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By Mike Schraeder

After trying to find my place as an actor in New York City for two years, I arrived in Dallas, TX in late January of 2004. Within a couple of weeks, I began to work on the play Tape by Stephen Belber for WaterTower Theatre’s Out of the Loop Festival. This production gave me what I was missing while trying to work in New York: artistic collaboration with friendly, fun, supportive people. Following the play’s closing, I found myself navigating through the DFW theatre scene and wouldn’t you know it, I encountered smiles and pairs of wide-open arms, and for the next ten years I was able to start a theatre company with old friends and work on amazing shows with wonderful people who were not only trustworthy colleagues but held a familial place in my heart. I can only describe it as being an ecstatic period of my adult life and I promise you that this is not the nostalgia talking…

And then it was gone.

In my late thirties, I found myself dissatisfied.

I feel the need to elaborate on this: It wasn’t the kind of dissatisfaction one commonly experiences while working at a miserable job or being romantically involved with a toxic person. It was something different. Something deeper. Call it a “pre-midlife crisis” or adult-onset confusion. Though I was happy teaching theatre as an adjunct professor and still loved working in the DFW theatre, I had an urge, a need to try something new. This dissatisfaction conjured a blunt voice in my head, a voice similar to the one your third-grade teacher would use when she told you your recess privileges had been denied or the voice of corporate management demanding TPS reports. That voice would ask me, “Is this it? Is this all there is?” I hated that voice.

I have always been a curious sort, a closeted nerd if you will.  A friend told me about UTD’s Visual and Performing Arts Ph.D. program.  I looked into it.  I applied.  I was accepted. During my first two semesters, I was overwhelmed. Scared. Challenged. Pushed. Hated it. Learned things I never thought I would. Started to like it. Liked it. Started to love it. Then loved it.  Unaware, I had said farewell to practicing theatre without a going away party and parting gift. There was no cake.

In my case, I did not miss the theatre early on because of the constant pressure that comes with doctoral work.  It’s a life that is dominated by what Thornton Wilder’s Stage Manager calls “a vicious circle.” [1] There’s constant reading, research, writing, then repeat. Once your course work is finished and comprehensive exams have been passed, you are then welcomed into the next level of The Inferno: the dissertation.

Early in the dissertation process, I accepted the position of Director at KD Conservatory.  My time was split between working late hours and writing late hours. It was exhausting. People told me that that I would miss writing the dissertation once it was all finished. I thought they must have lost their minds. I finally completed the dissertation and successfully defended it.  Then it was gone: the dot-connecting, the stress, the fatigue, the discovery, the struggle to accomplish something then accomplishing it. They were right. I missed it.

I had earned my Ph.D. in late February of 2020. Following my dissertation defense, I heard another voice ringing between my ears. It was a kinder voice, (look, I hear a lot of voices…don’t judge) a suggestive voice. A voice more similar to the tonalities of Campbell Scott or Terrance McKenna than Bill Lumbergh from Office Space. “Maybe you should audition for a play.”

Two weeks later, we were introduced to the Covid lockdown.  During and following the lockdown, I got engaged, bought a house, fell in love with yardwork, started to paint, got a dog, started collecting baseball cards, became addicted to genealogy, and, thusly, started to research the everyday lives of 18th and 19th century Prussian peasants. It happens.

Fast forward to September of 2023. I heard another voice. This time it was an existent voice. Over a game of Dos (so much better than Uno, you should play it), my fiancée Sarah said, “you should audition for something.” She had signed up for Theatre Three’s general auditions and, consequently, so did I. Next thing, I get called in to audition for productions of Misery and God of Carnage. I thought to myself, there is absolutely no way I will get cast in either of these productions but it will be a good way of getting my feet wet once again.

Then Sarah Barnes emailed to ask me if I would accept the role of Alan in God of Carnage. I thought that Christie Vela must have cast me as a novelty.  I had worked with her previously at Kitchen Dog Theatre and loved her approach to working with actors. She’s risky. She takes chances. As an actor, you can’t help but love her “I don’t give a damn, we’re doing it this way because it’s interesting” approach to staging a play. But why would she cast me, some guy who hasn’t been on a stage in nine freakin’ years? She doesn’t know if I can still do this, and I definitely don’t know if I can still do this! I just wanted to get my feet wet! Something’s amiss. She’s up to something and I can’t put my finger on it. Be wary.

I was going to foil whatever devious plan she had concocted when casting me. One piece of my counter artillery was to be off-book prior to rehearsal. As all actors know, once the script is released from your grip during the rehearsal process, that’s when the fun begins and you are open to more creative acting choices.  I’ll show her how ready I am and crush her scheme…whatever her scheme may be.

Unfortunately, there was a big problem. The lines would not remain in the ol’ neurological pathways like they used to.  I consistently heard from older actors that the memorization process becomes much more daunting as you age. This is when I would internally scoff, “not me old-timer.” A sign of maturity is being able to admit when you are wrong. I was wrong.

Alright, so I wouldn’t be off book prior for the first rehearsal. That’s okay.  I’ve been in tons of plays. This acting thing will all come back to me once we begin working on this script and I will show Christie that her novelty casting choice wasn’t novel at all! Hah! The same guy who used to perform all of the time will emerge from the depths of theatre latency with the beats of L.L. Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” pounding between my ears.

Yeah, that didn’t happen either.



As I’m driving along the Dallas North Tollway at 85 mph and L.L. is blaring through my factory speakers, Google Maps informs me that I would arrive at 5:59 pm, thirty-one minutes before our first read-through of God of Carnage would begin. This would give me plenty of time to meet my castmates, reacquaint myself with those I haven’t seen in several years, and still have time to review the script before I knocked Christie dead with a mind-blowing reading of the character Alan on Day 1!

“Don’t call it a comeback, I been here for years

I’m rocking my peers, putting suckas in fear

Making the tears rain down like a monsoon

Listen to the bass go boom

Explosions, overpowering

Over the competition, I’m towerin…” [2]

Slamming on the breaks as I see a tidal wave of red break lights before me, Google Maps makes it known that twenty-seven minutes have been added to my journey. L.L.’s track ends and on cue I hear through the speakers the cantankerous voice of Morrissey singing The Smiths’ “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.” I hate the current sequencing of my playlist.

I arrived at Theatre Three four minutes before start time.  A sign to come? Most likely.

This would be the first time I would be working for Theatre Three.  No big deal.  I still knew people.  However, upon my arrival to the first rehearsal, I recognized no one.  All faces were covered with masks.  Things had definitely changed.  I became nervous. I actually didn’t know people, even the ones I once knew.  I didn’t even remember my own gender identity, mistakenly announcing to the cast and crew upon my introduction to the room I was a she/her. A deep-seated Freudian lapse? Like I said, I was nervous. It was all unfamiliar. Even myself. What the hell was I doing here? There was a brief reprieve from my anxiety when Jeffery assured everyone that Theatre Three is a safe place for artists and to make it your artistic safety zone.  But was I even an artist even more?  Despite everyone’s supportive and friendly nature, I believed that I no longer belonged among them.  It had been too long and I was a different person now.  I should be preparing my yard for pre-emergent treatment, not starting a two-month commitment to doing a play.

This unfamiliarity would rein for the first couple of weeks of rehearsal…and those first two weeks felt like two years. I was clumsy on stage.  Nothing felt right…not like it used to. And those damn lines…they simply would not stick. And to make matters even worse, my three castmates were killing it…and I was letting all of them down. I was foiling Christie’s plan alright, but not in the way I had strategized.  This whole thing was a bad idea.  Even the basics of acting had left me. I was unable to do the fundamentals I stress daily to my acting students: fight for your goal, use tactics, react, stop thinking, listen to your partner. Instead, I was onstage thinking about what to do with my hands, wondering why I had just delivered a line in such a ludicrous manner, and when is the next freakin’ break for God’s sake. I was in disguised agony.

I would continue to drown in a sea of my own self-doubt until…

Until…something familiar emerged. Allow me to briefly digress:

There is a certain kind of smell when you open the doors and walk into a theatre. For me, it’s the smell of wood and dust. When it hits my nostrils, it’s more powerful than smelling the scent of perfume your high school sweetheart left on a pillow when you were a teenager. All theatres have this smell, and I believe only theatre artists are able to truly smell it, and I had forgotten all about it. Gradually, I began to look forward to having that scent hit my nostrils everyday at 6:00 pm.

I also looked forward to seeing the people I was working with. Like most theatre people, they are funny, creative, smart, and fun to be around. This was the sense of community I had been missing but didn’t even realize I had been missing it. Although two of my three castmates were total strangers to me when we began God of Carnage, they too seemed very familiar to me…like old friends you bump into at a party. Even though I thought I was wasting everyone’s time, they seemed to accept me anyway.

And as much as I was doubting myself, at no time did Christie lead me to believe that she was doubting me. There was this “it’s all going to happen” attitude that she was exuding that helped me to stop worrying about her ridiculous casting choice. Was she right? Was it all going to happen?

Towards the end of the second week of rehearsals, something did happen. For readers who are not actors, this will be difficult to explain but here it goes. One night, things started to fall into place. For most actors, when something like this occurs, it feels like you are riding a wave or gently floating. When it happens, you stop micromanaging yourself and the tiny director in your head who constantly tells you that all of your acting choices are preposterous is temporarily slain. What you are doing on stage becomes fun. It turns into play. I had completely forgotten what that feels like.

Moreso, on your drive home, you begin to relive moments from the rehearsal that you thought were really cooking.  You think about the director’s notes and concoct a plan on how you will execute them the following night. It’s difficult to unwind when you arrive home because you want to talk about the rehearsal and share those fun experiences. And when you wake up the next morning, you do not want to participate in the “regular world” because it is nowhere near as fun as living in the imaginary circumstances of the play.

Eventually, the paranoia surrounding Christie’s casting choice left my thoughts. I began to relax and enjoy the time spent inside of Yasmina Reza’s world. Upon reflection, I am aware that my process of developing a character is slower, more cautious and calculated, and completely different from nine years ago.  Afterall, I am not who I was in 2014. No one is. My character Alan says in the play, “people struggle until they’re dead.” I certainly struggled during those nine years as so many others did.  I definitely struggled in creating Alan and in two weeks, Alan will be dead. Due to the theatre’s temporal nature, this entire process will become a vague memory. Those lines I struggled to learn will soon be transferred into my neurological recycle bin. The lovely moments of seeing my castmates make new discoveries during their own character development will be forgotten, as will those times when the four of us really nailed a moment in the play and how satisfied we were following the final blackout of a particular performance we were all very proud of.


One of L.L. Cool J’s lyrics goes like this: “Don’t call it a comeback, I been here for years.” [3] For anyone who has worked in the theatre for a substantial amount of time, the theatre has been with them for years. After working with this welcoming group of artists, this community, for the last two months, I finally realize that coming back to it after a significant stretch really isn’t a “comeback” at all…it has always been there. It was me who had left.


[1] Wilder, Thornton. Our Town. Samual French Inc. Second Printing. 2010.

[2] L.L. Cool J. “Mama Said Knock You Out.” Track 8 on Mama Said Knock You Out. The Island Def Jam Music Group, 1991, CD.

[3] Ibid.