How watching TV the day I left for college impacted the lives of thousands

An excerpt of this was first presented at Flick Lit: Reel-to-Real Storytelling for Movie Lovers, the Musicals! Edition, at Chicago’s Logan Theater. Performers shared personal stories about a musical film of their choice (Newsies, Purple Rain, RENT, and Flashdance) and its impact and their love/hate for a film (Grease). Some of us used projected images (sampling below).

Before each share, the host gave a synopsis of the chosen film and played a clip we had selected. In possibly the greatest moment of my life, the audience, without any prodding, began to not only sing along to my clip, but to change keys, harmonize, and slow-clap. 


In hopes that every facet of my ghastly life would change, I envisioned the perfect life. In which I, apparently, am named “Kelley,” sometimes with an e, sometimes without, nickname of “Leyley.” I thought about it, I wrote about it, I drew it.

Because pretty girls had straight hair and freckles, I fought my frizz with a curling-iron and dotted my face with an eyeliner. Because normal kids had braces, I unfolded a large paperclip, put it in my mouth, and voilà! I fit right in.

I exited my apartment via its side walkway in hopes that people would think I was coming from the house next door.

Tony and Maria, the Artful Dodger, those were my friends as I belted West Side Story and Oliver through my wooden spoon microphone in front of the hallway mirror.

Francie and twins Elizabeth and Jessica, those were my friends as I curled up with A Tree Grows In Brooklyn and Sweet Valley High.

For outside of the house fun, I played Oregon Trail and Carmen San Diego until library staff kicked me off the computer.

An invitation to Laura Nash’s birthday party, at her Sheridan Road house, with her button-nosed friends, was a surprise, a few and far between occurrence.

I carried around a photo holiday card from a third cousin I barely knew since he had married the mother of “Ben Seaver” from Growing Pains’. In hopes I could make friends through my six degrees of Kirk Cameron status.

In hopes he’d notice me at school, I wrote “Brandon Matthews. Please!” on a scrap of paper, wished really hard, put it in a gold jewelry box, and hid the box in the head of my bestest stuffed animal, Ducky-Poo. 2Though I would like to say I chose Boston College due to its strong academics, list of esteemed alum, or focus on community service, it’s fair to question if I chose Boston College because it’s a live-embodiment of a JCrew catalog. White, pretty, preppy, rich, always happy. I aspired.

Just as Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird, aspired for her dad: “I wanted him to have a regular job where he put on a necktie and went off somewhere with other fathers and sat in a little office and smoked.” Perfection.


In August 1996, at age seventeen, as we waited for the taxi to take us to the airport to move me into my frehsman year dorm, I watched TV. The TV I bought for $450 with my babysitting money since Mom refused the normalcy of a TV.

A morning talk-show came on. And the next few minutes, I was mesmerized and moved and though I didn’t know it at the time, impacted forever, in a way that would not only affect me but thousands of others.

As the cast of RENT, live outside one of the New York TV studios, sang Seasons of Love.


1996. What did it look like?

  • Album of the Year: Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morissette
  • Song of the Year: “Kiss From a Rose,” Seal
  • F.B.I. arrests the suspected Unabomber
  • TWA Flight 800 crashes moments after its NY takeoff killing all 230 people on board
  • The Bulls are champions (again)
  • Atlanta Olympic Games, including the shoe-bomber
  • Dole vs. Clinton faceoff; Clinton prevails
  • Deaths: Ella Fitzgerald, Tupac Shakur
  • Movies: The English Patient, Fargo, Jerry Maguire
  • Books: Angela’s Ashes
  • Clinton appoints Madeleine Albright as first female US secretary of state
  • Pulitzer Prize for Drama: Jonathan Larson, RENT


Upon arrival at school, I bought the double CD soundtrack at Tower Records on my first trip to Newberry Street. I bought the double CD soundtrack again at another point in college as the CDs began to skip due to grimy, pawing fingers, both mine and those of my friends who’d borrowed it.

I lived in a house with twenty others. Thus RENT also became their 1996 soundtrack, as I played it on repeat, and being an only child, didn’t consider the volume or repetitiveness or if they wanted to hear Roger and Mimi croon.


Our house was also decorated in the RENT-motif. I printed lyrics and taped them to whatever wall space I could reach.

I was incensed when a housemate’s boy-toy came to visit and asked me why I had Spice Girls on the wall.

I replied in disgust, “They say, ‘If you want my future, forget my past.’ This says ‘There is no future, there is no past.’”



I can’t remember how many times I’ve seen RENT. Definitely more than five, less than eleven.

The first time was freshman year in Boston. One of my housemates accidently tripped me en route. Which is why I saw RENT with torn pants and a gushing knee wound. When I went to the infirmary the following day, as the nurse cleaned out the imbedded pebbles, she tsked, “If you’d have come in sooner, we would’ve done stitches.” Well… I was busy.

The second time was back home in Chicago that same year over holiday break.

The third time was in New York that same year over spring break. Mom wanted to see some weird off-Broadway play no one had ever heard of, so that’s what she got us tickets to. RENT was sold out by the time we got to town. I was infuriated. Inconsolable, I got up at the crack of dawn to navigate the subway by myself to wait in the April chill outside the theater for rush tickets, the $20 front row seats, limit two, that went to the real fans who stood in line all day, who knew every word, every pause, every harmony, who waited in the lobby post-show for pictures and autographs. Which is how I saved the day and the entire trip, really. Instead of only going to some basement “hesitate to even call it a theater” theater where supposedly three men were going to use a mix of technology and drums and weird items to convey social messages. It sounded ridiculous and not something that anybody would ever like or that would ever become a thing. Ech. Mom was so out of touch.

To top it off, the men were all dressed in black, their bodies painted blue. I mean, what?

The fourth time was in Boston, sophomore year, with my best friend “sister I never had” who had decided to transfer from BC. I was devastated. RENT was our last hurrah. Generally I frown upon property destruction. But Leslie moving, RENT – I was overcome with emotion. The world owed me. The armrest between us was loose. I ripped it off its hinges, stuffed it in my purse, and riding the T home, we signed and dated it and swore to be BFF.


The film version came out eleven years after my first live show. It was lovely to relive both the play itself and the memories of life as an eighteen year old. That coupled with the fact that I was five years post-college and entrenched in adulting, an existence so different from my BC days, a bucket of fresh emotions dumped itself on me.

Many aspects of the real world were more difficult than I thought they would be, than I thought they should be —

  • Dating
  • Making friends
  • Personal growth
  • Not drowning in a puddle of mundane
  • Taking advantage of bustling Chicago, where everyone else seemed to be doing and winning and living, while I drank Bud Light at Kincade’s

There had to be more.

If RENT taught me anything, it taught me “No day but today.” So instead of thinking about doing, I began to do.



When I wanted to run a 5K but was nervous because I was chunky and had never run more than a mile in my life, I instead ran a marathon. 3 miles, 26 miles, equally scary; why not go big?

IMG_1957 copy IMG_1951 copy

When I wanted to play guitar publicly after years of classes though playing guitar publicly sounded like the worst thing ever cause let’s be honest, I still struggled with D and G, instead of finding a seedy Tuesday night dive bar open mic where I knew no one, I invited everyone I knew to a Saturday night “concert” at the popular Globe Pub where I played solo and with “actual musician” friends for forty-five minutes.


When I was fired, I wanted a boss-free job. Though I had no idea what I was doing, I created a company. Going on twelve years, I’m the kickass boss of a kickass business.


When I cited travel as a top priority but never traveled, muttering “When I’m less busy…” “When I have more money…”, I realized the myth of the Perfect Time Unicorn and that he was never coming, and have since visited Vancouver, Norway, London, Amsterdam, Paris, Sweden, Toronto, Argentina, Mexico, Belgium, Rwanda…


Wedding video

When I wanted a fairytale wedding but couldn’t afford nor stomach the costs of a traditional Chicago wedding, instead of abandoning my dream, I took stock of what I did have and thanks to an amazing community of yes’ers, pulled off magical, almost 100% bartered nuptials.


When I saw RENT, I wanted to be center-stage like Mimi though I couldn’t sing, act, or dance. I gathered other ‘bad’ dancers, hired an instructor, rented a studio, rented a theater, and performed in front of hundreds. Going on six years, Fear Experiment is one of my main offerings, with two shows a year, five art-forms, over 300 participants, 5000+ audience members. Participants call it “life changing”, “the best thing I’ve done as an adult,” “the best way to get to know new, awesome people. And an even better way to get to know yourself.”


I’ve learned in my years of being fat, poor, different, fired, dumped, lonely, that where you are, at times, sucks. But, the amount of time that where you are sucks is up to you.

If you don’t like where you are, be somewhere else.

We are wherever we choose to be.

Damn. Is that a RENT lyric? It should be.


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RENT, why did you so deeply penetrate my soul?

Your catchy songs hooked me.

You appeared at the biggest transitional period of my life.

You dissected issues that were relevant to my millennial bubble. Employment, passion, sexuality, housing, money, relationships.

With Out Tonight, you gave me a karaoke song that I could – to my ears – sing perfectly.

Your cast wasn’t white, white, and white. There were brown people. Like me. And they were normal. And people loved them.

Your creator Jonathan Larson died suddenly the night before you premiered, ripping at heartstrings and making an already powerful story both uplifting and devastating.


A high-school friend said that in middle school, she used to walk by me every day as I waited for the bus, and that I always looked sad.

At the end of my freshman year of college, a friend reflected on our nine-months: “You’re so much more interesting now than when we met. You grew a personality.”

Thanks. I guess.

But I knew what she meant; she was right.

People ask me, “Have you always been full of life and gregarious? Self-confident? Outgoing?”

I snort.

Then tell them about the mini-notebook I carried around in sixth grade, each page, the name of a classmate. Every time one of them did something nice or something mean, I’d write it down on their page –

  • “Sara – invited me to shop at Express
  • “Brooke – asked if I showered”
  • “Brad – said I look fat in my new skirt”
  • “Jessica – let me borrow her marker”

I can’t say RENT was the reason I began to blossom in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. But it had to be a reason. You can’t wear out a CD’s tracks and almost lose a leg and not have the cause be an integral piece of your personality puzzle.

- Buzzfeed

RENT. You are forever within my bones.

To sum up my feelings, allow me to reference and steal from one of those horrible, delicious Buzzfeed List “articles.”

Where I of course exclaimed “That’s me!” at every number. I mean, of course I knew all the words to the ridiculously fast and chock full of detail La Vie Boheme. Tangent – did you know that “OBC” stands for original broadway cast? Who says Buzzfeed doesn’t teach you anything useful?


To sum up.

List Number 34) I’ve never stopped mourning Jonathan Larson and I never will, and

List Number 35) But I honor him with my life motto every day. 16

Life of Yes℠. My businesses tagline, my company’s elevator pitch, the hashtag I use everywhere all the time.

Translated into RENT’ese means “No day but today.”

I frickin’ trademarked the thing. Any entity for which one voluntarily pays hundreds of dollars and interacts with the US government has to be of substantial significance.

RENT, thank you.


I am hanging up Fear Experiment℠ this Fall, in the whole “go out on top” vein, so if you’d like to join the Goodbye Tour, you should throw your hat in the ring! Admission to the last tribe is rolling until all spots are filled (dance, improv, storytelling, and a capella — you choose one). FE is for people who’ve always wanted to try an art-form but were too scared or didn’t know how to dip their toe in the water, and for people who used to ______ and would love to give it another go, and for people who are awesome who like working together towards a goal with other awesome people who’ll be friends for life.

For more info/to apply, head here. I’m sure to be a hotmess at the November show as I occasionally am now — WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!? — but No Day But Today, right?!