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And the Brooke will flow: A journey through growing up

The path that we are on through our life and college careers is not easy. Many people will tell you what to do and rain on your parade, thinking they know best. So many voices will cloud your vision as a college student, proving that fighting burnout is truly real. It’s a topic not many college students discuss in depth with other people.

Brooke Tortorelli, a senior at Monmouth University double majoring in mathematics and music with a concentration in musical theatre, knows these exact feelings. She decided for her Senior Year Capstone Project to write and direct a performance piece dedicated to her life. Call it the “Eras Tour of Brooke,” if you will!

Originally, she was prepared to perform an opera piece, but after some thought, she quickly switched gears. She realized she had a much bigger story to tell and self-reflection to do.

“I think that being in ‘Wit’ (Theatre Production at Monmouth) really taught me a lot about living in the moment because tomorrow is never promised,” Tortorelli said. “That is not to say that I won’t revisit it one day, but right now, I am really proud of the decision I made.”

Stepping into Tortorelli’s world is like looking at a coded version of your own. In a way, she is a symbol of all college students going through the trials of life. The play Tortorelli created depicts different versions of herself. The cast includes freshman Mary Jodry portraying Tortorelli at age 18, freshman Julianna Chesla portraying age 19, sophomore Antonia Bongiorno portraying age 20, senior Samantha Jordan portraying age 21, and lastly Tortorelli herself, depicting 22-year-old Brooke.

All of the Brookes wore black dresses and hair in ponytails secured with beautiful blue bows. They were seated in chairs next to one another, in age order, facing the audience. In front of them stood a podium with a binder containing the words of Brooke Tortorelli.

The performance started with yellow lighting signifying the happiness and optimistic future of an 18-year-old Brooke. She is starting her college career and has decided to major in math since she succeeded at it in high school. The show soon switches gears as COVID-19 enters Brooke’s world. She tells the story that so many of us know all too well. It was hard to not let the pessimistic mind take over when you were told to sit in your house for months and learn from home.

However, 18-year-old Brooke found solace during her freshmen year through Zoom musicals. She mentions the productions of “Next to Normal” and “Little Shop of Horrors” that she was involved with. Those productions touched her in a way that she found understanding, especially by being vulnerable with others through the shared experience of the shutdown.

The lighting fades on 18-year-old Brooke and rises green on 19-year-old Brooke, symbolizing new beginnings. At this point in her life, she is finishing her sophomore year of college. It was there that she first encountered “Wit.”

If you are not familiar with this play, it’s the story of Professor Vivian Bearing and her diagnosis of stage four metastatic ovarian cancer. This Brooke then proceeds to talk about how grateful she is for watching that movie and how the performance captured both the melancholy and beauty of someone’s life with the disease.

It was at this point in her life that Tortorelli decided to change her second major from sociology to music with a concentration in musical theatre. Nineteen-year-old Brooke said, “I do not necessarily know what will come next, but I am very excited for what is to come…I know that I have a lot to learn, but luckily, I am in the right place to do it!”

Red lights illuminate a 20-year-old Brooke with a fire and passion burning inside her to succeed. With an end to the pandemic lifestyle, her social life has returned to normal. Nonetheless, real life as an adult hit her in a way she hadn’t expected.

“This feeling of heaviness is the only way I can describe how I have felt in the year of being twenty. I have felt this irremovable weight on my chest,” Bongiorno read.

She was the assistant stage manager for the spring musical “Cabaret,” but her mind was anywhere but present. Her aunt had been battling stage four ovarian cancer, and at the same time, her sister was experiencing the same symptoms.

Just like in her first year with the pandemic struggles, she turned to what always lifted her: the arts and musical theatre. She attended two classical music programs to gain more knowledge, even though she was hit with imposter syndrome. The feeling of not being enough had set in again. But when she returned to school in September, she continued to study voice and music theory despite others’ opinions.

“Music theory has made me feel the way that math once did: like I am capable of doing anything,” Bonigorno said as Brooke. It was then that she changed her second major again, this time to just solely a music major. Eager to keep music in her life, Brooke pressed on.

Purple lights on a 21-year-old Brooke. She has found her strength and feminine voice and transformed; she knows what she wants. She finished her math studies at Monmouth and began working with third graders, tutoring them in multiplication. Returning to her “childhood” of snack time and times tables opened her eyes to how much she had changed.

“In my eyes, losing my aunt and my grandfather last year signified the ending of the childhood chapter of my life. Therefore, to be able to think about multiplication and snack time again for a little bit allowed me to feel connected to a different version of myself,” Jordan spoke as Brooke.

It was then that she changed her major for the fourth and final time, back to music with a concentration in musical theatre. To the many people in Tortorelli’s orbit, changing her major back and forth meant she was too indecisive and didn’t know herself… or didn’t she? The arts were always a part of her journey, but just like math, the arts can be a cold and calculated place. As if her life couldn’t get more full circle, she gets cast as the lead in “Wit” at Monmouth.

It was then that Tortorelli made a promise to herself: she wanted to give back to all the people who live their reality much like Professor Vivian Bearing in “Wit.” This play gave her a newfound hope that she could pull everything off and do what she wanted.

Lights up on current Brooke, a new 22-year-old surrounded by blue lighting representing the brook of life flowing rapidly.

She remarks that the last time she was on this stage, she was portraying a woman three decades older and a scholar in a subject she had never studied. So, she studied metaphysical poetry for the role with Dr. Sue Starke in the English Department. She also studied with Dr. Patrick Wadlden and graduate students, Victoria and Devon in the Graduate Center Speech-Language Pathology Department, to prepare to speak for a long-extended period. She did all this to give Vivian Bearing, her aunt, and her grandfather the justice they deserved and to make them proud.

She learned so much about strength and perseverance through the challenging moments. Tortorelli organized a bake sale to sell goods at the performances and raised over $1,300 for the American Cancer Society with MU Players.

“This experience has completely changed the way I see my life. So many things seem trivial now,” Brooke said.

She ended the performance by thanking her professors, family, and, most importantly, her friends. The encouragement to follow her heart was all she needed. She said, “Once you realize that you do not need to be only one thing, you alleviate yourself of the pressure of the all-or-nothing mindset.”

Tuning out the noisy and frustrating sound of being a college student is a hard pill to swallow. Nevertheless, Tortorelli defied the odds by standing up for herself. Watching her friends perform as her old selves was confirmation enough of how far she has come as a woman.

So, as you go on your journey through college, never forget those small hobbies that you think aren’t enough. Things like music, cooking, writing, and painting are the things that keep us grounded. Creativity and following your dreams and heart can be powerful. Let yourself live in those moments and follow wherever the water runs.