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Shifting the spotlight

Sophomore searches for balance in tough year

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Shifting the spotlight

Leazer warms up with his troupe before their group acting performance at Texas Thespians Festival in November.

Leazer warms up with his troupe before their group acting performance at Texas Thespians Festival in November.

Photo by staff

Leazer warms up with his troupe before their group acting performance at Texas Thespians Festival in November.

Photo by staff

Photo by staff

Leazer warms up with his troupe before their group acting performance at Texas Thespians Festival in November.

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It’s 6:30 on Thursday night. He walks out of the black box theater after rehearsal, exhausted from directing for hours. But today isn’t just any Thursday. A freshly-posted cast list awaits at the end of the hall, and his heart beats faster every inch he gets closer to it. The names on the paper just barely in sight, he braces himself for whatever fate the list holds… But his heart already knows what’s coming. Things just aren’t the same this year.

Matt Leazer, drama club president and theater student since the sixth grade, has auditioned for every lead role. But he isn’t a Romeo, nor a Greek hero nor a dying man with a story. He’s Gaston’s sidekick, a blind profit, a ringleader in the circus, a tinman. Regardless of line count, Matt owns the role every time he steps onstage.

But this year, Matt’s spotlight has shifted. 

Photo by staff
Leazer rehearses a scene from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” with junior Sam West at the Texas Thespians Festival in November.

Throughout his life Matt has played many roles on and off stage – son, brother, student, friend, director, club president, actor. But this year, he’s had to step into a different role. One that has taken a toll on both his acting career and mental health and given him a very real perspective on problems no one ever saw coming.

Summer for the average 16-year-old consists of days by the pool and going out with friends on Friday night and sleeping in until noon. Matt, however, spent the summer taking care of his brother while he recovered from a brutal broken ankle.

The first weeks of school weren’t much better. Matt was in and out of the hospital as his mom battled pancreatic issues. After enduring months of family strife, a chance for the spotlight presented itself once again. Matt earned a role “Big Fish” and the problems he faced at home seemed to fade in the wings. Then, yet another crisis struck the Leazer family.

“Once it seemed like the coast was clear and everything was going good, and I had finally nailed the singing bits,” he said. “I remember going home and then I got a call from my grandma and it was in a voice I’d never heard before and she was telling me to go get my mom. So I raced downstairs and went to go get my mom and handed her the phone.”

After falling down the stairs, Leazer’s grandfather, 74, severely broke his leg. Already battling diabetes, his immune system wasn’t strong enough to heal the leg, and doctors decided to amputate it from the knee down.

Photo by Staff
Sophomore Matt Leazer performs in a scene from “Big Fish” as Amos Callaway, the werewolf ringmaster.

“That was brutal, because I thought I was about to lose Grandpa and there’s not a lot of death in my family, thank goodness, but it was a very real-life moment.  Because for the past three months my entire life was “Big Fish” and I didn’t care about anything else, so that kind of brought me back down to reality,” Leazer said. “And seeing my mom like that, she had a breakdown, and then in turn I had a breakdown, and I had to put my mental health and my family’s health over the show, and I don’t regret it.”

A good actor is reliable, and that just wasn’t a role Matt could play on top of everything else. When the cast list came out, he wasn’t surprised by not making it, but was still disappointed. Rejection is something every actor faces, and Matt’s no different.

“It’s frustrating at times. It feels almost like you’re a surfer and you’re waiting for the right wave to come, but the wave never comes and you just keep getting closer to shore and you’re like ‘well, now I gotta swim all the way back out there’ and it’s a whole thing,” Leazer said about the audition process.

Because Matt wasn’t granted a spot onstage, he dedicated himself completely to the production offstage. In the fall semester alone he directed “A Christmas Carol” and was the stage manager for “Twelve Angry Jurors,” both of which were very successful.

“I tend to be more of a behind-the-scenes guy as of lately because it’s just easier to,” he said. “It’s easier to inspire people to work harder when you’re working along with them and it’s easier to see a vision of a play whenever you’ve seen how both sides of it work in acting and in tech.

With directing my own play, I had to be a leader just as much as with drama club if not more, because it’s, you know, you’re in school,  you’re going through your day and all of a sudden you’re a director for 45 minutes and it’s the most stressful 45 minutes of the day.”

Transitioning into tech-based roles wasn’t particularly thrilling to Matt at the time, but as always he put in as much as he could into his craft and still managed to shine offstage. Among all of his success as a director and stage manager, Matt’s spotlight continued to neglect his homelife and mental state, and the darkness outside of theater only grew.

“Another hard part of balancing theater and home life is you get home at 6:30, 7:30, 8 [p.m.] sometimes and you have to immediately do school work, get all your school work done, because you know if you don’t pass you don’t get to be on a show.

My mom would go to sleep early and I would be up all night working on homework and so I would get run down and then I wouldn’t be able to see not only my mom, but my stepdad. And so then it kind of takes a toll of like ‘Oh my God I’m just living in this house all alone doing these things, I’m an autonomous work machine,’” he said.

Family problems. Rehearsal. School work. Anxiety. Depression. Matt was being buried alive, each shovelful of struggle pushing him farther under until there was nothing left to see or feel.

“It’s crushing and it’s bad. Life is, life is a lot. One of the things a lot of people don’t realize with depression is they think depression is just being sad, you know, feeling down. It’s a lot of just feeling nothing. It’s a lot of being an empty shell and watching yourself live your own life,” Leazer commented on his mental state.

Sitting in the pit of his own mind, Matt finally decided to dig himself out and push away all the dirt that had built up around him. The journey won’t be easy, but it’s something Matt has learned to appreciate as he delves deeper into himself.

“I think it’s important especially in our education system with how stressful it can be to just take a step back and focus on yourself because you come first.”

Matt is considering an at-home education program,where he will be able to focus on his mental health. Matt is willing to stay home as long as it takes to be healthy again.

“This way I won’t get too much social anxiety, because most of the days it’s like I can’t even find the energy to get out of bed. You know like ‘what’s the point?’ But with only having to go downstairs it’ll be a lot easier to get my education, keep my grades up, and hopefully repair some of my mental health,” Leazer said.

Matt is no stranger to struggle, whether it’s being denied the lead role, helping his family in crisis, falling behind in school, or battling depression behind closed doors. He can’t fix everything at once, but can definitely work to fix himself, and stepping away from the spotlight so his mental health can take center stage will do just that.

Most of his problems – falling behind in school, losing bonds with family, and especially not being cast stem from his depression, which is why Matt is taking a step back.

“As an actor you have to be in tune with your own emotions in order to portray anything interesting. And I think that’s actually been a pretty hard part of my audition process with a couple shows is I get up on stage and I just phone it in,” Matt said. “I’m not really there, I’m just reading the words because it’s hard to emulate someone else’s emotions when you can’t even summon up emotions for yourself and the things you’re feeling.”

Learning that success isn’t possible without a healthy mind has been Matt’s biggest takeaway from this past year, and he’s going to the root of the problem so he can play every role in his life just that much better. Matt’s spotlight isn’t dimmed, just in a different place in his life that needs it most. The next time a cast list is stapled to the wall, he knows that the healing he does offstage is the key to rising to his truest role once again.

“Being an artist as a role and trying to balance life and school responsibilities while also keeping my integrity is pretty difficult, so in order to be an artist you have to take in all the life around you and you have to moderate what is art and what is life and how you’re living.”

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