Photos courtesy of Hannah Kahn and Natalie Spangle: “Jimmy Quinn ’16 enjoying PACE both on and off the stage.”
On a recent Saturday evening I found myself in the Palmer music room with my eyes closed, hands linked with the people around me in a circle that hugged the periphery of the room. It was the closing night of PACE’s annual Performing Arts Festival, the only show of the year in which non-Pacies like me participate, and also my first and final experience with MHS’s performing arts program.
This occasional pre-performance tradition, the Secret Dream speech, is actually a story about a theater that’s basically your home, where you spend all your time with “dear friends and tired colleagues” preparing for an unbelievably sublime performance. But someone tells you that a place like this only exists in your daydreams. Then you open your eyes; you’re surrounded by everyone you’d want to be with on this particular night, and you’re about to put on a kick-ass show.
A description like mine really can’t convey the ritual’s emotional punch, but even I could feel goosebumps creeping up my arms as the room came back into focus. Others who had participated in PACE for the entirety of their high school careers left the circle moist-eyed— as if they had just been awakened from that dream by the upcoming finale of their high school performance careers (I’ve been told that the year-end senior recital is essentially non-stop crying).
At first I decided to get involved with the show to try something new. Pacie friends promised that it would be fun (it was), but, above all, I wanted to escape the doldrums of senior year. So I went to rehearsals for several weeks and worked with some amazingly talented people on a product we were fiercely proud of in the end. My experience was all about trying a new activity, and I left it with an elementary appreciation of acting.
But on the first night of the show, about an hour before it began, another thought hit me: I began to realize that there’s something intangible about PACE; there’s an intense bond that makes the program different from so many other communities at our school. Just from the way my PACE classmates interact with each other, I had known this for a while. However, only by getting involved did I really force myself to reflect on it.
Sometimes, this camaraderie gives the program a bad reputation; it ends up contributing to the image of an ultra-cliquey quasicult with a share of school drama severely disproportionate to the number of MHS students actually in it. My sense is that some theatrics surrounding who got what part, competition for recognition and, of course, just typical teenager stuff is emblematic of PACE. In a few ways, this does make it a competitively cliquey.
But a natural cohesiveness among PACE students can’t be helped. After countless rehearsals and endless hours spent with a certain pool of people over a few years, you’re less colleagues than you are close friends. One PACE student countered the notion that the program is a cult by describing it as a family with real imperfections, insecurities and jubilant celebrations. In fact, the PACE lobby is the location at MHS where I am often least comfortable—not because of any deliberate hostility, but rather from the sense that I am a stranger sitting in a family’s living room. For the uninitiated it’s easy to feel alone.
In a filtered form, the insecurities of this family are literally brought center stage for the rest of the school to observe. When you write a play or song, you’re putting yourself out there; you’re allowing the outside world into your head. When you get up on stage, every move of your dance, line of your monologue and note of your song is presented to the audience for scrutiny. A powerful sense of fraternity is formed when you stick your neck out alongside others, and this essentially becomes a lifestyle for these students. The chronic but electrifying anxiety of being on stage isn’t something easy to abandon; it’s a jittery addiction fulfilled best alongside friends.
Today especially, putting oneself before a crowd to share a work of art is an act of boldness in stark contrast with the increasing strength of groups that no longer think for themselves. We live in the age of the mob, where masses of angry people fall in line behind cults of personality or an irrational fear of “the other” in the pursuit of goals set by their conductor, or where the less brilliant follow the ostensibly-but-not-actually brilliant in a pattern of boring, counterproductive non-contributions to society. It’s not only on the campaign trail; it’s in academia, the media, our institutions of government, education and the corporate world.
The type of intellectual courage displayed by PACE’s performers and artists—shared also by the architects of the gig economy, free speech advocates on college campuses and writers, lawyers and dissidents living under authoritarian regimes—is the only antidote to this crisis.
When you become a senior, there’s an excitement that wears off of the things that used to make up your sense of self at MHS. There aren’t any remaining upperclassmen to prove yourself to, no motivationally insurmountable triumphs left to achieve. You feel like you know everyone in your grade. The world ju
st seems a lot smaller, like how my native Chatsworth Avenue School is basically a nostalgiafilled dollhouse at this point. Maybe, though, we need to cling onto the things that we loved, no matter their increasing distance from us— or at least hold on to their most important characteristics.
A friend I was with the final night of the show asked person after person if they were satisfied with their PACE experience. They all gave him a similar answer about how they loved it despite some twists and turns but were ready to jump to the next thing. Each time, he nodded along and responded with a “Yeah same,” that didn’t convince me he was entirely ready to move on. Now I can appreciate why.
By Jimmy Quinn