D.C. is magic. Even though I was born and raised in the area and continued to return long after my father’s job moved us west and then south, I didn’t always see it that way. Growing up, D.C. was catching fireflies on my grandmother’s front lawn, trips to the Natural History Museum with my father (the “Dinosaur Museum” I called it, since I only wanted to see those ancient monsters’ bones) and huge family gatherings at my uncle’s house. As the adults ate potato salad and watched the Redskins downstairs, my cousin and I played and talked in her room. I’m an only child and she is the closest thing I have to a blood sister. Returning to D.C. has always been a return home, but back then, it still wasn’t magic.
When I graduated from college in 2009 — clinging so tightly to my BA in technical theatre that my head hurt and my heart burned — I knew it was my best chance to finally, permanently, go home. New York was too big, noisy and intense for my quiet, Southern heart. Chicago was too cold and too far. Los Angeles was only for people who wanted to make movies. In D.C., I had the strong sense of love and stability one can only find within a close-knit family and seemingly endless opportunities to advance my career. Yes, New York is technically the theatre capital of this country and home to Broadway and the Tonys, but who needs all that pomp and noise? In 2009, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company produced Full Circle — Chuck Mee’s adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle — mere blocks away from where the Shakespeare Theatre Company staged their rendition of Ben Jonson’s play, The Alchemist. By some stroke of luck, my childhood home contained the perfect blend of theatrical innovation and tradition. I couldn’t think of any place better to spend the next 20 years.
Yet you cannot build a new life on nostalgia. Living in D.C., I started discovering dark streaks in a city of gleaming marble, chunks of rot that I never saw when I was under my parents’ protection. Suddenly, when I walked to the playgrounds I loved, I had to deal with sleazy men catcalling from their cars. The Metro used to mean trips downtown with my dad, now it only meant harassment from homeless men who wanted my dollars and my dinner. Giving them what they asked meant I was naive and easily duped, but saying “no” made me feel hard and cruel. I felt a depression growing and turned to theatre to keep me safe.
At the time, I was working at my first internship as a shop assistant for the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Unlike D.C., I always knew theatre was magic: ordinary people collectively telling extraordinary stories with their bodies and meagre resources, allowing characters and locales to become real before a willing audience’s eyes. As a techie, I loved being the rabbit inside the proverbial magician’s hat, a silent yet necessary cog in making the story work. It was no different at Woolly. I came in as a theatre electrician and the scene shop staff turned me into a half-decent carpenter. I learned to confidently wield an array of power tools (so much so that when my boyfriend was remodeling his kitchen he handed me the jigsaw), build platforms and flats and even weld! The really good days were when I was sent to the paint deck to help texture or paint a piece of scenery I’d just helped build. With the scenic charge’s music quietly humming through the air, I could get lost in the color I was layering on and happily shut out the world for a little while.
Despite my best efforts at Woolly, I quickly learned I wasn’t meant to be a carpenter. I was too timid and the stress of living in D.C. made my timidity worse. Exhausted from fighting my slow, quiet nature to keep up with the daily demands of my job and my home, I retreated into my books for relief. A year later, I decided to stay in them. I quit everything: theatre, D.C., my family and my American friends to go to London and earn my master’s degree in the study of religions. I always knew that when I decided to settle down, I would give up the nomadic theatre life and become an academic. Suddenly, at 23, a switch went off in my head. My heart piped up and said, “It’s time.” I wasn’t meant to go back to D.C. or theatre.
I did, though. My master’s program in England ended, my visa expired and I needed a job. I couldn’t find one in my field or where I lived and working in theatre is like riding a bike: you never truly forget how it works. I also genuinely missed working backstage — the rush of silently padding through the darkness while running a show, the weird peace I felt when I focused a light and the sense of strength I got from hauling two 100’ multicables across a space. I was Odysseus and theatre was a siren, luring me to a city I’d come to hate and fear. Yet, despite all that, I finally learned: D.C. is magic.
When I was younger, I thought D.C. was a pure, innocent unicorn wandering an enchanted forest. It wasn’t until I returned the last time that I realized the city is the same kind of magic as theatre: a ragtag magician, his threadbare velvet cloak hiding doves and lovely assistants. Yes, I still balked when a homeless man asked me for money and my skin still crawled when a creep tried to flirt with me on the Metro, but for the first time I learned to see D.C.’s wonder for myself. Submerged in the theatre world, I had the privilege of exploring the usually crowded Library of Congress before it opened to the public. My footsteps echoed on the marble floors and my heartbeat whispered to the ceilings painted with stars, muses and authors. I had to arrive at 6 a.m. to set up lights for a corporate event, but it was worth it. At Synetic Theater — a company focused on exploring the intersections of dance and theatre — I watched awestruck as my friends transformed into moon dogs, faeries, sorcerers, musketeers and Athenians to tumble and leap across the stage. At Signature Theater in Shirlington, I came in one morning to discover that the carpenters were loading in real airplane pieces rescued from an airport’s junkyard. It wasn’t just one piece, but entire wings, bodies and cockpits strewn across the stage for the set of Miss Saigon. Where else does that happen?
The D.C. theatre world also gave me friends that, on my last night in the city, took me out for pizza, drinks and fresh-made donuts at Matchbox in Chinatown. They drove me home that night and they’re still the only D.C. residents to see where I lived. These were friends who invited me over for empty-apartment parties to play “Crimes Against Humanity” on a bare hardwood floor. They made me excited to go into work every day, despite the nagging anxiety in the back of my brain that insisted I didn’t belong. When I wasn’t with them, I was rummaging through places like the Spy Museum and the Museum of American Art or snorting a graphic novel I picked up from Kramerbooks in DuPont Circle. I was riding a bike-share bike up Capitol Hill in the gathering twilight, fireflies winking on the Capitol steps. I was writing for Realcity!
Living in D.C. as a theatre tech was never a perfect fit. I know I’m absolutely making the right choice in moving to England to pursue my PhD. In less than a week I’ll go to Hull, England to start my thesis on the Disney Princess franchise and how it impacts gender norms in American culture. I’m ecstatic: I get to be a giant, unapologetic nerd for three years and I’ve never felt so at home in my own skin. Yet…I’ll miss the magician that is the D.C. theatre world. He has more tricks and more stories than I could ever fathom. My heart twists to know I won’t be there to witness them all.