GREENDALE, Wis. — GREENDALE, Wis. One day last fall, Clara Faile cut her shoulder-length hair short, pageboy style. Then she had the stylist dye the bleached-blond strands back to their original light brown.
A week later, on the day of auditions for her school musical, she tramped down the hardwood stairs from her bedroom wearing green leggings and a green dress. Home has always been her safe zone, where she doesn't have to worry about holding in the nervous tics and the anxiety and the obsessive-compulsive tendencies that add a level of complexity to her life.
But Peter Pan doesn't have tics.
And when Clara channeled herself into the idea of becoming him, she didn't either.
Greendale High School theater teacher Eric Christiansen had worked with Clara in other productions, but hadn't envisioned her in the lead role of the fall musical.
"But she showed up to audition and I was like, whoa," he said. "She was prepared. She was Peter Pan. She gave us her take on it." Watching 16-year-old Clara rehearse the complex show which opened this weekend and includes flying actors on wires would not lead many to suspect she lives with Tourette's syndrome, a nervous-system disorder that she was formally diagnosed with in elementary school.
Out of character, her shoulders may briefly shudder, or she may hop in a way one might if bitten by an insect, or she might make some quick, breathy grunts. But when a scene begins, those traits rarely if ever appear.
Acting, she says, frees her from the anxiety and the distractions.
"It's the instant healer," she says. "It's like for a moment, I don't even have a disability." Her joy is intensified when playing Peter Pan, a character she's idolized since childhood. She wore out the VHS tape years ago. She still re-watches DVDs of both the Mary Martin and Cathy Rigby versions.
Clara talks about all this one day after school in the empty theater. On this afternoon, her tics are so pronounced that it's difficult to imagine her at ease on stage in front of large numbers of people. Her left leg spasms and kicks. The full-body shudders are frequent. At one point she starts saying, "bob-bop-bop-bop" in the middle of a sentence.
"Those are my vocals," she says, apologizing.
It seems wearisome.
Clara says it's mostly just annoying. What's hard is the anxiety, the worry, the OCD that goes hand-in-hand with her Tourette's. She doesn't like papers being bent the wrong way in her bag. Her closet door must always be shut. She worries about getting sick a lot. It can frustrate her in class when other students aren't paying attention and focusing.
She knits to cope. Sometimes even in class. It takes the edge off.
The Tourette's was worse when she was younger.
After her diagnosis, Clara and the school psychologist tried to take on the inevitable peer response directly. They went to each classroom together, with Clara standing at the front of the room explaining what Tourette's was, and how she was not doing these things on purpose.
School has been hard; making close friends even harder. She was bullied, especially by one girl Clara says would pretend to be her friend, and then taunt her, or be physically rough with her.
Allison Faile, Clara's mom, said they hooked up with First Stage Theater, and Clara liked it.
But by fifth grade, acting wasn't helping. Her anxiety, as well as bullying and feelings of loneliness at school, were continuing issues. There were meltdowns at home. "You have to do something or she won't go back," her mother would plead on the phone with school officials.
Clara would eventually calm down, and come back to Allison with different worries.
"I'm sorry, mom. Do you still love me?" As the years passed Clara discovered other outlets that let her channel her energy. She liked anime comic books, and started teaching herself Japanese. She hopes to go to Japan someday and teach English.
She grew out of some habits. The angry rants became less frequent.
Clara returned to acting in middle school.
Then in high school, she attended theater camp at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. In school productions she was cast as one of the witches in "MacBeth" and she nabbed the role of Babette in "Beauty and the Beast." Her coaches and directors marveled at how her tics disappeared on stage. In April she intends to audition for "Les Miserables" with the Greendale Community Theater.
Earlier, Clara had tried prescription drugs to help control her tics, but they made her lethargic.
Much healthier, she thinks, to manage her disability through performance.
"I need to focus on things that make me happy," she says.
Now, that's Peter Pan. The eternal optimist who loved the unusual, who embraced the adventure ahead.
"I feel like Peter Pan wouldn't judge you," Clara says. "He'd say, come with me on this journey." Neverland awaits.