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.

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Why I’m Bad At Improv

This post was going to be about my experiments with yoga, and it was going to be funny, damn it, because I am uncoordinated and can’t take yoga-speak seriously, and these two things add up to hilarity! Instead, it’s going to be me trying to sort out why I have trouble with (acting, but maybe also a little bit musical) improv, because on paper I feel like I should be good at it – but I think the reasons I’m not tie into a lot of the things that hold me back in all aspects of performance.

First, the context: I’m doing an ongoing, kind of informal project that involves a small amount of improv. It’s a relatively low-stress setting; I’ve worked with some of the other actors and the director before. So there is no good reason for me to be sitting here having a minor anxiety attack over it, except for the fact that I think I’m bad at it. Or just not good at it yet. Maybe those aren’t the same thing, but they don’t feel different enough to matter in this moment.

On the surface, I feel like I have the building blocks to be good at improv. I’m a quick thinker. I’m insightful, I’m creative, I’m a natural-born storyteller. I’ve been making things up since I was old enough to invent three imaginary playmates. I’ve been acting since before I knew what acting was. I should be great at the “take an idea and run with it” part. I think I am decent at that part, actually.

What I’m bad at: humor, I think. This is ridiculous to me, because I remember times when my entire personality was constructed of ways to be subtly but constantly humorous. I’ve played spacey, sarcastic, self-deprecatingly awkward, and think I landed at some combination of all three as defense mechanisms. I’m pretty sure I have no actual sense of humor about myself; I’m stung when a friend teases, even gently. But I do have a sense of humor – I married my husband because he made me laugh every single day. I laugh at incredibly stupid and simple things, at the irony of everyday situations, at tiny humorous things that occur only to me, at random associations, and yes, at myself if I’ve noticed the humor first. I’m constantly, constantly amused by something – but I can’t find it and offer it to others. I couldn’t always explain if I wanted to; it rarely translates.

I think what I’m really bad at is focusing outward. I may be on the social end of true introverts, but I am very inward-looking to the point of possibly coming across as too wrapped up in myself. It’s not that I’m not interested in other people – I’m just usually so concerned with not doing anything stupid or weird or wrong that I don’t have that much attention to spare. And, frankly, if I’ve chosen to associate with someone, I already approve of them pretty much completely and am convinced that one poorly-chosen phrase will make them rethink their entire opinion of me. This is ridiculous, but it explains a lot. You can’t improv well when you’re so worried about what people will think that you’ve forgotten the audience and your scene partner. Or if you’re so worried about what your scene partner will think that you’ve forgotten you’re playing a game.

More outward; less self-conscious. This would, I think, solve 99% of my singing and acting problems. Unfortunately, short of alcoholism, I don’t see any direct way there. Have I said before that I understand why so many performers turn to substance abuse? I do understand that — beyond the arts simply attracting addictive personalities, It’s nice to give up the illusion of control for a while. I just wish we came equipped with a switch to turn it off when it’s getting in the way of… everything.

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?