Take a Walk In An Actor’s Shoes

I am an actor who is excited and impassioned by storytelling. I need this craft because I believe in it, because I see how it can purify the world, enlighten a heart, and unburden a mind.

As a little girl, I was painfully shy. I ached to make connections with people but I never knew quite how to express myself. Theatre taught me just how I could do that.

I bolted onto my first stage at the age of ten. My character, Oksana Auf Gen Dozen Bach Du Boise En Dorfer, was a hilarious evil Russian sidekick. Onstage, I was fearless, silly, and fabulous! I loved acting. I loved painting the stage with such a vibrant, fun character, and I loved even more that I was able to tell a story to an audience. I had this voice hidden inside me all along, and through theatre, I was able to express it, and entertain people. I soon set my heart on pursuing a career in the arts. I knew I wanted to be a part of this craft that transformed people for the better. I wanted to tell the kinds of stories that helped heal and comfort others. Maybe I could even inspire people to find their own voices by sharing my own.

This past August, I received an exciting offer to be a part of the revival tour of Walk in Our Shoes, a state-wide acting initiative to raise mental health awareness for students in schools all over the state of California. I would perform in a troupe of four across 22 counties for 23,000 students at 77 schools, for a total of 100 performances. I was officially cast in the role of Daniella. I couldn’t wait to begin rehearsing.

Daniella’s story broke my heart. She was bullied at school because she was new, and couldn’t escape the mean comments of her peers. They labeled her, taunted her, and called her fat. As a result, she felt she needed to change herself, and stopped eating. But she didn’t just stop here. She began to starve herself. She lied to her friends and pushed them away for questioning her behavior. She kept alone, and suffered tremendously for it. Finally, she bravely asked her mom for help, and together they went to a mental health professional for guidance. There, Daniella was diagnosed with anorexia. In due time, she overcame her eating disorder, and found extraordinary value in loving her body, and herself. She became strong and healthy, and now I had the responsibility of sharing her story with students all over California.

I knew very little about anorexia the first time I read the script. But as I traveled from school to school and performed Daniella’s story to different students, I came face to face with young boys and girls who were very close to this health challenge.

With tears in their eyes they would share with me what kind of struggles they had faced, and why they felt they had no choice but to stop eating too. Their courage in voicing their own personal challenges was inspiring. I will always remember this one boy who reached for my hand after a show, and told me I was his hero. He walked away and joined his class and I never saw him again.

I realized  I had a very different kind of responsibility to these children. I had to let them know deep within their hearts that help was always available, and that they were never alone in anything they faced.

I knew he was walking away with strength in his heart. I felt like he knew he had hope, and reasons to keep his chin up in whatever he was struggling with.

Another girl told me about her hospitalization after she stopped eating. She had been picked on in class for being overweight, and starved herself because of it. She became so emaciated that she had to be removed from school, and placed in the hospital to be fed through a tube for several months. Her body was deprived of the nutrients it needed to survive. She stood before me, dressed in hot pink sparkles with two curly pigtails, reliving every detail of her story with me. I was amazed that such a bright young girl could have ever gone through something so dark. She seemed so happy and carefree. She had this beautiful lightness about her. That’s when I realized – she didn’t let the past define her. She refused to let the words of her bullies – words that once caused her to hurt herself – hold any kind of power over her now. She chose to be this happy. She chose to overcome her past, and to share her story to give others hope. I admired her spirit.

Walk in Our Shoes taught me that connecting with a child is a gift. Being able to reach these kids and have them share their own experiences with me was remarkable.

They looked up to all of the actors on the tour. They saw us as people they could open up to and trust. They saw us play characters who weren’t afraid to be vulnerable and share their stories and that made them feel safe to come forward themselves. That safety means everything to a child, I think. It is important for schools to make it safe for children to come forward and speak up about things they might be struggling with. Perhaps we would witness a decrease in bullying if cases were reported earlier by students and stopped by listening adults. Counselors could assume a larger role in each student’s life. Students like me when I was younger, who are shy and timid, could feel comfortable talking with adults about their problems. Help would be available, and asking for it wouldn’t be quite so scary.

Walk in Our Shoes will always be a part of me. The children we reached will never be forgotten. They changed us, and helped us see just how important mental health awareness really is.

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned in the end is that everyone is fighting their own battle – everyone has a story. Compassion and empathy are the most powerful tools to change someone’s life.

To watch a highlight video of the performance click here. Learn more about Walk In Our Shoes at WalkInOurShoes.org.

Gina was born in San Antonio, Texas and has been acting for twelve years. She is currently starring as Rose Red in the B Street Theatre’s Family Series production of Snow White and Rose Red. An honors graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design, Gina holds a BFA in Performing Arts, and is excited to be showcasing her very first one-woman comedy show within the coming year.