Friday, September 12, 2014

A Walk Through A Life in Art

When I came to the city for college nearly ten years ago, it seemed like so many of us wanted to be stars. Even as I was merely intriguing at NYU, my mother asked me if I was sure I wanted to start out in New York. The place was saturated with competition, and everyone was going to be talented. She pointed out that perhaps a place like Boston might be better. That way I could hone my craft, and then move to New York. But New York was what I wanted. The stimuli of Times Square and the city that never sleeps was my dream. I wanted to create art, change the world, and eat the Big Apple up like a huge piece of chocolate cake…..

As NYU students, we all did. We all wanted to take the stage, change the world with our art, and hung on to every word our teachers uttered. As theatre practitioners in training, we became married to our technique in a somewhat militant fashion. We had our sections, and as a group we became close. As an ensemble of sorts, we became a platoon, that is, if platoons wore comfortable movement clothes. We laughed at certain instructors who were eccentric. We also crowded around a weakling, knowing that weakling could have been any of us. Studio was where we lived and breathed. It was our home, our protective swaddle against a world that doesn’t have room for love let alone art at certain points. It was our way of fighting the man in a way. Showing there was room for language and message as opposed to commerce and greed.

I can still remember running to class, coffee cup in hand. Through the red doors of the Lee Strasberg Institute I would go. Showing my ID, I chucked my coffee cup with the skill of an MLB pitcher. In the trash it went, and skipping into the Marilyn Monroe Theatre I took my metal folding chair out. I always remember her picture watching me as I went in. Yes, she was a prized pupil of Lee’s. All my teachers that studied with him called him Lee by the way.

I got in my chair, and our teacher came in. It was time to work. Time to engage in the voodoo practice the rest of the studios frowned upon. I would let them believe it was voodoo, I didn’t care, it was pure brilliance. Off to work we went. As we entered Sense Memory Time, my acting teacher would come over and say, “Relax your brow.” Then we would be commanded to make a sound if we had a feeling. Dear God, I had so many of those it was both a blessing and a curse.

After Sense Memory time ended, it was time for more coffee. I would run across the street paying slightly too much for a cup in our Irving Place locale. So would my section mates. In front of the school, the institute students would sip on coffee and smoke cigarettes. Some of us just had coffee, and others grabbed a quick smoke. Conversations were about art, theatre, and various playwrights. It was the utopia Lee Strasberg created and NYU enabled me to be a part of. As some puffed on their cigarettes they fancied themselves beatniks and maybe even the reincarnation of James Dean, a famous institute alumni.

As we walked back to class we dreamed of being on Broadway. Perhaps we would write the next great play. Or maybe there was an Oscar in our future. We had our training, we honed our chops, but more than anything, we had our dreams.

When we weren’t training, we took theatre studies classes. When I speak about it to people who aren’t familiar, it sounds like academics sniffing shoe polish. In reality, they were quite interesting. We wrote essays, explored discomfort onstage, and became aware that there was an awful lot of good theatre below 14th Street. Because of those classes, I knew Wilhelm DeFoe not only as the Hob Goblin, but as a founding member of the experimental, avante guarde Wooster Group. After staging a production of Routes 1 and 9, a piece performed in black face, their NEA funding was yanked. Was this malicious white intellectual racism or a parody on stereotypes? As a class we had a lively debate. Then we made plans in our minds to create the next piece to make people stop and think. Bonus if it pissed off the NEA.

Art was safe. Our dreams had a hope of becoming real as we held them like treasure close to our hearts. Then the impending demon arrived, adulthood.

Out of insomnia and curiosity, I was on facebook the other day and decided to look up some old acting chums to see what they were up to. In the course of our paths, there are some of us in the theatre. Others have gone on to film. Then there are those who work behind the scenes. Others write. Then there is the breed like myself, the control freak, who insists on being a Charlie Chaplin creating her own work and doing it all herself.

However, I looked up some of the others. To my horrified shock, surprise, and ultimate chagrin a large number of my classmates are no longer in New York. I would have to say a good ninety five percent of them are no longer involved with the theatre or performing in any capacity whatsoever. Heck, it’s like they got their degree and tossed it out the window with the dreams they once had. Their NYU BFA is probably hidden away in an attic or memory box. It’s like they aren’t using their degree, and are almost living their lives as if those four years never happened.

I want to ask them, what happened to you? Did you not know the world still needs art and love? That the world needs your voice? What were you thinking when you decided to leave New York and turn back? What’s wrong with you!

However, I can answer that question. Wanting to take the stage, write, and change the world is a wonderful and noble dream. The reality is a different story. More often than not, the acting reality is a river of bullshit. Most actors are subjected to cattle calls and getting a decent, reputable agent is a nightmare. On top of that, hearing no became such a normal thing you almost became used to the word. Rejection they say is not personal, but after a while, it starts to feel like it is. Casting people sometimes are eating or barely look up when you are in the room. Not to mention sometimes you never hear back from the people you submitted a script to. On top of that, most folks slave away in a crappy day job they hate as they wait for the big break.

After a while, many ask themselves if they want to waste their youth and their life chasing a pipe dream and wiping a table top? They see older actors they know dying with nothing but their stories. Or older actresses who never made it, damned to die and exist as bar maids, chasing the big break that will never happen. These people never had the chance to find a partner or a family. Not to mention the normie peers are getting married, buying homes, and having children. They are advancing in their jobs, and many times actors are trapped in the food service world. They feel life is passing them by, and the dream of being an artist is just that, a dream. Reality bites and they want out. So no, I don’t blame them for exiting stage right. What makes it sad is some of the most talented people I know made the grand finale never to return to the place that they shined. It’s like their desire was squashed like a bug and they took a bow, making curtain call permanent.

As I went through my list I saw various classmates with loads of talent who used to make my jaw drop now seemingly doing nothing with it. One young woman I remember did a hell of a Queen Gertrude and even went so far as to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Her dream was to perform at the Shakespeare Theatre in DC, and also take over the Public Theatre here in New York. Now she is teaching high school English in her home state of Oregon. Her life seems so mundane and normal I want to ask, what happened to the goals you had and the veracity you chased them with? Remember when you told me your plans as we got ready for a junk food binge at The Space Market?

After that I saw the Dialects Queen. This girl could master any dialect there was, and as believable as Meryl Streep if not more so. Not to mention when she sang, she threw herself into a song piece with everything, and had a singing voice and stage presence akin to Maria Callas. Additionally, her hair was pitch black and her eyes were deep green. I remember how striking she was onstage. Now she is back in her home state of Arizona practicing divorce law, specializing in domestic violence situations. It was like she traded the period costume for the power suit, except the power suit isn’t a costume.

Another classmate of mine was funny. When I say funny, he had skill akin to that of John Belushi when he took the stage. The room stopped and all we did was laugh. I still remember him talking about how his only dream was to be on Saturday Night Live. Well after graduation he performed improv and then some sketch. Like a lot of people he worked in waiting tables. Now though, he decided to make a career out of the whole restaurant thing. Yes, he learned to cook and opened a restaurant of his own in his home state of Wisconsin. I suppose he is still using his big personality and the spotlight is different, but doesn’t he miss the thunderous laughter and applause?

Another young woman I remember was a hell of a tap dancer. She could have put Sayvon Glover to shame. As a matter of fact, when I was struggling to learn tap, and I am a horrible tap dancer, she was of great assistance. After graduation, she performed at some shows at Brooklyn Academy of Music and was even an active part of a dance theatre for a while. Well, she decided to dance into the corporate direction and applied to the MBA program at the University of Mississippi. She is just about done, and will be directing in a whole new way. Still, it’s weird. I want to know what happened to the dreams of being part of Stomp and The Blue Man Group? You used to talk about them every chance you got.

Then there was one guy I remember who now works as a bank executive. As the years have gone by, he has become pretty high up. Previously, he was predicted to be the big star of our class. Dark hair with piercing lady killer eyes, he was easily a leading man. Teachers even told him what a future he had in film, and many of us would envy the easy praise he got. However, he was also kind, funny, and could act the paint off the wall.  After college, he even had some successes, especially scoring a nice supporting role on a prime time show. Word on the street was he didn’t like the time and commitment and financial instability, so now he works as a banker in Dallas, Texas where he grew up. Once a leading man, always a leading man, right?

Another classmate of mine had the voice of an angel and could have won a Tony or been a pop star, she used to tell me either would suffice. In college, she got the chance to sing back up for a well known pop star who’s name escapes me. In any event, it looked as if the stage was calling her. Around graduation, she signed a contract with Sony. Shortly thereafter, I heard something happened and the contract fell through. After that, I lost track of her.That is, until she popped up on my news feed. She fell in love with a dude in her home state of Florida, moved back home, and is now in nursing school. It’s not just a change down stream, it’s another direction entirely. She still has the same smile, the one that could have been on any album cover.

After her is another classmate who was a great dancer and could have been a Rockette. Actually, she auditioned and got cut twice. The second time she almost made it, just had to lose a few pounds. She was a bit of a diva I remember, so I didn’t feel totally terrible. When college finished, she did a few theatre festivals and shined. She also got a dance captain role on Broadway. However, I guess it’s not what she wanted. So like the others, she went the opposite way and became a physical therapist. Now she has a husband and daughter. Her dreams of the lights, well they are now dark.

Then there was another girl who could have been the next Sandra Bullock. She was bright, funny, and not to mention pretty. I remember what a good heart she had, too. I was sure this girl was going to be a star. Even after her NYU days were over, the arrows pointed that way as work seemed to pour in for her with no effort. After her brother died in an ER visit gone wrong, her priorities changed and she enrolled in a Post-Bacclaurate Program at Columbia University. Now she is getting ready to apply to medical school. Sure, she is going to play a doctor, just not one on TV.

Finally the most surprising ball dropper is one who I met and loved my freshmen year. Easily one of the best actresses in the class, she got every technique exercise down. I still recall how easily she morphed into character, and was envious of her talent as well as her heart. When I had a breakdown freshmen year, crying because I was being destroyed by the rigorous training program, she gave me a hug and told me it was going to be okay. She also assured me being dedicated to my craft was the only way to combat my fear of never being enough. This young woman shined, and dreamed of winning an Oscar. She told me she would, and I knew it wasn’t just a reach but she would have crushed Jennifer Lawrence. Well she fell in love, got married, and moved back to her home state of South Carolina. Now she is a stay at home mom. While she probably acts like she’s not bored sometimes, no Oscar there.

I want to shake some of my cohorts for dropping the ball. I want to yell at them for abandoning ship and failing the cause. Taking creative license with Marlon Brando’s words in On the Water Front I want to scream, “You coulda been a contender!!!”

The truth is, they have not failed the cause nor have they failed themselves. Dreams change, and sometimes they evolve in ways we never imagined. Mine have. I am an artist who creates her own work, and write my own ticket. While I have my challenges as an indie filmmaker, comedian, puppeteer, and writer, I would never trade my path or my struggles for anything.

My former classmates have had their dreams evolve and change as well. Not everyone wants to be a starving artist forever, and I cannot blame them. A career in art is one where you basically have to accept that you probably aren’t going to have a family or stability. Not everyone wants to dive head first into an existence which means giving yourself fully to a craft and career and often getting very little and return. Some people, actually most people with a kernel of rationality, want security and home and hearth. Lizzie in the Rainmaker says it best,  “My dreams are simple like my name, Lizzie.”

Yes, some dreams are more simple, more ordinary. It doesn’t mean the dreams are any less important, any less vital. At the end of the day, it is just a career. Yes, a career, just a career and nothing more. While so many entertainment professional define themselves by their roles, TV appearances, club dates and other notches on their belt, the audience does go home. We often forget there is more to life outside of the musty smelling basements or theatres we showcase or skills in. We forget there is reality outside of our imagination, reality where other people feel, desire, and think. And those desires are more basic but still as vital as ours. While the world needs dreamers, the world needs more ordinary people to dream those dreams, too.

Also, the world needs creative people everywhere in all facets. The Shakespeare savvy schoolmate probably uses her knowledge of the stage and text to enlighten her students about classical playwrights in a whole new way. The Funny Man will be the personality that everyone looks forward to when they enter his restaurant, a place that will be filled with love and laughter. The Dialects Queen with the voice of Maria Callas probably now lights of the court room, not only with her arresting stage presence but a hell of a closing statement. As for the tap dancing MBA, she will now use her creativity to sell good, motivate her staff, and they will have some interesting and fun team building exercises. Then the handsome leading man will be able to engage customers and be extra successful with his personality, command of the language, and charisma. My angel voiced friend will use that mega watt smile to greet a sick patient when they need one. As for the could’ve been Sandra Bullock, she’ll use her sweet personality and compassion as part of her bedside manner. The almost Rockette probably has better knowledge of her body than most from her dance training, and now she can help others with that skill set. And my friend the ex-Oscar contender now stay at home mom, well, she won’t shun her child for being creative. Instead she will welcome it with open understanding. Had they not studied acting and taken the plunge, they would not be able to contribute in the unique ways normies cannot.

There are times where it is tempting to join the ball droppers. Certain days I wonder how much longer I can be on my own, without a partner. I also begin to wonder if all I have sacrificed and the unbalanced life I lead, dedicated to career and craft, is worth the time and money spent. Sure, there have been some wins. The wins have been sweet, I will not lie and the pay off amazing. Yet at times the disappointments and defeats have been staggering, so much so it’s like swallowing a pill full of razors and rat poison. While my passion has paid my rent sometimes, at other times I have wondered where my next meal was coming from. Not to mention the nepotism, politics, and other bullshit is crushing. There are times when I want to know how and why I am even here doing this?

Add in the tinge of doubt from relatives who know my career has had some sparks but I am not a household name. They ask when I am moving home. Others ask me when I am getting married, and add in that a husband would mean stability, a home, and children. Lest we not forget the people who ask me when I am going back to school for a more grownup career. Yes, one with real money and real responsibilities, not this pretend crap involving looks, schlepping around with nothing, and a smoke screen world. Then it appears perhaps the ball droppers might have known a thing or two I didn’t, and maybe they had the answer all along.

Then there are times New York wears me out. From the bipolar weather to the high cost of living, I nearly had a breakdown this past winter. There are times when I feel like I could crack under the pressure of the city, the rat race, and the dream I am always trying to grab onto that sometimes is like Velcro, and sometimes is like butter. Then the grown up world outside of New York begins to look damn good.

Then as if though a time machine, I am transported back to my college acting studio. Through the muscle memory of the Sensory work I did, I remember the feeling of the warm, protective swaddle against the cold, unfeeling city. I felt safe, secure, and artistically welcome. There was laughter, there was creativity, and most of all there were dreamers. My eyes begin to well up. I hear the voice of an acting teacher I adored saying, from the past, echoing, “Relax your brow.”

I also remember this same acting teacher who knew more about me than I did. He explained I was a have to, and this career was not a choice for me. In theatre school, not everyone gets this distinction but I did. He also explained to me that my ability to be creative kept me out of trouble, trouble I would get in if I wasn’t occupied. This man was right. My imagination has functioned as my friend and as my enemy. When I cannot write, my mind becomes a nightmare where my thoughts are a prison. When I am not onstage making others laugh, my sense of humor becomes rather devilish and I am the ultimate prankster, causing the destruction of friendships. Thank God for puppets, otherwise I can’t lampoon people who I dislike. Instead, I will just tell them right out getting myself in more trouble. Of course character work keep me sharp, and that way I am growing and not myself into too much offstage drama. Yeah, there is a need here. I have tried to escape it, but it always comes back to his.

There are times when I wish there was no need, where I could just be normal. Leading a life where one never knows what is next can cause great stress and anxiety at times. As there are moments when I invest in property beachside in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I remember the risks taken by Lee Strasberg and Stanislavski before him. The life in art was not an easy one, but they embarked. 

Now we regard them as the greatest masters of all time. If this was easy, everyone would be doing it.
That is when I know I have to keep living the life in art. Not just for myself, but every young dramat in their first semester of theatre school, dreaming some of the dreams I now live. Also, I do it for my former schoolmates who opted to leave the creative world. That way, the dreams they once had still have a life somewhere, and those dreams are not useless or forgotten. In my walk, my journey, I let them know a life in art, no matter how it is translated, was worth it. My victories are just not for myself, but for all of us.

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