A Supreme Court justice. The governor of New Jersey. Senator Ted Cruz. A prominent MSNBC host. Practically half the tech world. What’s behind this moment of thespian power?
By Madison Malone Kircher
Madison Malone Kircher has performed in 18 musicals.
Muttering “thank you, five” under their breath when you swing by their cubicles to remind them about a team meeting happening in five minutes. Performing slightly too well at office karaoke after protesting slightly too much about getting onstage.
Former theater kids. They walk among us.
Technically, I should say we walk among you. I have a decade’s worth of unflattering photos of me in cakey makeup and a scar on my stomach from a quick “Grand Hotel” costume change gone awry to prove it. If I never participate in another massage circle again, it’ll be too soon.
What happens to theater kids when we grow up? There’s, of course, the dream scenario: The theater kids who are driven and talented and lucky enough become working theater adults.
Like Ben Platt, who in 2017 at age 23 became the youngest individual winner of the Tony for best lead actor in a musical, for his star turn in “Dear Evan Hansen.”
Mr. Platt’s fiancé is the actor Noah Galvin, who also played Evan Hansen on Broadway. (Yes, you read that right, the Evans Hansen are engaged.) And this summer, you can see the Evans Hansen onscreen in “Theater Camp,” a mockumentary inspired in part by Mr. Platt’s childhood experiences. Mr. Platt and Mr. Galvin are also two of the film’s writers.
The film’s success — Deadline described its opening weekend box office take as “notable” — suggests there is a paying audience, and a fairly wide one at that, hungry for theater kid nostalgia. Perhaps because most theater kids go on to become, well, pretty much anything but theater adults. And lately it’s seemed as if theater kids — the clichéd underdogs in high school — actually run the world. Everywhere you turn, there’s a former Annie or Gertrude McFuzz in charge.
Well before being appointed to the Supreme Court, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson participated in theater and improv as an undergraduate at Harvard, and was once paired with Matt Damon — then a student, now a Hollywood actor — in a drama class. (Mr. Damon did not recall this but thought it was “so cool,” The Associated Press reported.)
Senator Ted Cruz has been known to talk about his high school drama days, including playing Bill Sikes, the villain, in “Oliver!” (“It’s a fun role, and everyone cheers when you’re killed at the end,” Mr. Cruz said of the character, who beats a woman to death in Act II.)
Other former theater kids include the governor of New Jersey and the editor of New York magazine. The Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada taught high school drama.
All of these power-adult former theater kids exist in a moment when the very things that used to make drama-loving teenagers an easy punchline have become strengths. Today, performing an outsize version of oneself is often rewarded. The rise of remote virtual meetings have almost certainly favored people who like, or at least know how, to perform for an audience. They know how to do a slightly more exaggerated gesture, and have a willingness to energetically monologue into a silent void of faces staring back from boxes.
And a world increasingly mediated by tiny videos on platforms like Instagram and TikTok? Washed-up theater kids shine there, too.
“There’s a big moment for cringe happening right now, and say what you will about the theater kids, but we’re very good at cringe,” said Zoelle Egner, 34. Ms. Egner, who was the 11th employee at Airtable and now does marketing for the online safety start-up Block Party, was fired from her first role, as Cindy Lou Who, after she stopped midshow to tell the Grinch he was off his blocking. (She was 4.) Her peak came in eighth grade, when she played the titular role in “Hello, Dolly!”