Two years ago nearly to this day, I had just recently published my book. About a month afterward, I was making the rounds. Many of my comrades in the theatre and comedy community had generously offered me various platforms for my publicity. One came through a show at a well known NYC comedy theatre.
It was the weekend before Sandy hit decimating New York. I stood with two former Tischies from NYU. Both of them had interned with a well-known theatre company. One girl, Megan, had trained at Experimental Theatre Wing and had SNL dreams. The other, Tilly, had done her training through the Meisner Extension. Both were disillusioned I soon found out as the conversation unfolded.
Megan had given up acting after her experience interning, because she felt burnt out. She also expressed that NYU had been artistically and academically so rigorous that now she was working as a makeup artist. In the next breath, Megan admitted that while she was burned out on acting, she missed performing and wasn’t happy with her work. She grudgingly did it because it paid the bills.
Tilly had been a star at the Meisner Extension and then ended up at the Classical Studio for her advanced training. In between, she did the summer at this theatre company like Megan had. Like Megan, Tilly too was burned out on acting but was somehow still doing it. Since graduating, Tilly had abandoned some of her aspirations in the theatre and was doing plays wherever. She relayed that she was in rehearsal for Sex With Zombies and Aliens: A Space Aged Drama. I could already tell this contrived piece was penned by a writer that was trying to be a comedian but the jokes were probably bathroom humor level. While I did not have a crystal ball, I could tell this painfully desperate piece was a craigslist effort in the making.
As they both spoke, they seemed to cut me out thus I functioned as the middle woman in this boat ride on the River of Broken Dreams and Self-Pity. At this theatre company, they apparently played favorites. Both Tilly and Megan were not on the favorite end for one reason or another. These things happen in the acting world. I know from experience. There have been times I was a favorite, but there have been times I wasn’t. It was like these two were stuck on a snag and resentment based on their experience at this place. I wanted to tell them this wasn’t the only theatre in town. For Goddssakes this is only New York City. I wanted to recommend that they go to where it was warm.
I did after a hellacious training experience my first year at NYU, and ended up at the Lee Strasberg Institute where I believe I had some of the greatest teachers in the world, hands down. My father petaguagean had a simplistic way to get into character, hence the term The Method. I still speak to my old classmates and teachers and fondly remember those red doors. I rarely think let alone speak about my first studio. So yeah, why the hell were they looking for oranges in the hardware store? Not every theatre or director will like you. It’s what being an artist is.
Then Tilly lamented, “You are either one of the cool kids or you aren’t.”
This is true. However, the cool kids always change on a dime. My first year doing comedy, I saw people who were on Last Comic Standing shine and be lauded as the next big stars. Years later, I see them aimlessly wandering around Brooklyn looking for spots. Then Megan asked Tilly, “Are you frustrated.”
Tilly mentioned she was. Frustrated. It’s a feeling I know all too well as an artist. The phone isn’t ringing and the less deserving are moving ahead. The ideas are popping out but no one is listening. You are well trained but no one knows about you. Yes, as a woman in comedy I know the sensation of getting kicked in the gut when I am bumped by a less talented male headliner because the producer is afraid I will ruffle his feathers by outshining him. I have experienced all these things and more. Add in being passed over for things on a technicality.
Then she mentioned she was. I asked Tilly what she was going to do about it. Only two years earlier I had felt her pain, one of the many comedy cattle in the city of New York. After being sexually harassed by a male booker, I felt discouraged. Male headliners propositioned me for sex over and over. No one wanted to listen to anything a girl carrying puppets had to say. I was being worked to death at a hole in the wall comedy club as an open mic host, and being given the worst spots one could get. The club owner wasn’t giving me what I wanted.
So at my friend Joe Cannava’s urging, I wrote my book. Then I published it. I focused on what made me who I was and stopped feeling so damn sorry for myself. These things were my personality, my puppets, and my ability to create my own work. Basically, I got out of my own way. I had chosen this profession, no one else. It is one where you are told you are likely to fail going in. When I asked the million dollar question, Megan and Tilly looked at me as if I informed them they had a flesh eating virus and only minutes to live. How dare I crash the boat ride on the River of Self-Defeat? Then I excused myself. Nothing new was going to be gained from this conversation.
At that moment it occurred to me that this is why a lot of people don’t make it in my field. It’s not lack of talent or lack of dreams. It’s a terrible attitude. Some of it is a sense of entitlement based on where they trained. Then add in the competition is in fact staggering. Of course it is a thousand mice going for one piece of cheese, and only one can have the cheese. But it is the defeatist mantra where you focus your energy on what you don’t have rather than what you do.
Aside from self-defeat and negative whining, jealousy is another trap performers fall into. I had an acting teacher in a summer theatre program, Jay O’Bierski, who used to tell us not to gossip. He would make a sing a song that went, “I’m going to get, out of the shit, yes, yes, yes.” At the time, this was a crazy concept. We were teenagers. We wanted to gossip. We were at a theatre camp, it’s what you did. Years later though, it all has sunk in and made sense.
Early in my comedy career, in my 50 dollars and a burger road gig phase, I used to go on road trips with other comedians. We would begin talking about say Bob Jones and how someone did a gig with him. For the first two minutes the conversation was nice. Then immediately, it turned into an assault on Bob and his character. Then someone would mention Bob was on TV. Suddenly, Bob wasn’t all that funny. Then it was Tom and we would go down the list. It felt superior to trash others in those days. I was fearful, I was insecure, and I had dreams I wasn’t sure would ever materialize. However, my dreams were not materializing because I was focusing on others and not myself.
When I began creating my own work, my fate changed and so did my outlook. Doors opened because I built them, and people with things to offer began to knock. While I would like to thank talent, it was more or less action that put me in a favorable position. As my luck altered, I found myself on the other end of the gossip stick. Those who had given me car rides were now spewing venom about me. When word got back to my ears, it hurt. My little heart was shattered. It shouldn’t have surprised me.
These bottom feeders were just being who they were. In a twist nearly out of the Bible, one young woman I had severely character assassinated came to my defense when my so called friends so badly about me. She mentioned she didn’t know anyone more deserving with more of a work ethic. Over time, the rumor mill has claimed both she and I have had a lot of sex that we weren’t present for. However, maybe she got ahead because she had a good attitude and didn’t associate with “the shit.”
Part of getting out of “the shit” is not letting bottom feeders drag you back down to their level. About a year and a half ago, I had several people insult me at an open mic due to some of my progress. Some were digs at my writing, and others at my ventriloquism. It got me depressed, and I began to lose my passion. After a chance facebook chat with a comedian I looked up to, I lamented my pain. My comedy angel informed me there was only one way to deal with negativity, and that was to starve it. He told me that if I fed into it, this would only make it worse.
Days later, as if in an effort of some flight of angels, I saw a former college classmate of mine on the street. This young woman was on Broadway at the time, and has a voice that is soulful like that of Whitney Houston. As she saw me, she hugged me and complimented me on my progress with my puppet children. It flattered me, because her life was going so well, but also because she was so positive and it seemed no one, anywhere was going to be happy for me. Then it hit, the magic word was me, me, me. And to think, she was the damn singer here. Point being, successful people are able to be happy for and appreciate the gifts of others. They realize that while they might have one gift, someone else can have another and we can all exist peacefully. In case you didn’t realize it, a performer that isn’t catty is more rare than a black diamond in NYC. After that two day universe God shot from the theatre and comedy worlds, I no longer indulged in “the shit” and haven’t been back since.
As a matter of fact, the essence of theatre and film is the collaboration of talents. During my book signing event this summer, it happened due to the fact I wrote a book. My skill as an emcee made the event move smoothly, and May Wilson made an appearance. However, my fellow singing telegram company comrades shined by lending their talents to the cause. Some had superior vocal ranges that I will never have, and belted out a song and musical comedy routine that made the audience applause. Others were daring, dressing in drag or doing burlesque, two things I have yet to master. Then my boss lent his knowledge of the industry as well as his love for both his employees and clients alike. This was the only way this could have ever happened…..appreciation for others.
Then of course sometimes we sell ourselves short. We believe we will always be the bridesmaid and never the bride. That it will never be our turn. I felt that way when my book went into the NYU Bookstore and the Brown University Bookstore. At NYU, my alma mater, I was shelved with a comedienne who had just sold her book rights to a Hollywood studio. At Brown, I was shelved next to a MacArthur Fellow. Both made me feel intimidated. I would never be that successful. Damn them both. Then it hit me, I was sharing shelf space with them. I had written a book. If I kept on my journey, maybe I could sell my book rights to Hollywood. Maybe I could be a MacArthur Fellow. They were winners, and if I kept on course I could be a winner too.
Then I remembered my early days in the city, where I followed people who are now on network television. Or at the time, they were making the rounds on network television. The truth is, while it scared me, I learned a lot. In order to get good, you need to be around good. Heck, Sir Laurence Oliver lamented in his autobiography about his understudy, a bright young actor named Anthony Hopkins who was the bane of his existence because he was daring and talented. While this was true, imagine the dread poor young Tony from Wales must have felt waiting in the wings, ready to replace the genius and legend if something were to happen. Those were big shoes to fill.
This being said, of course we get frustrated. Of course it’s not fair. Of course it is oh so tempting to give up. That is when you have to look at the big picture. If a door is not opening, maybe it is time to build one. That way, knocking can occur. Don’t focus on what isn’t happening, focus on what is. Stuck, feel inspired? Take a class. I took several this summer and one recently that refocused my energies and changed my life. Waiting for the phone to ring? Write. Have a thought or idea, get it on paper before it flies out of your head.
Yes, there is so much that is intangible. Yes, there is a lot you cannot control. No, you should not and cannot be defeated.
There is a difference between powerlessness and helplessness.
Powerless you may be. Helpless you are not.
Remember those words on your journey and walk through a life in art.