For many performers, acting is a way to make their voices heard. For others, it’s a way to learn about the human experience and to take away lessons.
For Christi Campbell, it’s about both.
“I was always ridiculously comfortable in front of people as a kid,” she says, “and once I got my first taste of being on a real stage, it became a passion and a permanent part of who I was.”
She took inspiration from her father, a Methodist pastor who performed in high school theater and is a gifted speaker and storyteller.
“Like me, he is stupidly comfortable in front of people,” she says. “I use that phrase because it’s absolutely stupid to be comfortable in front of a large group of people but nervous in front of two or three you don’t know. But that is true of us both.”
While a high school freshman, her family moved to Monon, Indiana, and to relax after a long day of travel, they decided to take in a student performance of Oklahoma! at the North White High School. They were impressed by the size of the theater for such a small town and even more impressed by the quality of the performance.
“From that moment,” she says, “it was my dream to be in their next show.”
Although not a singer, Campbell auditioned for their next production, the musical Once upon a Mattress. She admits to being completely out of her depths and ill-prepared for the experience, but was thrilled to be cast.
“It was more than enough,” she says. “I sang in the ensemble and helped backstage with props. It was the time of my life. I was introduced to a magical backstage world and I’ve been hooked since.”
She performed all through high school, including summer shows, and she joined a traveling theater group in college. She attended the University of Indianapolis and Purdue, studying writing and communication with a focus on psychology.
She met her future husband during her studies, and after having three children she took a long break from theater to focus on her family. She currently works as a freelance writer and blogger for Moms Fort Wayne. She also has a personal blog, Ditching the Masks, in which she discusses some of the personal struggles both she and her family are going through, including Chiari malformation (“my brain tissue does not fit into my skull correctly, causing pain and other challenges”).
Recently, however, after a 17-year break, she felt the draw of the theater again. Despite her challenges, she was determined to revisit her passion.
So far she has performed in six shows at First Presbyterian Theater, including their current production, The Savannah Disputation, in which she plays Melissa, a spunky, over-eager Southern evangelical missionary.
She has enjoyed getting to know Melissa and finds her character’s struggle similar to her own.
“She is perky and confident, excited and super happy,” she says. “She is willing to get doors slammed in her face over and over because she doesn’t want anyone to go to hell. Her real flaw is her fear of failure. I so get that. That is my biggest hang up in life, my fear of failure.”
Campbell’s own struggles have made her somewhat reticent in new situations. However, she says she has found a home at First Presbyterian Theater.
“It’s meant a lot to me and my whole family,” she says. “My daughter has become part of the behind-the-scenes family there. They are supportive, unquestioning, and they just care. They are a blessing in our lives.”
Nevertheless, she is eager to see what the other groups in town have to offer.
“I’d love to get a chance to romp at least once on each stage around town,” she says, “to get a feel of each space and the audience reflected back in it. The flavor of the community is different in every venue, and I love that.”
For now she is enjoying working with her First Presbyterian family in The Savannah Disputation. With just four cast members – married couple Meg and Jonathan Brouwer, Nancy Kartholl (who is married to director Thom Hofrichter) and Campbell – the group is particularly tight-knit.
“The cast is small, and this has led to more of a ‘family closeness’ than I’ve had before,” Campbell says. “It’s just been amazing.”
She compares nightly rehearsal to “taking a college level acting class” and cites Kartholl as one of her top acting role models, along with another frequent First Pres actress, Kate Black.
“I admire their performances and techniques,” Campbell says. “When I see them in a show, I take in every moment, almost like a student takes in a lecture, tucking it away for future reference. Mostly I admire them for their human real side. They are constantly growing and wanting to be more.”
The other lessons she is taking away from the theater experience have been more surprising to Campbell. Through performing, she says, “I’ve found I’m stronger than I ever knew.”
She says she generally feels more confident onstage than off, but she is learning to bring that confidence with her when she leaves the theatre.
“I knew there was this strong, fearless, kick-ass side of me,” she says. “Performing has allowed me to give her a voice and legs.”
One character that she found particularly therapeutic was one of the three women she played in last year’s First Presbyterian Theater play, Mrs. Packard. Her character was an unnamed patient in a 19th century mental asylum, and she was called on to scream in terror during one scene.
Like several of the women in the play, which was based on the actual journal of a former patient, her character was perfectly sane but had been forcibly admitted to the asylum by a husband who simply disagreed with her ideas.
“She was driven mad by being there,” says Campbell. “I made up a whole back story for her, because she needed a reason to scream her head off every night. I called it ‘scream therapy.’ It was actually very good to unleash all life’s frustrations rather than bottle them up.”
She likewise appreciates working with other actors who take new things away from theatrical experiences.
“I especially love working with actors who recognize that we do this for enjoyment and fulfillment,” she says. “It’s about having fun and growing as a person. People who love to grow, laugh and help me learn a thing or two about myself and the craft are my favorite people.”
Campbell also continues to use what she learns as an actor in her writing.
“I love to write fiction and create worlds that are very real and characters that are flawed and relatable,” she says. She plans to publish her first book this year and has three more in the works.
Her personal blog is something she is also becoming more passionate about.
“It’s slowly becoming a platform for me,” she says, saying that the challenges she writes about there are “harder than any stage production.”
But, she says, “without the theater, I’d become lost. It’s how I can come back home fresh and be a better mom. Doing something that makes me come alive is the best thing I could do for my kids.”