Theater helps performer connect to audience, life

May 6, 2011

By Laura Geggel

Budding actress Savannah Freese openly shares her experiences of living with Asperger’s syndrome and depression.

Like a star accepting an award, the 19-year-old is quick to thank her greatest supporters — her family and friends — and she pours accolades on Liberty High School’s drama program, the conduit of her success.

“I don’t know if I would have lived if it hadn’t been for drama,” Freese said.

Savannah Freese

As a child, she felt introverted and shy. Making friends was difficult, especially when her family moved from Buckley in rural King County to Texas and then to Issaquah as a young girl.

She felt disconnected at Maywood Middle School, and spent most of her time staring into space. Depressed, she visited the school counselor almost daily.

“It was helpful a little bit because I was able to get everything out,” Freese said.

In eighth grade, she received the Asperger’s diagnosis. Suddenly, her life made more sense.

Reading social situations could be hard for her, and she then knew it was not her fault. Asperger’s can make social interaction awkward and difficult.

Public school did not work well for her, so Freese’s family enrolled her in online classes for her freshman year, a grade she ended up repeating at Liberty when the Web didn’t engage her, either.

“I was very apprehensive at first,” Freese said. “I didn’t want to go back to public school.”

In spite of her reluctance, Liberty was where she found her lifeline.


Drama queen

Freese had enjoyed drama classes since her years in Texas, and decided to take it at Liberty with teacher Katherine Klekas. Though still quiet, Freese found herself pushed out of her bubble, talking with other drama students and playing intriguing characters.

“I liked it because it’s a chance to pretend to be something I’m not,” she said. “At the time, it was an escape for me. Not only do you forget your problems, but you problem-solve through theirs” — the character onstage.

Still, it was not easy sailing from the get go. During one rehearsal, Freese had not memorized her lines, and Klekas let her know that negligence was not acceptable. Although embarrassed at first, Freese learned not to take the criticism personally.

“She wasn’t trying to get me upset,” she said. “She just wanted me to learn my lines.”

Freese embraced her roles and began making friends with her fellow actors. She and the Patriot Players formed dozens of personal jokes, the kind that take a simmering relationship into a roaring boil of laughter and friendship.

One time, she and another girl were playing old men, and could barely contain themselves when they rehearsed their “old men walking fast” routine, Freese said.

After rehearsal, actors would sing “All You Need is Love,” or they would fall into a heap they called the “cuddle puddle.”

Freese learned how to handle her Asperger’s better, though she still struggled as a teenager. Sometimes, she is quick to anger, but now she knows how to keep herself from flying off the handle by giving people fair warning, saying, “OK, I am about to snap. I need you to back off.”

Her friends, aware of her diagnosis, help her when they can.

She “goes through periods that because of her Asperger’s she gets really down about stuff, so I try to stay as a source of support,” Liberty junior Fiona Kine said.

Klekas said it’s in the nature of most drama students to accept others.

“It’s like kind of a part of their identity to accept people regardless of their identity,” she said. “They stick together pretty well and treat each other pretty well.”

Freese agreed with her teacher’s assessment.

“People in drama are just so darn friendly,” she said.


Growing onstage

Even though Freese had made strides against her depression, she still suffers from it. There are mornings she did not want to get out of bed, and once she misses one class, she is loath to go to school.

“I hate the feeling of walking in late,” she said. “I’d rather miss class.”

Again, drama provided her the support she needed, said her mother, Cynthia Freese.

“I’ll never forget the day my daughter wouldn’t get out of bed and Ms. Klekas called and said, ‘We need her,’” she said.

Cynthia Freese put her daughter on the phone, and within minutes, the teenager was preparing for school.

Savannah Freese said she went because, “I knew she was depending on me and I knew she trusted me and I just can’t say no to that.”

Just as athletes have to keep up their grades to play on team sports, actors have to maintain certain grade point averages to audition for drama. Often, Savannah Freese would bring up her grades just enough to audition, and then let them slip.

She is focused, her mother said, and once she starts a project she wants to finish it. But Liberty’s block schedule of eight classes was too overwhelming. This year, Savannah Freese is doing Running Start at Bellevue College, and excelling in her three classes per quarter.

Since starting drama, she has worked on goal setting. Once she graduates, she wants to write and travel to Japan so she can practice her Japanese.


Landing the lead

Freese is incredibly creative, according to her friend, Liberty senior Kelsey Canaga.

“We like writing plays and doing role-playing on pieces of writing back and forth,” Canaga said. “We make characters and stories and it’s so awesome because we get to stretch our imagination.”

Freese stretched her own imagination, and came away with the prize.

She wanted to play the lead in the musical “Drood.” As Edwin Drood, she would play a woman who plays a man — essentially a play within a play.

Though she describes herself as a tomboy, Freese began wearing high heels and skirts, and worked even harder in her singing lessons so she could land the role.

After auditioning, “I still remember very clearly receiving the cast list,” she said.

She lay on the couch, iPhone in hand, and uploaded the website with the cast list. She started at the bottom of the page, and slowly scrolled to the top, looking for her name.

She screamed when she saw her name at the top. She was playing Edwin Drood. Grabbing her phone, Freese called Canaga and Kine, and soon all of them were screaming.

“We were like, ‘Yes! If there is one thing in the world to happen, that is the thing,’” Canaga said.

In the four years of their friendship, Canaga said she has watched Freese emerge from her shell. Before, Freese could barely talk to anybody. Then, she would only talk with her friends.

“This year, we got a new cast member and she started talking to him and just being herself,” Canaga said. “When she gets to be herself, that is an amazing thing.”

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