How Theatre Broke My Heart

When people ask me why I stopped doing theatre for so long, my standard response is “it made me crazy”, which is the story I tell myself. It’s not entirely true. Theatre was a part of my life that contributed to some unhealthy behaviors and bad mental states, but it’s not the thing that “made me crazy.” That would be brain chemistry and a series of life events. The truth that slipped out the last time a fellow actress asked me why I quit was that theatre broke my heart, and that’s the one that rings truest right now.

Like most things, it started early. Third grade. I’d recently entered my school district’s Gifted and Talented program, and we were preparing for an academic competition that had several parts. One was that we had to rewrite a fairy tale into a play – I think it may have had the specification that it was supposed to be a musical, or have modern elements. In any case, we picked our fairy tale (Rumplestiltskin, for the curious) and started planning out roles and things, and eventually we had auditions. Through a complicated sequence of events that barely makes sense to me even in retrospect, I ended up with the lead female role and then lost it again when my teacher decided to hold a re-vote and called in another teacher to make the final call. I ended up painting scenery and writing half the lines, and crying every day after rehearsal. I remember classmates trying to console me by telling me I was really good at writing and painting, and I didn’t have the words or the self-esteem to express what I wanted, which was Fuck you, I’m really good at acting.

Throughout grade school I kept landing in roles that required someone competent but not lead-worthy; often I had lots of lines, more complicated blocking, more to actually do but less recognition when the applause came. In eighth grade I auditioned for the high school play; junior high kids were allowed in but priority was given to seniors. I was one of three. It was the first time I’d actually won a role over a good number of others. It wasn’t the last. I still never got a true lead until my junior year, in which I actually played two leads in two one-acts at the same time, but I was consistently given good solid roles. People told me I was good at this. It became my thing. The thing I did better than any of my immediate peers. The thing I even did outside of school, through several community theatres. (Strangely – or not? – I wasn’t into musicals. I did a few over the summers, had a few small solo ensemble roles, but was not really a singer and therefore convinced myself I wasn’t interested.) Acting was… I wasn’t an effortless talent, and I wasn’t the kind of actor who gets out there and draws every ounce of focus to me. But I felt at home onstage, and I could memorize an entire script in ridiculously short amounts of time.  I thought I had a really strong chance of actually doing this with my life; teachers told me I was certainly smart and competent enough to give it a try, that I had enough talent to study it in college, certainly.

And then I auditioned for the college I was sure I would be attending; a little over an hour away from my hometown, and renowned for turning out working actors. I was deathly ill with the flu when I auditioned and felt the first hint of audition nerves I’d ever felt in my life. But it went fine, and my interview had gone well, and I thought I was in.

And then the rejection letter came.

Followed by an acceptance letter from the same school, but to a different major — it turned out that since in my interview I’d mentioned that I had wanted to minor in music, they thought I’d be a better fit for an interdisciplinary program in Theatre, Music, and Art. Annoyed, I waffled about appealing the decision or re-auditioning in the spring, but soon after got my acceptance letter to an academically stronger college located in New York City. And they’d let me major in Theatre. The choice was clear. I went to NYC… and for two and a half years, was told that I didn’t have what it takes to make it, with a few small exceptions. I couldn’t act, apparently, though I did spend my first semester being cast as hookers and schoolgirls in the freshman acting/senior directing joint class. I couldn’t write, according to my script-writing professor, who grudgingly gave me a C after I stopped going to his class in despair and frustration. I couldn’t direct, according to the teacher whose junior directing class could contain twelve students but she only really wanted eight. When I asked them why I wasn’t allowed to decide for myself what I could do with my life, they shrugged and told me I hadn’t made enough of an impression. And then were shocked, shocked when I changed majors and took some time off to pick up what was left of my ego and sanity.

I don’t know if they were wrong at the time – certainly I wasn’t dealing amazingly well with my life during all of the above. Maybe I couldn’t have been good at anything just then.  But something vital and important broke then, and I honestly couldn’t paint a coherent picture of what I planned to do with my life after that. I didn’t stop doing theatre yet – during my year off I took some courses at a school in my hometown, got a good role, did some directing, got good feedback. Decided I might be able to go back and just act, forget what my teachers had to say about it. That didn’t really happen. I wouldn’t try out for the main productions any more, and all of the student groups were largely excuses for people to cast their friends – because no one was getting reliably cast in the classes or shows, because the theatre community there was full of people who’d left the department in disgust to do their own thing, but I’d spent three years thinking I was alone and hadn’t connected with those who could have empathized when I needed it. After a year off no one knew me, because I’d spent the year prior to that hiding in my room. In theatre connections are everything and once again I didn’t have them.

So I finished college with three-quarters of a theatre degree, officially labeled a “concentration”, and an English major I didn’t want, and no more dreams of theatre. I knew I wanted to go back to it, but didn’t think I could. I tried every single way to settle for something else and was miserable and intermittently physically ill for years at a time. But I didn’t have the confidence to try again for the dream that didn’t want me. I interviewed for administrative positions at theatre companies; I interned briefly with one show in the city. I tried to stay loosely connected to it, but eventually gave up until the summer of 2008, when I took an acting class at a then-local college with a good acting program, and found a small startup theatre group to work with for a season. We only did one show, and we spent most of our time at our meetings sitting around a piano singing songs from Chess, but the directors told me two things that set me back on the right path: one, that I should be acting again, even if just for myself, and two, I obviously wanted to sing but was afraid of it.

Since then I’ve moved, started voice lessons, become a music major, and gotten tentatively back into theatre. I still don’t trust it, and it’s still breaking my heart a little every season. I think, though, that I’ve accepted that it’s the only thing that can hurt me that badly, because it’s the only thing I love this much. Shouldn’t everyone be doing something that matters enough to break their hearts a little?

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In which I am frustrated.

Let me start this post with the positive: I had an amazing jury experience last week. Truly mind-blowing crazy you-had-to-be-there amazing. I got some of the best feedback I’ve ever received in my life on anything I’ve worked this hard at, and it’s an experience I will not forget for the entire rest of my life. I just wanted to get that out there; maybe what I’m feeling right now is the inevitable post-success crash or the sense of disconnected floundering I feel at the end of every project. It’s true that I have a hard time just… existing. I question and I over-analyze and I’ve been told that this is why I’m often stressed and/or unhappy. I don’t think I’m often unhappy. I just think I fluctuate between happy and unhappy very quickly and notice those changes often. I talk/write about the difficult things because there’s more to pick apart; positive experiences don’t need to be questioned.

I hate that people assume I’m unhappy or struggling – just one of a hundred assumptions about me that I don’t appreciate.

However, lately I have been unbelievably frustrated with some situations. At the aforementioned assumptions. At being left out of loops I’m supposed to be kept in, that I’ve worked hard to keep myself in. At being overlooked. At people’s ethics in the world of theatre not aligning with what I consider professionalism, and feeling unable to call them out on it.  At always being that person, the one who will call people out on everything, and the baggage that goes along with that. The perception that I complain a lot, that I get my way by being loudest. If anyone knew how long I went without saying anything, ever, I wonder if they’d still hold it against me. I wonder if people assume that I’m fine with a given set of circumstances just because I don’t appear to be complaining about them. I kind of hate this box I’ve gotten myself into.

This entry was, originally, a rant against a certain set of behaviors that I’ve run up against three times in the past six months, and once that deeply hurt me recently. I took that part out because it was a little too specific and not the heart of the problem, and I was so, so very angry about it that I feel the problem must be with me and my perception rather than the behavior of others.  But I can’t change other people, especially not by ranting at them about something I think they’ve done badly. All I can control is me, and right now I’m on the verge of letting situations make me into a person I hated being the first time through. I hope I’ve learned enough to just let some things go, and to approach others with some tact. I don’t know.

I just want to do what I love to do while maintaining my sanity and personal integrity, and not let people walk all over me, but still be someone that people like and want to include in things. Some days I think that’s asking for the moon.

Wasted Time

Some events and conversations lately have me thinking about the topic of wasted time/opportunities, and also something like the reverse of that, of realizing the value of my own time and resenting having it treated carelessly. And also a little bit of perspective on the fact that maybe there’s really not any such thing. This post may not have much of a point beyond me trying to work through my own thoughts, so I’m not sure it needs even a hypothetical-at-this-point audience, but I suppose I’m really trying to put it out there into the world so that it’s not running circles around my head any more.

The first thing you need to know to understand this is that, for a number of reasons, I did not make the best of my first attempt at a college education, despite getting into an excellent school that seemed at first glance a good fit for me. I should’ve been an ideal student. I had good grades in high school, high SAT scores, and a variety of activities in which I’d been involved. I should have thrived in college – I’d been told that I would thrive in college by my principal, my guidance counselor, and several favorite teachers. Instead I floundered and disappeared.

Perhaps I wasn’t always in the right space for it, mentally. Emotionally. I hadn’t been so far away from home, and there were situations I didn’t know how to cope with. I was relatively isolated, making few truly close friends despite having a lot of acquaintances who would’ve told you I was fine and in fact cheerful much of the time. I didn’t have a support network to notice when something went wrong and I still thought myself too fiercely independent to ask for help. I didn’t want to take an action that I perceived as failure. I couldn’t be less than fine. Nothing was really wrong; everything that was wrong was, in my mind, something I’d done to myself and had to cope with myself. And I still blame myself for the lion’s share of all of the above. Hindsight is 20/20 but I can’t help but think that I knew what advice I would have given someone else who was floundering and in need of guidance.

In any case, for whatever reason, I made a mess of most of my first college experience and the most I can say about it is that I made it out alive. And every single time I stop to really think about that, I’m angry. Because I had this opportunity, and I had all this potential, and all this supposed intelligence, and I wasted it. It hits me harder now that I’m thinking of applying to schools again and realizing that it’s going to be harder this time around. Because of the record of past failings, and because I’m not an amazing talent to make up for it. I didn’t deserve the first education I got; teenage me wasn’t a hard worker and early 20-something me was a mess. Now that I’m capable of being more, it’s harder to prove myself. And that sucks, and maybe it should suck. Maybe I don’t even deserve the second chance I have now. I’m very harsh on myself but sometimes I think not harsh enough.

I could go into at least five or six more stories of how I essentially wasted my time, perhaps not knowingly, but in spite of my better instincts. Even now I have a hard time making choices that I suspect are best for me, because I don’t trust my own judgment. Most recently I’ve been kicking myself about not making a particular choice a semester earlier; I knew I was in a less than ideal learning situation for me, and I strongly suspected that the alternative would be better. But I stuck out the situation I’d chosen first out of a number of… not terrible reasons, but reasons that ignored my gut instincts. Stubbornness, I suppose. I’ve since corrected that situation and have made good progress, but I can’t help but wonder how much further along I’d be if I’d made a different choice the minute I started seriously considering it.

The flip side is this: for whatever reason, my first time through college,  I wasn’t in the right space to take advantage of what was in front of me. It doesn’t matter why. It doesn’t matter if it was 100% my fault and I made terrible decisions the entire time. There’s literally no way of knowing that things would have been vastly different if I’d done everything “right”, or if I’d just have ended up in another situation that I hated, or exactly where I am now. And more recently, I wasn’t ready to trust my judgment and take a leap of faith when I was hearing mixed messages. I am starting to think that people have to be ready before they’ll flourish. Sometimes I’m a little over-cautious, and sometimes I’m stubborn about sticking to choices. Sometimes I just don’t do things I know I should for stupid  reasons that don’t even make sense to me. Most of the time I’m just scared of one thing or another and sometimes the fear wins. I don’t let it win every time any more.

I think all of the above has made me value my own time more. I have very little tolerance these days for people who don’t respect that the time I give them is worth something; that even if my plans for the day involve sitting in front of my television eating popcorn, it’s still my time. People who know me know that I will make extra time for things that are important to me and people who’ve earned the right to ask for it. It doesn’t even take much; I don’t feel I ask for a lot in the way of acknowledgment. I just don’t like getting the feeling that I’m invisible, that hours of my time don’t mean anything. That my dedication to something doesn’t matter. A few people have made me feel that way over the past few years – some of them inadvertently, and some of them carelessly, and some of them in single uncharacteristic moments that I’ve long since forgiven but which hurt beyond telling at the time. I don’t think I hold it against people, personally, but I am becoming more selective about who gets more of my time now that I have so many things to balance. The ones who remain indifferent, to whom I’m faceless and interchangeable, won’t get any more of it.

No Excuses

For the past two years, I must’ve said some variation on “I can’t do this” at least once a week. Usually at least half believing it. Or… I think it’s that protective instinct again, to declare that I can’t do this right up front so that if it turns out I’m right, I didn’t fail. Or didn’t embarrass myself. Or something equally irrational that wouldn’t actually make failure any better except that it would make it more directly my choice. Which isn’t better.

I set myself up for two kind of big challenges over the five weeks of the summer semester, in both my voice and piano lessons. I can’t count the number of practice sessions that have ended in tears and declarations of my inability to do this in such a small amount of time. I decided to attack both of my weakest areas at once – who does that? Crazy people! Clearly I was over-ambitious and overconfident. Clearly my teachers had too much faith in me, but I’ve been telling them all along I’m not as good as they think! It’s going to be their fault for having expectations that don’t align with reality! I warned them!

Except… every day, I’ve seen progress. Most days frustratingly tiny amounts of progress. Progress that made it clear that I was not going to be able to skimp on practicing, and was in fact going to have to put in more hours than I would if I had a whole semester to work on these pieces. People keep telling me I’m a hard worker, which kind of makes me giggle inwardly – if they knew how naturally lazy I am inclined to be, they would be appalled. But I’m starting to think I’ve evolved into a hard worker out of wanting this music thing so badly; it doesn’t matter that what I want to do is lie on my sofa and catch up on hours of Netflixed tv series. It doesn’t matter that if given a chance I will procrastinate all day, doing random things that scare me less than practicing. Or do my hours of practice first thing so that I can do absolutely nothing for the entire rest of the day. What matters is that I got those hours in, every day, despite thinking I couldn’t, that I wasn’t making enough progress, that it was beyond me.

I have eleven days until juries, and I’m just starting to get to the point where I think, if I really, really kick my own ass into putting in enough extra practice from now until then, I can deliver solid performances. It’s crossed over from the realm of this is never going to happen into the realm of the possible. I still sigh in epic relief any time I see a miniscule amount of progress – because I’m always afraid at some point I’m just not going to get any better at this – but I can see that if I keep going I’ll get there. That I actually can do this.

Which means, if I were to fail, I would still be choosing it. I would stop practicing out of fear; I would give up now. I would decide I didn’t want it that badly after all – which is a lie, but maybe a safe one. I would look at this jury in the overall scheme of things and decide that it’s still too small a piece of the puzzle – that even if I do this perfectly, I might not be good enough to even transfer in the Spring. That there’s no way I’m ever going to translate any of this into a career even with the amount of hard work I’m putting in. And remember, I’m actually totally lazy. This will never last. The real world will remind me that I’m not good enough any day now. And so on, and so on.

I’m not going to do any of that. I’m still terrified, every single day, every single time I reach for something new. I still hate the process of being bad at something until I get good at it. I hate it so much. But I’ve come to love those tiny realizations of progress so much that they’re enough to keep me going. And to trust that people’s impressions of me are right, and that my mental excuses have stopped actually affecting what I deliver in terms of actual work a long time ago, and it’s time to just shut them up for good.

Status: It’s Complicated

I was told a few weeks ago that I “hadn’t really made friends with my voice”, and almost had to laugh in recognition of this incredibly obvious fact. The list of other aspects of myself, most of them physical, that I haven’t made friends with is pretty close to infinite. If I could be a brain in a jar that happened to control a properly responsive physical self I would be ecstatic! But it got me thinking about my voice in particular and how I don’t remember always disliking my voice or even thinking about it.

I remember being a very young child and being told that I spoke very clearly and sounded older than I was – this at around second grade, so age 7 or 8. Then when I made my first attempt at acting, at age ten, I was continually told that I spoke too quickly and sang too quietly. I never experienced anything resembling stage fright at that age, but I couldn’t figure out how to talk slower or sing louder. It wasn’t a choice I was making out of any anxiety; it was just how I spoke. Slow down? Why shouldn’t everyone else just speed up? I would try, but it never stuck. I’m still told I speak very quickly, and honestly, listening to myself on recordings, I speak much more quickly aloud than I do in my head. My internal sense of tempo runs fast. I’m not a big fan of my speaking voice, though on a good day I can recognize that it’s not actually objectionable.

On a bad day, well. I slur certain combinations of letters. I do speak too quickly. I don’t vary my pitch so much when I’m attempting to project – that, I have been picked on by directors for, and have tried to fix it. Part of why I signed up for voice lessons several years ago was to improve my speaking voice as much as to learn to sing. I had higher hopes for that than for the actual singing part. (For the record: it’s helped some, though I’m more aware of it when I compare old recordings of myself to current ones.) On a bad day I despise my speaking voice as much as I am frustrated by my singing voice. Since the songs I’m working on right now require a very speech-like quality, I’ve really had to address the fact that I honestly have to think about how I’m speaking, otherwise the end result is (in my opinion) sloppy and not what I’d intended. I still get frustrated that what I imagine saying, in my head, doesn’t always cooperate in performance settings. (In real life I barely think far enough ahead of my speech – because I do speak quickly, at approximately the same time as I’m thinking a given thought –  to have that problem, though it lends itself to others, such as getting halfway through a sentence and realizing it’s grammatically awful.)

This is all a long-winded and rambling way of saying that my relationship to my voice has been messy and complex. I’ve been given an equal amount of compliments and criticisms on it that I honestly have no objective way of telling anything meaningful about it. I suspect that despite all of my perceived flaws, it’s totally normal and completely average. Which is comforting in some ways… until the part of my brain that despises being merely average kicks in and tells me that average is worse than hopeless. (Hopeless is interesting, you see!)

It’s a work in progress, like all the rest of it. I do wonder how many people who aren’t actors or singers actively think about their speaking voice.  If this blog ever gets readers (unlikely, since I’m not sharing it with anyone I know so that I can protect my ability to ramble in over-confessional streams of consciousness with my anonymity intact), feel free to chime in!

 

The In-Crowd

I haven’t really talked about it here yet, but I struggle with a lot of anxiety. Overthinking, too – either a cause or a symptom of said anxiety; I’ve never worked out which. It seems circular. The more anxious I am, the more I analyze situations, which make me more anxious. I haven’t found a great way to shut that down yet, but I’m working on it.

Lately a few happenings have pressed all the wrong buttons in regards to feeling like I’m always the outsider no matter how much I try to stay connected and in the loop. I don’t think people realize how difficult it is for me, how much of an effort it takes to appear as social as I do. I found myself saying to someone yesterday that I’m not really shy – that feels true, I don’t think it’s necessarily shyness as it’s not at all consistent and I can be ridiculously social and outgoing given the right setting. The inconsistency, I think, is what trips me up – people have told me once or twice that they’d never guess I was shy, but that sometimes I seemed aloof toward them in particular. Always entirely unintentional and sometimes hilariously so; the speaker was often someone who intimidated me for one reason or another. Usually I’m the most terrified of people whose opinions mean the most to me. The end result is they never realize this and a valuable connection is lost.

So that’s my own failing. The other is not wanting to bother people, so I rarely initiate contact outside of required/expected/necessary settings. I suppose that’s why I feel distant from most of my classmates, the age thing aside – most of them forget I’m older than they are, anyway.  I never want to invite myself where I’m not wanted. The end result is that I’m overlooked, I think, when people do things like get a group of friends together to put on impromptu performances. I think sometimes people make assumptions that I have this busy life outside of school – which, yes, I keep myself busy, but most of that is school. I throw myself into things 100% and sometimes the social aspects fall to the wayside.

It’s the thing that’s missing, I think. The reason people don’t necessarily call me first when they have a project I’d love to work on. They don’t know me, at best they know my work, my capabilities. Maybe that I’m generally responsible and usually nice (though most of these people have heard some of my epic rants) but not necessarily anything that makes me the person they’d like to collaborate with.

Some days I want to scream This isn’t high school! Judge me on my work, not whether or not I’m your bff!  Most days I’d rather people didn’t judge me at all, but I’m in the wrong field for that!

It’s something to be aware of and work on. Feeling excluded and slighted gets me nowhere.