March 29

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On Theater Vs. Book Nerds by Janet Key

Even before I was a loud-and-proud, card-carrying book nerd, I was an all-out, full-tilt-boogie theater nerd. The thing about being a book nerd is it kind of depends on being able to read, which might take a few years of life to figure out. But a theater nerd? We’re born whenever the lights drop and that first curtain rises. As a younger sibling, I was probably still in diapers when I first got introduced to a dance recital or community musical or school play, and I imagine my parents had to hold me by the ankle so I didn’t crawl onto the stage then and there. Around the same toddler time, my grandfather informed my parents that I had just read him a picture book and might be a genius. I hadn’t read it, of course. I had memorized it and then performed the book for my grandfather – with the character voices, naturally.

As I got older, though, I was surprised when some of my fellow book nerds seemed determined to diverge from my theater compatriots, and vice versa. The book nerds needed quiet and cozy armchairs and the smell of old paper. They clung to their introvert status like it might get snatched away by a breezy extrovert. Theater people were the same, but opposite. They wanted open space and a spotlight. They took the word “loud” as a compliment. Some even proudly told me that they didn’t read the plays they performed in at all, just their lines, and I don’t know that my heart has ever hurt so much. How could it be that I was a shy, introverted bookworm…right up until the moment I stepped on stage?

Still, I never felt conflicted about being both a book nerd and theater nerd – and still don’t! – because there’s one very strong commonality between the two: a love of story. Some stories come to life privately, in the quiet confidence created between one book to one reader; other stories are meant to be witnessed and reveled in with a room full of strangers. Regardless, for the length of an hour or a couple hundred pages, they make things that don’t exist in this world very, very real. That’s the most honest definition of magic that I know.

In many ways, my middle grade novel TWELFTH started here: with a desire to write a book that that captured the magic of the theater. How being on stage, singing, dancing, and pretending to be someone else felt like an escape but also an evolution, opening a new pocket of empathy in myself; how the stories in and from the theater world are some of the most interesting I know; and how thrilling it feels to be in a space where anything can – and frequently does – happen, onstage and off.

But unlike me, my main character Maren is unwilling shunted off to theater camp. She is in no way prepared for the loud, energetic theater people who suddenly populate her life – including her camera-toting, cinema-fact-spouting, nonbinary bunkmate Theo – and feels like her banishment is a punishment for being the good kid, so that her parents can focus on her older sister Hadley’s depression. Still, under all the hoopla, Maren can’t help but notice something is quietly amiss at the camp, and between a missing acting teacher, a legendary ghost with ties back to blacklist era Hollywood, and a hunt for a diamond ring, she can’t help but get drawn in – to the quest, and the theater world and people she’s been so resistant to. All of this is set against the backdrop of Twelfth Night, a play about love in its many forms and disguises.

People tell you to write what you know, but this always sends me into a bit of a self-deprecating panic. Better advice, I think, is to write what you love. I love the theater and books. I love Shakespeare and stories about strong women who aren’t afraid to carve a life out for themselves and clever kids who find a way to do the same. I love secrets and clues and happy endings with a bonus twist. And I’ve had years and years of stories and people and experiences to love and want to throw in this book, not just as a student of theater and writing, but also as a teacher. Suddenly I was remembering that school project I did in 9th grade on Charlotte Goodman, an actress who performed the male Shakespeare characters opposite her sister; she inspired one of the lead characters. How about Helen Gahagan Douglas, who I had been researching as an adult to write my own play? Of course she got dropped in. Even one of my best friends, who I met at a musical theater school when she was the absolute weirdest 12-year-old in the world? Well, Theo’s awesomeness had to start somewhere. 

So fellow book nerds – and maybe a crossover theater nerd or two out there – I’m so honored to offer you this book full-to-brimming with my love in many, many forms.

When Janet Key was twelve, she sang and danced onstage in the background of musicals, stayed up too late reading Shakespeare, and had a closet full of themed, handsewn vests. This is her first novel.