back to their families, or get ready for their next appointment. Perhaps they don't want to get overwhelmed by the masses of fans and be late getting to where it is they need to go. If all else fails, you can write them a letter, preferably handwritten or typed. Or you can send them a letter and a gift. Or maybe a card. From my experience of mailing letters, they really do appreciate the support. Most of the time, they send you an autographed playbill. But they also may send you a special message on a postcard or even a small gift. Case in point:

They really do care about their fans and make it an effort to respond with gracious thanks and appreciation. It may take time for them to respond to every single letter, card, or a gift they receive from their numerous fans, but they do respond. And when you do receive the autographed playbill, postcard, or gift, it will make your day. It always does for me! When I saw Bandstand and Hello, Dolly!, I didn't see the stars I wanted to see. But I was happy just the same to see the supporting roles and ensemble roles. They made quite a difference to my day. I remember saying thanks to the actors who came out after Bandstand for telling such a relatable story involving PTSD. The actors who came out from a matinee performance of Hello, Dolly! were in a hurry to get a late lunch/early dinner, so they didn't have time to sign autographs. Except one. Hayley Podschun, who was the understudy to Ermengarde that day, was kind enough to sign my playbill on a cold, blustery January day. When I returned home, I made a conscious choice to send her a card thanking her for taking time out of her busy day to sign my playbill. One day, sometime later, I got quite a surprise on my phone. I saw a notification on my Facebook Messenger for a request from, of all people, Ms. Podshun! She sent me a personal message thanking me for the card and for coming to the show! Will wonders never cease?! Just the same, I continued to write letters to the stars and actors in the following format: Actor's Name c/o "Show Title" Name of Theatre Address City Zip Code I wrote letters to Bernadette Peters, Victor Garber, Corey Cott, Patti Murin, Brittney Johnson, Katie Ladner, Ali Stroker, and Katie Rose Clarke, just to name a few. And in each of those letters, I tell them truthfully that I found their performance that I saw that day was incredible and it made me smile. And then I add something that is personal or means something special to me. In the case of Ms. Johnson, I was thrilled to see a black Glinda onstage in Wicked and her performance is an inspiration to me. For Ms. Stroker, I felt pride and joy at seeing someone with a disability grace the stage with passion and how her speech at the Tonys and her career is an inspiration to someone who has three mental disabilities. For Mr. Garber, I laughed and cheered at his performance of Horace Vandergelder in Hello, Dolly!, and one of my favorite performances I saw him ever was in the 1997 television version of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella (my favorite line from the film done by him? "Why if I were a young man, I'd..." You figure out the rest!) And the list goes on. A special message to someone who's touched you in some way does make a difference. And they really do appreciate your support. What is my favorite moment at the stage door, you ask? Picture it - September 2017. I was once again in NYC for my birthday, this time to see Anastasia. My day was already special - A special birthday cheer at the Disney Store, lunch at Shake Shack (yum!), and then the show. I was in heaven! Anastasia was absolutely magnificent, and I couldn't wait to get to the stage door to show my appreciation as I had done before. I saw John Bolton, Derek Klena, and finally, Christy Altomare.

Do you know what made this day even MORE special? Watch this:

Yup. She sang "Happy Birthday" to me! I was literally walking on cloud nine after I left the theatre, and I couldn't have asked for a better end to my day in NYC. It's moments like these that make me excited to go to the stage door. You just never know what to expect. Or what can happen! But there's one big lesson I've learned from all of my experiences at the stage door: even if they're the lead, supporting, or ensemble members of the show, they're still people. Think about it: actors live in houses, apartments, townhouses, or even mansions if they have amassed enough wealth. They have families and loved ones they like to visit as often as they can or spend as much time with them on a regular basis. They like to have home-cooked meals once in a while. They have a career that makes them happy and not just does it because of getting another paycheck entices them (well, not ALL of the time). They enjoy doing things outside of acting that helps them relax and lets them be creative in another way, whether that's watching TV or movies, knitting, cooking, painting, reading, traveling, photography, exercising, coloring/painting, or anything that makes them happy. But here's one thing I've noticed in recent years: Whenever that actor you admire says or posts something along the lines that are related to their beliefs, whether that is political, religious, medical, or something deeply personal that matters to them, there is a tendency for some people to call them out for being too vocal or saying that they're not allowed to say things like that. Why? You don't think that they would understand what the "common people" go through every day? You don't think they actually care about things like this because of their profession? You don't think it's any of their business to be aware of what's going on in the world today? You don't think it's acceptable for them to talk about things that are considered taboo in society? You don't think they should have a voice on these matters and they should just "stick to doing their jobs?" Or even "shut up and sing"? You don't think they're allowed to be strong AND real with people about what they go through? Newsflash: they're still PEOPLE. And much of these topics and happenings that are going on in the world today matter to them as well as to you because we are all HUMAN BEINGS. At the end of the day, that's what we all are, regardless of what our profession is. And even BEFORE they became famous, they were just like us - ordinary people with big dreams, hopes, and wishes. And they worked hard to get where they're at now, just the same as someone who wants to be a doctor, firefighter, or even a politician. Let me tell you a story about someone I admire greatly. Jessica Vosk came into the spotlight in the past few years from her performances in Bridges of Madison County, Finding Neverland, the 2015-16 revival of Fiddler on the Roof, and the live West Side Story recording with the San Francisco Symphony orchestra. But her best-known role was as Elphaba in Wicked. Of course, she blew everyone away with her voice and stage presence. I think it's safe to say that she's one of the best Elphabas of Wicked's 17-year history. (Even better than Ana Gasteyer? Undoubtedly so!) But what's really striking is her story about how she got to Broadway. Ms. Vosk did shows and performances as a child, but as she went to college, she decided to transfer schools and switch majors from musical theatre to communications and public and investor relations. Ms. Vosk would later go onto work on Wall Street in investor relations for several years, but then something happened that would change the trajectory of her career and lead her back to the stage. She started experiencing panic attacks at her job, and it would continue for a while. Ms. Vosk knew this couldn't continue, and after seeing a note from her grandmother with the simple message "good luck," she decided to take a leap of faith and leave her job at Wall Street to pursue an acting career. Needless to say, her parents weren't thrilled by this, and there were plenty of times when she questioned whether she made a big mistake. But she kept at it, going to auditions, open mic nights, and doing part-time jobs on the side to make sure she was able to have enough for making the rent, have food on the table, and provide income for her career. It wasn't easy, but the small successes she had with doing concerts, open mic nights, and more eventually led her to Broadway. Along with her earlier appearances onstage, Ms. Vosk joined the Second National Tour of Wicked in the lead role from 2016-17, with her going down the Yellow Brick Road again on Broadway in 2018, just in time for the show's 15th anniversary. The rest, they say, is history. (Quick note: she was NOT an overnight success! If there's one thing I've learned in this business is that there is no such thing as an overnight success. Things like these take time and patience, and a little bit of being in the right place at the right time.) Once her story was shared on the major networks in line with the show's anniversary celebration, Ms. Vosk's fan base multiplied. Exponentially. She became the inspiration for so many people, whether they were in the performing arts or making a switch to a new career. She is honest with what she had to go through to get to where she is now. She shows her humor in creative ways. She shows support for her fellow artists and promotes their work alongside her own. But she's also open about the many things she cares about - the state of the nation, for instance. Or the need to go out and vote in the next election. Or showing compassion to fellow artists going through struggles. Or emphasizing the need for normalcy when talking about mental health. Or continuing the fight for women's rights. You may have seen tweets and posts about Black Lives Matter, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, wearing a mask, registering to vote in the upcoming election, whether or not it's wise to go back to in-person classes (it's not!), COVID-19, and so many things going on right now. Among those voices sharing their opinions and experiences, Jessica Vosk, Stephanie J. Block, Brittney Johnson, Aisha Jackson, Jeremy Jordan, Ryan McCartan, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Barbra Streisand, Lin Manuel Miranda, Renee Goldsberry, and many more have been raising their voices in support and protest. And yet, there is still the occasional comment or tweet saying one of the following: "Why don't you just shut up and sing?" "Shut up and do your job!" "You shouldn't be talking about things like this." Let me ask you something: do you honestly think that the job of an actor, singer, musician, author, artist, director, playwright, dancer, and more is just to "shut up and do your job"? Need I remind you that their "jobs" are more than just to entertain you or for them to get paid by your purchasing tickets to their shows and buying their albums or pictures. Remember the first time you saw someone onstage in a show that really moved you and resonated with you? Do you remember the time you listened to a song and it moved you to tears because it spoke to the very depths of your soul? Remember how a book made you forget what's going on in the world right and allowed you to escape to a place where you truly belonged? Can you recall the time a movie or TV show reminded you of how much we all are alike in spite of our differences? There, ladies and gentlemen are the so-called "jobs" of actors, musicians, singers, authors, artists, dancers, directors, playwrights, and more. They help us to remind all of us of our HUMANITY. We may be different by the color of our skin, where we come from, what our religion is, and even what our sexual preference is. But at the end of the day, the arts help us to remember how much we are all the same by the stories that are being told. We laugh, we love, we cry, we get mad, we empathize with each other, we relate our experiences with one another, we walk on the same ground, we breathe the same air, and IT BRINGS US TOGETHER. For just several hours or even four minutes, we are allowed to remember those feelings and ideas and suggestions because of our humanity. We are allowed to be told that it's okay to feel those emotions. It's okay to embrace our differences because it's what makes us special and beautiful. It's amazing that the characters and plots resonate with us because we've lived through it and the experience teaches us our strength and gives us hope for the future. We are reminded that sadness and anger are natural feelings and they shouldn't be held back or released in unhealthy ways.

That is the job of the arts. Take it or leave it. I know what you're going to say - "But they shouldn't be saying these things about politics, women's rights, LGBTQIA+ rights, Black Lives Matter or anything of the sort!" Or "They're so out of touch with us common folk. What makes you think they will understand what we're going through?" (sigh) Have you already forgotten what I said earlier? All of us, famous or ordinary, celebrity or D-lister, actor or doctor, are all HUMAN. And no matter what the topics of the day are presented or shared or tweeted, it impacts them along with all of us. Even if they are wealthier than us ordinary folk, the issues still impact them. It matters to them that Black Lives Matter. It matters to them that the names of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arberry, Trayvon Martin, and many more innocent lives be said each and every day and not be forgotten. It matters to them that women's rights be upheld, expanded to all women, and be respected in the workplace and the home. It matters to them that the LGBTQIA+ community be accepted and appreciated as human beings and not as freaks. It matters to them that the government's response to the pandemic has been less than satisfactory and that everyone wears a mask out of kindness to their neighbors and community. It matters to them that everyone should have equal rights in this country. It matters to them that healthcare is a right, not a privilege. It matters to them that education is affordable to everyone. It matters to them that families shouldn't be separated. It matters to them that their fellow artists be heard and not lose their jobs for speaking up against the injustices they've experienced on the job. It matters to them that they take a stand. At the end of the day, it matters to each and every one of us because we're all PEOPLE. Politics aside, we care about the rights that should matter to ALL of us. Not just a chosen few. The scale shouldn't be tipped in favor of the 1%. It matters to all of us no matter what our job is, what our status is, and even what our beliefs are. They're not clueless. They're not so high and lofty above us. They're not stupid. They're just as much in tune with what's going on right now in our country and in the world as us ordinary people are. And I should probably stop saying "ordinary." We're EXTRAORDINARY because each of us has a voice and none of us should be silenced because of our status. No one should have to be told to "do their job" when they're job is reminding us that we're all human. We all have a right to speak up and speak out against what's wrong. Here are several questions I want to ask you: you're willing to buy tickets to come and see these stars on Broadway, you're following their official pages on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, you're liking their comments about their most recent and upcoming projects, you're celebrating their achievements and major events in life such as engagements, marriages, the birth of a child, etc., and you're supporting them when there's a death in the family or the loss of a colleague they've worked with or seen from afar. But when these same actors, musicians, singers, painters, dancers, authors, directors, playwrights, and more speak out against systemic racism, protest the attack on women's rights, show support for LGBTQIA+ rights, emphasize that healthcare is a right, not a privilege, making the conversations on mental health normal and not be taboo, pleading with the public to wear a mask and stay home because we're in a pandemic, shouting from the rooftops to go out and vote in November, or even venting their frustrations over the current administration and their lack of leadership, compassion, backbone, and direction, you tell them to be quiet. Why won't you support these individuals when they share an opinion or an experience that you deem to be too controversial or even out of your comfort zone? Why do you feel that those in the arts shouldn't have their say in politics, religion, human rights, women's rights, or anything that is important to them just as much as it's important to you? What gives you the right to tell them that this isn't any of their business or that they're so out of it? And here's an important one to consider: why are you fans with them in the first place if all you care about and want to hear about is their work, and not allow them to be honest and open about what's going on in their lives and the world around them and how it impacts them? Before I go any further, there's something, well actually, two things I'd like to say. First of all, and this bears repeating, I'm not an expert on these things whatsoever. These are just observations I've noticed whenever I'm on social media. Second, I'm not telling you to blindly follow someone who has the potential to be a bad influence or is already spewing off hateful things. That is just plain stupidity and ignorance. There are plenty of people out there who use their platforms for attacks against other people and divisions. These are the people you should avoid at all costs. Then again, there are people out there who you admire and do wonderful things, and yet they use their platform to not uplift others, but bring them down. The most recent example of this is J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books. She tweeted transphobic comments and many of her fans and colleagues, including several stars from the franchise, called her out on her hatred and divisive comments. Rather than apologizing, she doubled down and stood by what she said. (As a friend of mine told me when I shared this story, love the art, not necessarily the artist.) It breaks my heart that when you're given a chance to use your voice on a platform, you only care about the money and power and the status and the number of followers instead of how to reach out and understand and respect one another as people. But more importantly, you only use that to exert your assumed authority on the subject, when in a fair honesty, we're all just learning about each other and issues through our differences, experiences, and beliefs. What's the bottom line in all of this? First and foremost, don't count out celebrities or anyone who's famous and is using their platform for awareness, understanding, love, and appreciation as being clueless or not with the times. They're still people at the end of the day, and they may know much more than we'd like to admit, and they always deserve a chance to voice their opinions and experiences, even if it's different from ours. If they have to show tough love and blatant honesty on a topic that you may find uncomfortable or feel that they shouldn't talk about, be respectful. Don't tell them to "stick to their job." Their job, first and foremost, is to be human. And all of us can relate to what it means to be human, even if we don't want to admit it. Next, really think about those individuals you follow who you agree with, yet their comments are spewing off hatred and division. Is that person really worth your time if you care about unity and progress, and they're the exact opposite of the issues you care about? Is it wise to follow someone who only cares about themselves and not respecting and understanding you as a human being? Finally, and this is important, remember that no matter what their status is, each and everyone one of us has a VOICE. How we choose to use it and engage with followers is up to you. I choose to show love, respect, awareness, and kindness all the time, and I hope many others do as well. If that voice doesn't have the qualities of open-mindedness, affirmation, or even compassion, it's time to rethink what you should be posting on social media. Not everybody needs to see negativity, division, or hatred every single day 24/7.

The next time you go to the stage door, write fan mail to a particular star, attend their shows, concerts, exhibits, or purchase their albums, artwork, or books, remember this simple fact: they're still human beings. They have feelings, voices, emotions, experiences, and ideas just like the fans who support them. They appreciate the support, enthusiasm, and compassion you show them whether that's in person or on social media. They may not tear their hair out all the time over crude comments or repeated sentiments to just "shut up and do your job". But they still have a voice, and they shouldn't be silenced because of their status or their profession. As I end this week's blog, I hope you recognize that each and every one of us should use our voice and experiences to bring awareness, hope, understanding, love, respect, and empathy to the people, things, and issues that impact us deeply. Even if it's controversial or heated, we should use our voices not to bring others down but lift each other up. If all else fails and that person refuses to act out of love and respect, you can always block them. They may end up not being worth your time. (Believe me, I've had to block complete strangers as well as former friends and family on my social media pages because they refused to see me as a human being and were constantly pushing my buttons.) It's sad that social media is the way that it is where it can not only bring people together but also divide us. Whatever happened to agreeing to disagree on opinions? What about taking the time to listen to one another or read comments with being judgmental? (I'm guilty on both of those counts, but I am trying to get better at being more understanding and empathetic to others.) If we truly want to reach out to others with our stories, experiences, and issues that mean a great deal to us, please do so with compassion, not hatred. Do so to bring fans and colleagues together, not divide us to the point where we can't stand each other. Do so with patience and a willingness to learn from each other, not with hellfire ignorance and prejudice. Do so with open minds, not be so set in your ways that you aren't willing to see things from a different point of view.

(NOTE: I'm not saying celebrities have all of the knowledge or answers to the world's problems. We should trust doctors, scientists, professors, and leaders who care about the well-being of our society and want to help us. But we should also take into account that no matter what the profession is, their voice matters. At least take the opportunity to listen, understand, and respect one another.) And finally, to quote a line from Cinderella: Have courage and be kind.

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