What I Learned.

Now that it’s over, a brief overview of all the things that I learned about myself over the course of this program. Of course I learned a lot of practical and technical information, but these things, these personal things, are what made the change happen.

I learned:

  • That I am capable of getting up, utterly fearlessly, in front of a roomful of talented people and letting them see the products of my work, mistakes and successes and emotional reactions and all.
  •  That I am capable of dancing for three hours at a stretch even after years of not being a dancer. Even with bad knees. That I am capable of keeping up physically with people 10+ years younger than me. That I can push myself physically harder than I ever have in my entire life and feel amazing. 
  •  That I’m no longer the clumsy girl who tripped a lot and never learned right from left. That all it takes is some concentration and willingness to stop being afraid. That I need to trust my body to do the steps and stop thinking so hard.
  •  That all that stuff my teachers have said about letting go of tension actually works. That I’m capable of identifying those bad habits and breaking them. That sometimes it really is just as easy as working less hard.
  •  That I can sing the shit out of a piece that’s emotionally and physically challenging right now, on only a few days’ time to learn and practice it, and get a huge round of applause from my classmates.
  •  That I can accept criticism with grace and without hurt feelings, and shake off seemingly harsh words without dwelling upon them.
  •  That there are still many genuine, real, kind people in this business.
  • That maybe, just maybe, if I’m willing to work hard and let go of all my erroneous self-beliefs, I can have a career and a life in theatre.

So many things are starting to fall into place. Six weeks, and I can feel lessons I’ve tried over and over again to learn finally sinking in. I feel physical things happening to my body and voice that I’ve been trying so hard to wrap my brain around for years, never realizing that all it would take is six weeks of throwing myself into this world and just fucking going for it at all times, regardless of fear or self-consciousness.

I feel like there’s not an ounce of fear left in me. I feel like I could do anything asked of me.

And, unfortunately, two days after starting this entry, I already feel fear and doubt starting to creep in.  I can feel myself trying to return to being the girl who got comfortable with protecting herself. I refuse to let that happen; I’ve come too far to forget what I know, now.

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On Being Good Enough.

A few days ago something struck me all of a sudden: a realization that made me sad and angry at myself even as it signaled a boost in my self-esteem. I was speaking with some students in my summer program who are also a part of a highly-ranked conservatory BFA program similar to the one that rejected me as a freshman applicant some years ago. After speaking with these students, I realized that one of my long-held assumptions about myself was no longer true, and maybe never had been true. 

I was “good enough” (whatever that actually means) to be a part of this world. 

It sounds incredibly stupid and obvious, but I’d thought for years that I was not even good enough to seriously study theatre, let alone have an actual career in it. Even though it was something I wanted more than anything else I could imagine, I let a few negative experiences and the opinions of others tell me that I wasn’t welcome, even as a student. I assumed that I would find myself out of my depth in this program, that even the 3/4ths of a theatre degree that I acquired and the things I’ve worked on since wouldn’t count for anything because I had been a bad student, because I’d only done community and school productions, because I wasn’t good enough and that hard work and intelligence didn’t count when you lacked talent.

If anyone had said those things to me, or about me, I would have verbally eviscerated them, but of course, that’s defensiveness speaking. It’s not that I’m confident about my theatrical work; it’s that I think I should be. It’s that I have a lot of knowledge and a decent amount of experience and that should count for more than talent. It’s because I’ve got a good directorial eye and can analyze a character like nobody’s business and that should count, too. It does count. I have to believe it does, or else I’ve wasted my time and this thing that I’m so passionate about is a lie. 

I’ve carried around so much anger over this — seeing people get things that they hadn’t, in my opinion, really worked for because they were just naturally better, or prettier, or nicer, or something innate that no amount of hard work could mimic. And I thought I was fooling myself, that I didn’t have enough talent to even try, and that what skill — a different thing from talent — I’d managed to acquire wasn’t nearly enough to matter. I thought I was so deeply flawed that I wasn’t even teachable, and the worst thing about all of the above was that I was smart enough to be aware of my flaws, but too stupid to give up. 

It’s only when faced with a variety of students of varying levels of experience, training, and natural talent that I realize that I fit in with them seamlessly. No one thinks of me as the one who obviously doesn’t belong, even the few who know I’m one of the older students in the program. All of us belong. All of us are at different places in our understanding of this craft. We’re all good enough to be there, and I could’ve always tried again for the conservatory education I’d originally wanted. 

I’m angry at myself for wasting so much time and having so many wrong impressions of myself, for letting myself give up and play it safe for so long, for being so angry and jealous of others because I thought I was so much less than they were. If I’d heard a friend talk about herself the way I talked about myself, I would’ve yelled at her, tried to shake some sense into her, forced her to watch videos of herself until it sunk in that she was better than she realized. But I got angry at others who tried that with me. “You don’t know,” I’d always think. (And sometimes say out loud, removing the chance for them to try to know me.) “You don’t know, and you’re just saying that because you want me to feel better, because you’d say the same to anyone, because you’re my friend and you’re supposed to say that, because you’re just a nice person, but really because you have no concept of how deeply flawed I actually am, and if you knew that you wouldn’t even bother to lie to me.”  

There were always a few who could get me to believe, or at least hope, for a few moments, but it never stuck because I always thought I was smarter. They couldn’t know, but I could, because I’d lived with myself for my entire life, and besides, people with nothing invested in me had already told me how badly I sucked. It never occurred to me that I had changed, that I had grown, or… maybe those people were always just wrong. 

It was never going to sink in until I had my own confirmation, this arbitrary measurement that still let someone else define me. I hate that it took so long, and that I ultimately still had to compare myself, and let a single program determine that I was finally good enough to be doing the thing that I had never really stopped doing: acting, and learning. I hate that I judged myself so harshly for so long, and that I’ll probably still judge myself harshly in a million other ways now that this one’s losing its hold. 

For now, let this post be a reminder that once in my life I realized truthfully that I was good enough to be somewhere that mattered to me.

Artists vs. Performers

A conversation with one of my classmates made me consider the distinction (if there truly is one – my personal belief is that it’s kind of a nonsense distinction, and an awfully judgmental way of trying to determine what’s going on inside someone else’s head) between being “an artist” or (merely, the implication was) “a performer.” I do honestly think it’s a judgment that I’m not interested in making about other people, though the implication was that I ought to want to be an artist rather than a performer, myself.The program I’m in takes the view that it trains actors who sing and dance rather than singers or dancers who act. I’m in favor of that training for myself because it describes me and what I want to be, but I can’t help but think that it’s a frustratingly limited way of looking at people

Personally, I think I’ve got the “artist” side of the approach working just fine; I can research a character, develop or delve deeper into background, try out a dozen different line readings before settling on one, have a true emotional experience onstage, bring my own personal experiences into play when connecting with a character… all of those approaches that people try to tell you make the better actor. I would like to think that the amount of thought and care that I put into my characters makes me a better actor than I would be if I didn’t invest that time; I’m just not sure any of it translates to my actual performance. In that respect, I would love to have a little more of the performer in me. Plenty of art never sees the light of day, and I want to give something to other people. Otherwise, what’s the point of pursuing this as hard as I have been?

This reminds me of the argument I had with a friend who tried to tell me that, as a writer, I must desire an audience. That I must, on some level, write for other people. She was insistent that I had that motivation, or that if I didn’t, I wasn’t truly a writer. 

Really? Writing down my stories and experiences since I could hold a pen didn’t make me a writer? Another friend tried to tell me that taking an extended break from writing fiction or things meant for others to consume meant I was no longer a writer, and took it as a personal insult that I still occasionally used the term to describe myself — never mind that I’ve had at least one online blog or journal continuously since 2000, and at least one of them had an audience and a very specific style that wasn’t my own natural voice. I wasn’t a writer because I wasn’t writing a very specific thing. I was writing for myself, and that didn’t count. I didn’t count. I didn’t and don’t believe that, but my writing isn’t something I’m terribly interested in sharing. I’m going to do it whether or not anyone wants me to. Acting isn’t like that for me.

I want my acting to count, and the problem with both it and my singing is that I’ve been doing it for me. I’ve found that in the course of testing out my audition repertoire that the things I’ve sung thus far have all been chosen because I liked to sing them, because I connected with them, or, in some cases, because they would help aspects of my technique. But they don’t work as audition repertoire because they don’t “sell” me. I’m starting to realize that my audition book has to serve a very specific purpose, regardless of what music I’d like to personally study and develop and perform for others. That very specific skill — auditioning –needs to be purely for others; I can figure out what kind of artist I’d like to be on my own time.

My heart rebels against this way of thinking because I’ve discovered my voice so very recently that I want to sing everything, type be damned. But I want a shot at this, so I have to learn how to be a performer. I spend so much time in my own head that what I lack, right now, is a sense of how to perform versus simply act. I can act all alone in my living room, but I don’t really yet know how to make it about others. 

One thing that always cuts very deeply is when someone accuses me of being… I believe the last person to say it kindly in relation to my performance phrased it as “too wrapped up in [my]self.” It hurts because it’s true; even in my  offstage life I live very deeply inside my own head much of the time. I come across as self-centered; I talk about myself too much because all I want is to give others something to connect to. Asking questions is prying, but offering something of myself? That’s easy, until it’s not. Until it’s for an audience and I’m playing a character who is nothing like me, or too much like me. Until I’m singing a song that resonates too deeply or that I fear people will believe of me. Then sharing myself is too hard, I close off, and it doesn’t work.

Those are the times I need to learn that it’s not about me at all, and tell the story. 

No Change of Heart…

I’ve been entirely remiss in posting here about the opportunity that had me so excited and apprehensive all at once. For a while I didn’t even want to allow myself to be excited because I didn’t truly know what to expect, and the past few years have led me to protect myself in some ways while flinging myself headfirst off the cliff in others.

I also didn’t necessarily want to post after a single adrenaline-fueled week in which I was sure I’d found a new place to belong. It was instantaneous; my first epiphany was that I needed to throw myself at the dance portion of the program that I’d initially planned to sit out; a move that, upon beginning my third week, I don’t have cause to regret. Twelve hours of dance per week will make anyone stronger. I never knew my body was capable of dancing every day from 1.5-3 hours. Now I do.

My second epiphany came when I didn’t feel even the smallest flicker of nerves while performing for several different groups of strangers. Those nerves haven’t resurfaced, even singing songs that weren’t as prepared as I was accustomed to — songs that were still works in progress. I don’t know why my nerves went away so suddenly, as though they’d never been. Why, after three years of studying music and a lifetime of being terrified of my own voice, the nerves went away now. All I know is that I can barely even remember how they felt or what I was ever nervous about.

My first week was truly, truly amazing. I can’t remember a time in the past few years that I’ve been happier, but I do tend to get enchanted by new environments. Now, three full weeks in, my initial flurry of excitement has died down, but my appreciation hasn’t. I won’t say I haven’t felt minor annoyances, and I definitely won’t say that my body isn’t questioning my judgment when it comes to the dance classes. I won’t claim that I’ve felt confident every second, surrounded by people who are, for the most part, a lot younger, thinner, and more highly trained, if not more innately talented, than me. But for the first time in a long time I’ve felt like I can do this.

I just wish I knew what “this” is, for me.

What I love: immersing myself in the material. Working with people who are willing to throw themselves completely into this training, to leave all the bullshit outside the room and do the work. People who are willing to give and receive constructive criticism. The idea that this can be a career, that it’s not impossible, that I’m good enough to pursue it seriously even if I’m not exactly where I want to be yet.

What I don’t love: the idea of “selling” yourself. Being asked “what are you selling?” when I’m performing a song. Trying to find pieces that fit my “type” and being told that straying from type will get you rejected. Why? Why isn’t the story am telling with a song more important than who sang it before me, or its context inside a show that I’m not auditioning for? I don’t understand that. I don’t understand why casting directors want to be spoon-fed material. I understand that it’s a business, but this is the one that keeps stopping me.

I’m not a type. I mean that both literally and in principle: I’m difficult to type, physically and vocally. I’m working on improving myself in both of those areas, but all this type business does is make me feel the same way everything else in my life does: adrift and constantly seeking answers that aren’t forthcoming. What type am I? I’ve been trying to figure that out for my whole life. I don’t want to stand up and let a roomful of people tell me who they think I am: that kind of thing has only ever been useful for making me decide what I’m not. I’ve always been better at defining myself in opposition.

It’s a small cloud over the rest of the experience, which has been amazing in so many ways. I’m just physically exhausted and hitting that point where I need a recharge. I need to talk to one of my Voices of Reason, most of which I fear are just people who provide a confirmation bias: I seek out those with similar opinions so they can affirm the decision I was going to make, anyway. I think my own choices are terrible until someone else tells me they’re brilliant. And that’s bullshit, too: sometimes I think my own choices are brilliant, and think 90% of people are too stupid to notice.

I’m in a mood tonight, readers. I’m happy. I’m tired. I’m cranky. I’m not looking forward to Monday’s ballet class. I’m not looking forward to the program ending. I am looking forward to working my scene tomorrow evening. I am looking forward to immersing myself more fully in this literature for the rest of the summer, even after the program ends. I don’t know what I am. I just know I have to keep going.