A Mom's Journey Back to the Stage by Jennifer Kellett

One Saturday morning this past August, we gathered up the troops to go down to Stage Door for our two oldest girls to audition for A Lifetime of Christmas. It would be their fifth production at SDP, a place where they’ve come to feel right at home. As their time slots neared, however, our nine-year-old got a bad case of nerves, and it looked like she wasn’t going to be able to get up on stage. Once she’s past the audition phase, she never looks back and enjoys every moment of rehearsing and performing – but that’s a topic for a whole different blog post. In any event, as I stood there holding our toddler, I suddenly got the bright idea to go audition for the production with her. I figured if I could show her that I was also nervous but still found the courage to get up on stage, then she could do it, too. She very much liked that idea, and my husband gave me an atta-girl. So, with less than 10 minutes’ preparation and a broken toe to boot, I found myself on stage for the first time in more than 20 years, singing a Christmas song a capella in front of a room full of people and stumbling my way through about six eight-counts of brand-new choreography.

The girls auditioned. I auditioned. And the directors managed to lift their jaws from the floor just long enough to ask me if I was serious. I told them that surely I could manage to appear in one number if they thought I was good enough, but I never imagined I’d actually be cast. The following day, I received the news that they had not put me in one number, but a whole handful of them. I’d be singing in ensembles, dancing several times, and even singing a solo. What?!? 

Flattered beyond belief, I quickly got in touch with them and reminded them that I had an 18-month-old and a husband who travels frequently and unpredictably for work. I explained that, besides the fact that I am not exactly in my prime physically, there was no possible way I could commit to five-plus rehearsals each week. But they responded that they would help take care of my baby anytime I was on stage. Yes, really. They’d help take care of my baby. Then, my husband, when many men might immediately dismiss the idea, told me I could (and should, if I wanted to) do it. And then I looked at the faces of my daughters, their eyes sparkling in anticipation of the possibility that I’d be on stage with them – and, well, the decision was made.

My very first memories of life are sprinkled heavily with watching their Baba, my mother, act and sing in front of audiences: as Nellie in South Pacific, Maria in The Sound of Music, Anita in West Side Story, Nancy in Oliver, Agnes Gooch, Miss Hannigan, the list goes on and on. As a child, I also enjoyed being in productions and was lucky enough to be cast as a tiny little Siamese child in The King and I, Amaryllis in The Music Man, the lead in Snow White, and as Charlie’s mother in Charlie and Algernon. Ultimately discovering that I didn’t feel as comfortable acting, however, I turned all of my attention to dancing and singing. I appeared in numerous productions of The Nutcracker, as well as other ballet and tap productions, and perhaps most fun, as a part of a competitive jazz company. I sang with the Jonesboro High School Cameratas, which got to perform at Carnegie Hall with John Rutter conducting. 

During college, I took ballet for P.E. credit. One summer, I appeared in the chorus of Lil Abner. And one Christmas, I returned to The Nutcracker to play Fritz and Clara’s mother (with Fritz being played by none other than Kyle Dean Massey who has now starred as Pippin on Broadaway!). But after that, I did not consider the possibility that I would ever appear on stage again. Instead, I went on to law school, got married, had three children, and began juggling all of the responsibilities a working mother has to juggle. I asked for a beautiful acoustic guitar and got it, but I never managed to take a single lesson or spend any real time learning to play more than just a few chords. I continued to play the piano for stress relief but just when I could grab five minutes here and there. Although my husband encouraged me to, I rarely took yoga or dance classes or even spent any time working out. I felt guilty taking any time away from the girls that I didn’t already have to be away from them working. In short, my life became all about making sure everyone had plenty of outlets to express themselves but ignoring the fact that I needed a little of that, too.

So when this opportunity arose, I was both thrilled and intimidated. Let’s face it: I do not weigh what I weighed 25 years ago. I’ve had and nursed three babies. I can no longer do the splits or triple pirouettes. What about these very real nerves that attack me every time I sing at church? And what about my terrible, awful short-term memory? Could I memorize lyrics and new dance steps? Would I really be able to do this?

As rehearsals started, my doubts grew even more. I couldn’t remember any of the dance routines to save my life. I heard myself land every step on the floor, much harder than the rest of the dancers – wonderful young dancers I could have easily given birth to who initially called me Mrs. Kellett. To my horror, I had to be lifted and dipped by my dance partners, which meant I had to forget about the scales and just trust those sweet guys to hold me up. Many run-throughs felt like a Carol Burnett skit where I was clumsily one or two moves behind everyone else. And when the time came for me to sing my solo in front of everyone, I thought my heart would pound right out of my chest. My palms sweat, my hands shook, and all breath totally left me. I was not ready for prime time, to be sure.

But then something cool started to happen. I began to internalize why my girls feel so at home at SDP. Even when I had doubts that I could do what was being asked of me, everyone around me knew I could – other cast members, directors, and other moms and dads. They encouraged me. They forgave me. They accommodated me. They cheered me on. They called me Mom. And they allowed me to be vulnerable for the first time in a long time. Once I got to that point, everything else started to improve, bit by bit. It wasn’t all easy from there, but just as I would feel like I couldn’t do it, someone would buoy me up. Just as I felt awkward and old and fat, I would look down at my sweet daughter sitting on the steps at the front of the stage, resting her chin on her hands and staring up at me like I was the best dancer she’d ever seen. It was pretty darned magical.

I won’t lie and say that it happened very far in advance of opening night, but I did finally memorize all of the steps and words. Thanks to muscle memory, some of my prior dance ability sneaked back in. And each time I held the microphone for my solo, I became more confident. Most of all, I believed that it was ok for the spotlight to be on me every once in a while.

Six weeks of rehearsal, one TV appearance, and eight live performances later, it was all over, and life at our house returned to normal. No more rushing out the door to rehearsal every night, having to leave my husband with a plate of food and the baby. No more performance anxiety and quite a few less things to juggle. But there is also no more giggling in the dressing rooms with all the new girlfriends I made, no more sparks of excitement getting ready to step out on stage with partners I learned to trust, no more twirling my girls around backstage, and no more spotlight.

The girls are back at SDP, currently in rehearsals for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and next up is Fiddler on the Roof. There’s a little part of me that wishes I were in it with them, but there is plenty of time for that down the road. Maybe even when our youngest wants to climb on stage with her sisters. Right now, I’m just grateful that I was given the opportunity to find the creative girl inside this woman’s body and let her remind me a thing or two about how I want to live my life. In 2016, I’m continuing my journey back to physical fitness, and I’m carving out a little time for myself every day. I will be doing lots more playing, singing, and dancing, even if it’s only at the gym or in the comfort of my own home. And everyone who lives here with me will be better off because of it.

If you have a similar little performer living inside that yearns to express herself in some small way, I cannot encourage you enough to let her out. And if you need a safe place to do it, you need look no further than Stage Door Productions where you’ll find an encouraging family like no other. Your spotlight is waiting.


Special Guest Blogger

Jennifer Kellett is a native of Jonesboro, Arkansas, but has called Memphis home for the last 15 years. She is an attorney and a certified lactation counselor. She and her husband, Brian, have three daughters, Abigail (12), Catherine (9), and Elizabeth (22 months).