A couple weeks ago I was asked to speak at Sunday Assembly* in a segment called I’m Doing My Best. That’s a short life anecdote given by a member that relates to the subject at hand–in church we might call it a testimony. Each month’s assembly has a different theme and August’s was Gender and Performance. Somebody got wind of the fact that I’m into theatre I guess, because I was asked to share this month. Scary!
*Sunday Assembly is, in their own words, “a life-celebrating congregation without deity, dogma, or doctrine.” Yes, in other words, Atheist Church. Along with the very cool folks that attend, what I like about Sunday Assembly is: 1) it’s Sunday night, not Sunday morning and 2) it’s only once a month. If you think it’s weird that I work at preacher school (where I occasionally participate in chapel services) and then sometimes attend godless church…well, yes and no. My personal spirituality could best be summed up as “I’m not ruling anything out at this point.” But that’s another subject for another time.
Anyway, I thought I’d share my speech with you guys. As a bonus for the “reader version,” I’ve added a few extra endnotes for your interest and edification. My thesis for this piece was inspired by this article I read recently, which put words to something I’d been feeling for a long time but hadn’t yet been able to articulate. It turned out a little more like a graduation speech than perhaps I intended, but I hope at least a few people will find the essential message resonates with them, as it did with me.
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I’m not sure if you know this, but in theatre you face a lot of rejection.
Of course, most people will face rejection of some kind in their professional and personal lives, but in few other lines of work can it be so constant and at times so utterly arbitrary. For example, they like you, but…you’re too old for the precast lead. Or you remind the director of their ex. Or you’re too short for the costume.*
*yes, this actually happened to me–I almost got to be in the chorus of Beauty & the Beast at the Fox but you had to be at least 5’3″ to fit the dancing plate costume, FML.
You have to develop a bit of scar tissue to keep bouncing back, time after time when somebody tells you you’re not good enough.
But what’s even more insidious is the rejection that comes from within—the way so many actors—and so many of the rest of us, I’d wager—diminish our own accomplishments.
I got bitten by the theatre bug at an early age. In 5th grade I managed to convince my teacher to let me leave class every day for a week with my friends to write, direct, and (obviously) star in an original work. It’s a little fuzzy now but it involved princesses and a magical quick change into one of my old ballet costumes.
It was really good.
Anyone who knew me as a child would tell you what an incredible burst of passion it must have taken to motivate me to propose this scheme to a grown-up, let alone open myself up to the critique of my entire class. Just the year previous I had broken down in the middle of singing The Last Unicorn during the talent show because my friend was “looking at me weird.” I wasn’t really your most outgoing kid. Not a natural leader.
But whenever I tell people about this episode in my life, I’m quick to qualify it. You know–in a small school they let you get away with anything.*
*Not untrue. Hollatcha Clairemont Elementary.
Fast forward several years. My parents were supportive of all my performances in middle and high school, but they weren’t so thrilled by my decision to major in it.* It was also around this time that I got my first significant rejection—my audition based application for a theatre scholarship was turned down. I still can’t hear the song I chose for my dance piece** with cringing a little.
*The technical name of my degree is actually Theatre & Performance Studies. The episode referenced here happened at Berry College where I attended for two years as a theatre major/psych minor before transferring to Kennesaw State to finish up. Fun fact: I transferred partly for money and culture reasons, but mostly for boy reasons. The relationship didn’t last but I’m still #winning because KSU is now recognized as one of the top schools in the nation for theatre degrees. Go Owls! (Berry has an excellent theatre program too; their shows were more professional than some actual professional houses.)
**”We Love to Boogie” from the Billy Elliot soundtrack. I wasn’t adept at choreography yet. Lots of head isolations were involved.
But for whatever reason, I stayed a theatre major. I didn’t get cast in the first play of the season*, but I did get cast in the second.** And I regularly got cast in shows for the rest of my college career. They even awarded me that scholarship the second semester—thankfully I didn’t have to audition the second time.
*Translations by Brian Friel. It was down to me and another freshman for the part. That girl (who also later transferred to KSU) was a truly extraordinary actress by any standards, and led me to fret that college would be like high school, with the same girl getting cast in every single lead year after year (she was really good too and is actually sort of famous now, but still–this is an educational environment we’re talking about). Thankfully Berry, unlike Decatur High School, didn’t chose their seasons around their stars.
**The Learned Ladies by Moliere. I had a freakin’ awesome wig.
Eventually I graduated and the minute I got my degree in hand, my dad said, Alright! Let’s see you start putting that thing to work! And cut me off.* I got lucky and was hired almost immediately as a dance teacher and within a year or so, I became a program coordinator and designed a dance curriculum that was still in place after I left that company.
But that was really only a part time job, and I was barely making rent. It was just a kids’ school anyway.
*Yes, I realize how entitled this is. And I wasn’t even entirely cut off– I was still on my parent’s health and car insurance plans for a few more years. But for someone who had never supported herself, and who at that point hadn’t been taught any but the most rudimentary fiscal wisdom, it was a shock that cannot be denied.
Around that time I made two life decisions: that I would not pursue acting as a full-time profession and I would never marry another actor.
One of those resolutions I kept.
But even though the lifestyle of a full-time professional performer wasn’t for me, I didn’t regret my major for a second—not even when justifying it for the 80th time in a “real world” job interview. I kept with it on a part time basis as I slowly made my way into the field I’m in now, which is flexible enough to where I get to moonlight as an actor, dancer, and choreographer without having to worry about whether I’ll be able to afford air conditioning in August. I’ve had a pretty decent amount of success—for a non-professional—and then…I had a baby. After my baby-induced hiatus I tried to return to acting. I went to about a dozen auditions without even a callback. I nearly quit acting, but my husband convinced me to go to one more call and I got cast.* After that, things started picking up and now I have a full time day job, a family, and a pretty awesome hobby to talk about at parties. I even have a blog [hi guys!].
*In Cabaret, as a Kit Kat girl. The fact that I wore underwear on stage within a year of given birth is a feat in and of itself.
In some ways, I have more time to devote to creativity now than when I pursued it professionally—Case in point, I wrote a play last year—I’d never written a play before in my life (unless you count the one from 5th grade), and, it got selected to be produced in a new works festival. But eh, it was only a ten minute play.
Does anybody else do this? Achieve something, only to disparage their own achievement? Get excited about something and then feel the need to sort of downplay it?
Theatre is weird. You have to promote yourself relentlessly as if you were a business entity, not a person. At the same time, it behooves you to be friendly and personable—the guy everybody wants to work with. There are some jerks in the biz–that’s a stereotype with truth to back it up. But you’ll also make some of the best friends you’ve ever made in your life – only to turn around and compete with them for the same work. With these kind of contradictions it’s really a miracle that anyone besides sociopaths stick with it—although you might meet a few of those too. But those of us who are not egomaniacal have a tendency to downplay our glory. After all, we don’t want to make our best friends feel bad. We don’t want to be That Asshole.
At the performing arts camp where I met my husband we had a talent night, and one of the other counselors sang a soulful rendition of Fever by Peggy Lee. When I complimented her afterward she said “yeah, that’s the one song I can actually sing.” She was being kindly self-deprecating, but I was truly kind of floored. Did she really think she was a bad singer? But the crazy thing is, I do that kind of thing myself all the time.
The arts are a hyper competitive environment under the best of circumstances and you can’t help but measure yourself again and again and again against what other people are doing. Doubt and self-sabotage are the Ebola of the creative professions—contagious and deadly. And complaining is practically a team sport.
But, ask any actor why they submit themselves to this continual self-flagellation and you’ll hear the same thing: we do it because we love it. It brings us joy.
I’m talking about theatre but everybody has these moments in their life that spark joy and fulfillment. Whether it’s starting a new business venture or starting a new relationship. And isn’t it strange how sometimes it’s actually easier to dampen that bright little spark than to fan it into a flame?
The truth is, there’s a lot that’s difficult and dark about doing something you love. We accept that as part of anything worth doing. But that’s why it’s even more important to stop throwing shade on the silver linings. They’re rare enough as it is.
It’s important for our own sanity, but it’s also beneficial to others. As Marianne Williamson said, “It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. As we let our own light shine, we give others permission to do the same.”
So let me ask you this. Can you imagine if I told you everything I’ve just told you about my theatrical life…without the qualifiers?
So instead of saying, I’m an administrative assistant and I sometimes do theatre, what about…
I am an actor.
I wrote and produced a play when I was ten years old and performed it in front of my entire class.
I went to school on a theatre scholarship and graduated with honors.
I designed a dance program from scratch at age 23.
I’ve done shows all over town and gotten to play some amazing parts.
I have a blog that got Freshly Pressed within its first month.
My first play was accepted at a festival and was an audience favorite.
And how about a new one: I just finished the draft of a new play last week.
Both of these stories are mine. Which one is more compelling?
I like to tell my son I’ll never run out of kisses because for every kiss I give away, a hundred more pop up in its place. I’m doing my best to believe that joy, like kisses, is not a limited resource. There’s room for everyone at the table, and by letting ourselves really shine, we become a light by which others might see the path to join us there.