When Briana Lotan talks about musical theatre, she doesn’t have to tell you how much she loves it. One look at the way her face lights up says it clearly enough.
Briana (friends just call her “Bri”), a senior music major and an outgoing, vivacious student, has chosen to follow her passion and pursue a career in musical theatre. She knows it won’t be easy, and she definitely knows it’s not practical—but for Briana, it’s hardly a choice. It’s simply what she’s meant to do.
Which is why it might be surprising to learn that Briana hasn’t always felt that way. She may be sure in her conviction now, but it wasn’t a straight or easy path to get where she is. Her journey has been a little more complicated.
Growing up with her parents and older sister in Macomb, Mich., Briana enjoyed what she describes as the stereotypical suburban childhood—from nightly family dinners to summer evenings spent playing outdoors. From the very beginning, she was constantly on the move. “I was always very active,” she says. “My mom would have to yell at us to come inside when the sun was coming down.”
That boundless energy only grew as Briana entered school and joined nearly every squad or team she could manage—tumbling, gymnastics, volleyball, running, dance—you name it. But nothing matched her personality and enthusiasm better than cheerleading. “My mom was a cheerleader, so it really just clicked,” she says. “There was the performance element, and tumbling, and just that energy was amazing. I loved it.”
It was a busy, active, normal childhood. Until the day everything changed.
She was 11 years old, and it was early December. December 7th, to be exact—the date is the first thing she mentions, without hesitation. December 7th. She will always remember the exact date she found out about the tumor on her spine.
The surgery was successful. But Briana, the active and outgoing cheerleader, so full of life and energy, was left paralyzed from the waist down and wondering where to go next.
After the surgery, Briana struggled to find an outlet for her energy and enthusiasm. “Seeing something that others do and not being able to do it … that is something that I have always struggled with,” she says. “One of my biggest challenges was accepting that I can be different, but just as good.”
While she’s always loved music, she had never thought of it as a career. At first she tried playing basketball, but found her heart wasn’t in it. She briefly thought she might pursue a career in medical research, but 10th grade biology quickly put an end to that idea.
Luckily, Briana’s not the type to get discouraged easily.
It started slowly—a keyboard her grandmother gave her for Christmas—and steadily grew, until one day in 9th grade when she attended a meeting for that year’s musical (The Wizard of Oz) and it all clicked. “I was just like, ‘I have to do this for the rest of my life,’” she says.
She hasn’t slowed down since. “Her personality is just forward-motion, go get ‘em,” says Sarah Shealy, one of Briana’s closest friends and a fellow Coker student. “There’s not really any stopping Bri.”
For Briana, this attitude isn’t anything special. It’s just how she is. “I don’t like accepting things for what they are,” she says. “As a person in a wheelchair—we're supposed to be low-key, you know? They want us to do a little activity here and there, stay inside. No. I don’t accept that.”
During her time at Coker, Briana has been involved in everything from musicals to cheerleading to student government. She was even the very first chief justice of Coker College. Deep down, she’s still the same outgoing and energetic kid. “Every time I go to get a new wheelchair, they ask me how long I’ve had it. I say a year-and-a-half, and they tell me that it looks like I've had it for 10 years,” she says, laughing. “I’m a little hard on my chairs. I’m never sitting still.”
Since that first show, Briana has taken on roles both fun and challenging, from Wilbur in “Charlotte’s Web” to Snoopy in “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.” But her favorite was a recent role as Elsa in “Spring Awakening”—a suffering character who challenged Briana to reflect on her own experiences. “I started to figure that she and I weren’t that different,” she says. “We both had a troubled past, but at the same time we tried to make the best out of it and move forward toward a bright future.”
A bright future is exactly what Briana has ahead of her. “Briana is completely dedicated to becoming a well-rounded musician and performer,” says Serena Hill-LaRoche, assistant professor of music at Coker. “She understands the difficulties of the field she has chosen, but really commits herself above and beyond to prepare for the future. I feel confident that whatever comes next for her, she will meet it head on.”
Briana credits her time at Coker and the close friends and mentors she’s met for helping her mature and gain confidence. “The professors are amazing, and so encouraging, and I think they helped me realize that just because I’m in a chair, it doesn’t mean anything,” she says. “It’s just an accessory.”
In the end, Briana has realized that her love of music and performance is more than just a career goal. It’s a passion that has helped her to accept and love herself for exactly who she is.
“There is nothing like just being on stage and singing your heart out,” she explains. “It’s really hard to describe. It’s almost like you truly just give yourself over to the moment, and that is the only time that I feel that people aren’t looking at me in my wheelchair, but at my person.”
Unsurprisingly, Briana has quite a lot of plans for her life after college. Singing, acting, directing, writing and even opening her own theater are just a few of her long-term goals. And while she knows she’s entering a tough business, she clearly won’t get discouraged easily. “I have always been more mature than people my age, because I went through so much when I was young,” she says. “But now I really feel that it's transformed to the type of maturity that I need to go into the music world.
“I am definitely willing and ready to be denied a hundred million times. But I’m holding out for that one opportunity.”
The journey to get to this outlook—one of such contagious positivity and confidence—wasn’t always easy. But Briana sums it up best when she states her simple life motto: “Your limitations should never stop you from becoming who you want to be.”
She’s made it this far, and she’s not looking back now.
For more information, contact Laura Hoxworth - 843.857.4103