One of the first gay people I remember seeing in person was at my sister’s junior year high school musical. He was in the same year as her and had been in both of her previous shows. I had noticed him before, but as he bound across the stage in his Cat in the Hat costume something clicked. This was my “Ring of Keys” moment–a concept popularized by the musical Fun Home based on lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel of the same name where one’s queer coming of age first ignites. I watched, sitting on my knees to see above the heads of grown-ups in front of me in the Catholic school auditorium, and it clicked. As the Cat in the Hat offered my sister the Pillsberry Bush to help her Gertrude McFuzz tail grow impossibly long, I understood a deeper sense of myself purely from him existing and performing.
Ring of Keys
The moment when someone sees a living embodiment of their identity. Derives from a scene in the Tony Award-winning musical Fun House in which a young girl sees her ideal future self in a butch lesbian and her keys.
I didn’t start to love theater because of my queerness, but rather because of my deep love of my sister. I was consistently in awe of everything she did on stage. She was a ham and a half, and I would memorize her facial expressions and bodily comedy and perform my own versions of her numbers alone in my parents’ basement throughout grade school. It was transformative to be able to experience what I observed from the audience of my sister’s musicals by the time I reached high school. I was a proud alumnus of the Mallory School of Over-acting, and I applied every lesson I absorbed when I took to the stage. I always knew my family was proud of me when I was leaving the stage door and saw my mom with a bouquet of flowers and the rest of my extended relatives she wrangled to come see me perform cheering behind her. What I didn’t know just yet was that my acting bug had made some hesitant.
I had tagged along in the backseat of my uncle’s car for a trip to my grandmother’s a couple of hours outside of Pittsburgh. He put the car in neutral at Gravity Hill in Bedford–a pit stop on the way home. He looked at me through the rearview mirror and said, “You can do theater Drew, but it doesn’t mean you have to be gay. My son did theater just like your sister, and he isn’t. Don’t fall for the trap.” As the car began to roll uphill, my body sunk further into the seat.
A platonic connection with other gays was still something I lacked. I had some classmates and boys I had come out to online, but a leisure comfortability with other gay peers didn’t exist for me. I would swell in anxiety anytime a boy asked me to hang out or tried to push things beyond the virtual, a realm I felt I had control over. Most of my interactions with gayness at that point were more sexually based from internet pornography or secretly Snapchatting guys.
The summer heading into my senior year, I wanted to expand my experiences on stage beyond high school. I convinced my friend to audition with me for Side Show at Stage 62, a community theater based in Carnegie. I had been too afraid to audition for any of the shows earlier in their season, but after taking on a bigger role in our spring musical I got the boost of confidence I needed.
I walked into the basement of the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall in a baseball tee, jeans, some raggedy brown shoes, and a tattered binder with only one song tucked inside some plastic sheet protectors. My audition was horrible. The acoustics of the basement made my voice echo in a way I wasn’t expecting and I was constantly off tempo with the accompanist. I exited the room confident I had landed the lead role. I’m not a delusional person. Whatsoever.
My phone is on do not disturb mode 24/7 and has been since the feature was first released. Anytime I get a phone call, my heart feels like it’s about to vomit and the space behind my ears starts to sweat. I missed a phone call from an unknown number and listened to the forty second voicemail they left. I had made it into the show! Shocker:not as a lead but as a Roustabout,a sweaty, scraggly laborer for the sideshow. I called my friend to see if she had also been cast. The answer on her end was bad news. I would be venturing into the wild world of community theater all alone. Without the comfort of a close friend, I was unsure if I had even made the right choice in accepting the part.
I showed up to the first rehearsal unprepared. We were supposed to have picked up our music in Mt. Washington a few weeks before we started so we could become familiar with the score. I didn’t have my license at this point, and for some reason felt embarrassed to ask my parents to let them know this was something important to me. As I grabbed my music, I found a seat away from the main group. Everyone seemed familiar with one another as they had done shows together in the past. I was one of the youngest in the cast, which was primarily made up of people in their late twenties and thirties. I observed my castmates as we learned our harmonies.
It was the most gay people I had been with in one room at that point in my life. They weren’t behind a computer screen, but rather sitting in the folding chairs next to me singing Come Look At The Freaks as our voices poured through the open windows onto the street above. Suddenly, I didn’t mind being a part of the freak show.
I felt more comfortable as the rehearsals continued. I was lovingly referred to as “Drewbaby” by others in the cast. I was still in awe of not really feeling connected to a “gay community” and now having the chance to enjoy a few hours every day with such a wonderful group of people. There was J’Quay, the same age as me and another Roustabout, who would ferociously work on recreating the choreography from “Candy Store,” the clique-y bitch track from Heathers: The Musical, and Jessie the joyful gymnast who always had a big smile on his face even while doing a back handspring. There was Rob, the director, whose vision for the show magnetized everyone he had trusted to bring the show to life, and George, so tall and kind, who had gotten engaged early on in the rehearsals. I saw the news on Facebook and watched as he showed off the ring to everyone. All I wanted to do was say congratulations, but my anxiety held me back in fear a big glowing “GAY” sign would appear over my head if I told him.
It wasn’t just the gay men who made the show so special, but also the women who lifted me up and made me feel safe every day, like Jess who put me in her phone as the love of her life, and Kristin, always rocking a bold red lip. Becki, with book recommendations and a love of cozy pants. Lindsay, the dancer who showed me pictures of a boy she wanted to set me up with at a cast party, and Cara, who entrusted me to help her with her rapid-fire quick changes during the run of the show.
My own notions that I would be forever trapped in Pittsburgh in isolation and fear shifted over these weeks. The simplistic courage of each of these people taught me new ways of how I could see myself beyond the trappings of high school and the closet. Being at Stage 62 helped me deconstruct my own barriers. I realized it was okay to relax and loosen my hardened self-perception. The cast and crew wasn’t obsessed with finding out the particulars of my sexuality or letting this define me, a pressure I had experienced in so many other areas of my life. Being gay didn’t make me special or stand out there, but rather gave me space to exist beyond a simple label. I drifted away into the magic of theater as we all created a piece of work together.
Pride is not only about honoring the courage to be who you are, but to lift up the places that have helped you become that person. Seven years later, I am still feeling the ripples of being in that show. This thought really hit me a few weeks ago as I was at my castmate Kristin’s wedding, her lipstick now a gorgeous plum. So much of the Side Show family was there, singing love songs, sharing laughs over dinner, and busting moves to Whitney. I realized that I, too, was a part of this. I was no longer the boy sitting on his knees in the audience. A hand was outstretched and allowed me to join the warmth on stage.