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Women’s History Month: Melissa Bice - From Anxiety to Applause in the Theater of Life

Melissa Bice's journey from the clutches of anxiety to the spotlight of theater is a tale of courage, self-discovery, and transformation. Battling anxiety is no small feat; for Melissa, it was a pervasive challenge that colored her perception of the world and her place within it. Yet, within this struggle lay a dormant seed of ambition, a yearning to break free from the chains of fear and embrace the world in all its uncertainty.

This story unfolds through the medium of Rock Valley College’s Starlight Theatre, a catalyst for change that offered Melissa not just an escape, but a path to finding her true self. Melissa's narrative is a testament to the power of art to heal, connect, and empower.

The Stage Is Calling

As a child, Melissa was drawn to the dazzling world of performance, dreaming of singing, acting, and dancing her way into the hearts of audiences. This dream, however, lay dormant, overshadowed by the specter of anxiety that loomed large over her aspirations.

The decision to audition was a leap of faith, a confrontation with her inner demons that Melissa had been preparing for, perhaps unknowingly, all her life.

"Honestly, I just jumped in and did it," she said, recounting the moment she chose to face her fears head-on.

This wasn't merely about landing a role in a musical; it was about challenging the narrative of self-doubt that anxiety had woven around her identity.

“I told myself the worst case scenario, I don't get cast. I could try again next season or I can get cast and I could have a really great time. And of course, with my anxiety, my mind was leaning more towards the not being cast and putting myself down.”

Melissa's audition for "Footloose" was more than an attempt to join a musical; it was a symbolic act of defiance against the anxiety that had constrained her for so long.

Hundreds auditioned to be part of Starlight Theatre’s 2023 season. Melissa waited what seemed like forever. Just then, she got an alert on her phone - an email from Starlight saying she’s been selected to perform in Footloose.

“I was in shock, actually.”

However, even with Starlight’s seal of approval, Imposter Syndrome kicked in for Melissa.

“I got Footloose and I was like, ‘Well, I don't think that was going to happen’ because… with those songs and that music and that dancing… I felt like it was out of my scope of dance practice.”

The Transformation: Growth through Performance

Portraying the understudy of Eleanor Dunbar in "Footloose" was transformative for Melissa, challenging her self-perception and pushing her to explore the limits of her capabilities.

"I remember thinking, like, what am I doing here? These people are amazing," Melissa admitted, capturing the initial intimidation she felt.

Yet, it was through this process that she discovered her own potential, learning to trust in her abilities and the support of those around her. The act of performing became a catalyst for change, not just in overcoming anxiety but in fostering a newfound confidence and self-belief.

“It was actually really fun to portray. When I was told I was going to be a church lady, I just kind of zoned in on when I was little. I would go to church with my father and I just remember there's always this very crabby church lady. All church ladies are crabby, but I just remembered them from trauma before and able to use that on stage to kind of release. It actually really helped my anxiety also.”

Finding a Tribe: Community and Connection

Melissa may have felt reluctant to grace the stage. But, once she showed up to rehearsals, she found that the cast was more than a collection of talented performers; it was a family that embraced her with open arms, understanding, and support.

"It really put me in a community where I felt welcome and safe," she reflected. “People would come up and just give you hugs and be like, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ And give you a hug. Even before the show - the intro music would be playing - we're supposed to be in our places and we're still running around backstage, giving each other hugs and break legs and everything.”

This sense of safety and acceptance was crucial in creating an environment where Melissa could express herself freely, without the fear of judgment or rejection.

Still, even with support, Melissa’s anxiety really ramped up before a rehearsal. She confided in her friend April that she was experiencing a panic attack and it wouldn’t go away. April had a simple, yet effective solution.

“She went, ‘Let's go touch some grass.’ We went outside and literally touched grass. Put our feet on the grass. After that, like if I started a panic attack, I would be like, ‘I’m going to go touch some grass.’”

Anxiety, however, had a few more tricks up its sleeve. It struck Melissa again - this time before a show.

“My parents were going to come see it and I don't know why it like, set my nerves so bad.”

Enter fellow cast member, Eric Wilson.

“[Eric] saw me backstage. I think he could tell I was anxious because of how I was holding my posture and everything. I was bringing my hands together. He came up and said that I do a great job. I bring a lot to the show. You're going to do great. [He] gave me a hug and I'm over here like, ‘Don't make me cry! I just did my stage makeup… I got to be out on stage with you in two minutes!’”

Of course, Starlight is a community - one that often tested Melissa’s ability to fight back tears - even happy ones.

“There was even the guy that played Willard, his name's Ryan. The last show that we did, he actually came up to me and said the same thing because he knows that I joined to help with my anxiety and face fears and how proud he was of me. And I was like, ‘No, you're going to make me cry now.’”

Melissa’s Second Act - Looking Ahead: The Future in Theater

The impact of theater on Melissa's life extends beyond the confines of a single production. She auditioned this year for a role in Guys and Dolls and she got it.

“I'm a Hotbox dancer, just like a showgirl, which I'm happy about…I wanted to be in that show.”

Now, she just needs to do a little research for the role.

“We sing and we dance and we act. I believe there's three different scenes we would do showgirl dances in, but I can't remember because I actually haven't seen Guys and Dolls yet.”

The Final Curtain

Melissa’s story is a profound narrative of transformation, marked by the courage to face one's fears and the power of community in fostering growth and healing.

Through her involvement in theater, Melissa not only confronted her anxiety, but found a sense of belonging and purpose that transcended her expectations. Her journey from the sidelines to the spotlight is a testament to the transformative power of art and the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity. Now, she can’t even imagine life without her Starlight family.

“I didn't have a lot of friends and it was more of a way for me to open up and prove to myself that not everyone is like that. Not everyone is a huge bully and I actually proved it to me. I couldn't imagine not knowing this group of people today.”

Through the lens of her experience, we are reminded of the universal truth that, in connecting with others and pursuing our dreams, we can navigate our deepest fears and emerge stronger and more fulfilled on the other side.


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