Under the Dazzling Stage Lights
Updated: Jun 25, 2020
| This is the 513th story of Our Life Logs |
Before I begin, let me tell you a few things about me. My name is Sushma. I’m a gender queer actor who loves to sing, dance, and shatter stereotypes. I’m just me, living a life that I carved out for myself. But things weren’t always so easy and rosy.
In the 1990s, my parents immigrated to the US from India and started a family. My sister came first, then I came three years later in 1998. I was born in the Bronx of New York but spent most of my childhood in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. My parents were both doctors, helping others for a living. Dad was a surgeon, and Mom was in internal medicine. Dad was finishing his residency out of state when we moved, so Mom was kind of like a single mom for a while, but she was such a social butterfly that many of her friends helped out and made me feel loved. My mom was my hero.
Like many kids, I was as hyper as a puppy and chatty as a parrot. Except, triple the intensity. You could find me running around randomly bursting into a song or creating impromptu dance numbers in the grocery store. I’m thankful I grew up with such a loving mother who never suppressed my energy. Instead, she encouraged me to funnel it into sports and theatre.
Not all my peers were keen on my eccentricity, but most of the time I was too much in my own world to care. That is, until the fourth and fifth grade. As some students hit puberty early and their bodies grew like weeds, I began to notice how different I was from the others. I was the only Indian in a predominantly white school where the image of beauty was blond and skinny. As a dark-haired, outspoken, chubby girl who was considered dramatic, I didn’t exactly fit the mold.
It became easier to care less about those differences in middle school. I realized that I had lots of family that loved me as I was, and that I didn’t need to change. But those differences were still present to others even if they didn’t seem to matter to me.
One place I could completely express myself was through music and theatre. In theatre, I could be as eccentric and dramatic as I wanted. In fact, it was encouraged! Under the dazzling stage lights, I came alive. All of me was onstage, and being around others who felt the same was invigorating. The certainty I felt performing was as constant as breathing. I knew I wanted to keep doing it.
I began attending theatre camps and getting more involved. I remember at one camp in middle school, we all sat around as our teacher told us if we were more suitable for the heroes or sidekicks. I was one of the two children of color at this camp. Both of us were dubbed sidekicks. The discouragement had to have been present on my face. With my bubbly personality and bravery, I wondered, why couldn’t I be a hero? And even more so, I wondered, why couldn’t I be both? Why did we have to be in such boxes?
At the end of that camp, we had a “graduation” ceremony where the teacher read off where they could picture us going in the future. I felt like I had really grown that summer as an entertainer and expected a high regard for a theatre school like the other kids. But instead, I was passively told, “You could be a singing doctor.” I was devastated, like all the air had left my lungs. It was commonly known that I’d come from a family of doctors, but her saying that made it feel like I wasn’t good enough to just be a singer. I remember going home and tearing up the certificate in frustration. Well, if she thought I couldn’t be a singer, I’d prove her wrong. When I got back to school, instead of auditioning for ensembles, I started going for the bigger roles where I could show what I was truly capable of.
My passion for theater was burning.
But then, as I grew older and looked closer at the theatre path, I knew there’d be a lot of risk pursuing it. As such, reality settled in, and I planned to go forward with medical school instead. That seemed to be the most natural thing to do. After all, both my parents are doctors. I thought it would be a smooth path.
However, as I entered high school, that became less promising. I began fighting a war with my mental health as I adjusted to all the changes happening around me. On top of starting somewhere new, my older sister had just left for college, classwork was ganging up on me, and—it was also the time I started struggling with my sexuality. I knew I wasn’t straight, but I wasn’t quite sure what label to give myself. That uncertainty along with all the other changes got to me.
I started to feel depressed and began getting panic attacks. It peaked when a semester-long project that I had saved on my hard drive got unexpectedly deleted right before it was due. I had to turn in nothing and get a zero. The devastation I felt in that moment triggered dark thoughts in me and killed my motivation. Homework assignments sat unfinished, classes became low priority, and studying wasn’t ever on my mind. I no longer cared. I knew I was letting everyone down, but I didn’t see much point in working hard if life was going to be so unfair because it wanted to be.
The only thing that could make me feel less hopeless during those days was singing up on stage. Throwing myself into theatre helped push out some of the dark thoughts plaguing my head. If I was in a role, I didn’t have to worry about my own problems. I had the character’s problems, a different set of shoes. It became an escape.
But the world liked to remind me of my differences. After a performance, I’d get approached by audience members. Usually they sang my praises and asked, “Are you going to pursue this as a career?” This made my heart soar. But there was almost always tack-ons or a follow-up question that made my heart sink as fast as it had risen. Either, “What’s your ethnicity?” or “What do your parents think of you acting? Aren’t you supposed to be a doctor or lawyer?” No matter how hard I tried to prove myself, the expectations and stereotypes from others always found their way to me. And it made me want to scream. Why did it matter what color my skin was if I had talent?
I reached my senior year and my grades remained abysmal. I felt even more like a disappointment knowing I could have improved my grades but chose to let the chance slip away. I realized my flimsy plan of going to medical school was not possible, not even because of grades, but also because I knew I couldn’t make it through all those years of schooling. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I wanted to be an entertainer with all my heart, but fear was keeping me from jumping off into the uncertainty.
As my mind was swimming in the cloudy waters of my future, my mom and sister sat me down to talk. I expected them to tell me to keep trying to go the medical route anyway, but to my surprise, my mother said, “Why don’t you pursue theater?” For context, in many Indian households, you’re expected to pursue careers like lawyer, engineer, or doctor. So to hear my mother tell me that I should pursue theater and that she wasn’t angry I couldn’t become a doctor felt like a massive boulder being lifted off of me.
“What if I fail?” I asked.
“We’d rather you try and fail than never try at all.”
At that, I burst into grateful tears. Having people in my corner who believed in me reminded me that all those differences I had made me special and that no one’s view of them mattered. If I wanted to do it, I should just go for it.
And so that’s what I did—I picked up my dream and went for it. And it paid off because I was accepted into the #2 school for theatre in Ithaca, New York, in 2016. That ranking didn’t really matter to me, but it made my parents very happy that I was accepted into a prestigious school for something considered “unconventional” to their friends and colleagues.
I encountered similar feelings of depression and displacement when I first started college, but this time around, I turned things around before my academic career suffered too much. And of course, I threw myself into theatre to cope.
As I became a part of more productions, I discovered that whatever role I had, male or female, I was comfortable and happy. I began thinking about my gender identity and have since decided that I am gender-fluid. I’m not straight and not cis, but I am okay with all pronouns. Coming to terms with that really helped me embrace all my differences. The things that people used to dismiss me, I was now using them as strengths to get roles in musical festivals and other productions.
I have just one semester left until I graduate, but I’ve spent this last academic year working in productions across the country. I was in a musical festival that had a world premiere in Minneapolis, another production down in Louisville. Obtaining roles in productions like these have only reinforced my belief that I was always meant to perform. The little girl singing in the grocery store who wanted to help people could help others feel seen and heard by being a good representation in the entertainment industry.
No one can take something from you if you love yourself and believe in what you’re doing. I’ve learned that even in moments where people want to demonize your differences, you must embrace them. Be your authentic self and not what others want, and you will find the happiness you crave. Doubt cannot control you if you do not let it in. I’m still working on that, but I know I will get there if I keep trying.
This is the story of Sushma Saha
Sushma currently resides in Pennsylvania with her family in the wake of COVID-19, but she intends to move to New York after finishing her last semester to begin pursuing theatre in one of the biggest theatre hubs in the country. A bubbly and outspoken child, Sushma always tried to be her authentic self through theatre, but when people started looking at her through her race or her “differences” she began to have doubts. As she got older, she decided she would do whatever it took to prove those people wrong and build a career in theatre. In her spare time, Sushma loves going on walks, listening to jazz and podcasts, and watching Mukbang videos. One of her favorite podcasts is You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes. In the midst of the COVID-19 quarantine, she’s been taking more time to look for remote opportunities in the theatre realm.
This story first touched our hearts on April 7, 2020.
| Writer: Kristen Petronio | Editor: MJ |
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