your dreams may be stupid, but they’re still your dreams

It’s not that you don’t have talent.  Actually, perhaps it is.  The downside of going to so many workshops and even participating in a crash-course with a professional theater company is that while they’re nice to you and cheer you on and you learn a lot from the experience, you’re not quite sure any of them see anything in you.  Or scratch that; you know they don’t, because if they had they would have hired you straight out of the rehearsal room, like they did your prettier, taller, sexier, and more talented classmate.
You don’t blame them.  You don’t blame anyone but yourself for letting the dream chafe at you, rub you raw, eat at you until you would lay yourself low, abase yourself for the stage and its promises.  You smile and nod and take criticism, let yourself get cast time and again as some variation of hysterical and/or crazy, pride yourself on the small victory that whenever you act in college theater, you almost never get criticism from the director.
…But then that fact worries you because it may not be because you do nothing wrong, but because they think you can do nothing more.
You dream of Éponine.  Some days, you grab your mother’s oversized brown skirt, a ratty white tank top, a brown belt, your trusty cap from Korea, and a brown coat and walk around the 100sqM of the room you share with your mother, singing “On My Own” in French because that is how much you love the part–you learned French for it, you know what the song was originally supposed to say before it was made into English (a pale but beautiful copy).  You try on a variety of accents, from Gavroche’s heady cockney to Frankie Ruffele’s flower-girl whine.  You prepare.  You wait in the wings of an invisible theatre, then imagine the lights burning the tears in your eyes as you sing the anthem of every silly, dramatic teenage girl in the world.
(But you know, as Éponine fans are apt to do, that “On My Own” is about more than just unrequited love.  You know the ramifications of the first few lines of that song, the ones that auditionees usually cut–“And now I’m all alone again, nowhere to turn, no one to go to…”)
The part went to a girl you would call a Cosette: a slender young thing with a voice like a lark and the money to spend on training that she doesn’t really need; she has natural talent and that high high voice that Filipinos love.  You could never be Christine; you’d always be Meg Giry.  The Phantom would never kidnap you–you’re just an ambitious alto with a head full of stupid dreams and an ego too big to be consigned to back-up vocals.
You play character parts.  You did a very decent Gavroche, if only for one act.
You’re afraid no one actually thinks you’re talented.  That your teachers, your directors, the people you’ve friend-ed on Facebook who can see your ecstatic stats about the next audition, the next “big” part, are all secretly shaking their heads and smiling sadly and thinking “When is she going to learn this world isn’t for her?”  You trust no one’s opinion, now.  You make yourself small until the lights burn on you and you’re forced to be big because it’s become a matter of professionalism, of commitment, of discipline and dedication and my God, when did I start becoming one of the characters I played?

Some nights you go to sleep crying, but you make sure it’s early morning so your mom can’t hear you sobbing.
A rejection haunts you for weeks.  It took you two weeks to get over not being cast in May Day Eve, and even then you sobbed so loud when you watched the show (free tickets; you wrote the study guide) that you almost disrupted the whole thing.  When you didn’t get Éponine, you carried a hollow, dull feeling in you for a month, until the euphoria of mounting a production and fancying yourself in crush with one of your castmates carried that hollowness away.
You screwed up your audition for The King and I–the part was too high, and you were nervous.  You forgot your lyrics and the theater was so big you felt like you were drowning.  On the outside, you brushed it off.  On the inside, you were crying.
You’re tired of the roles you get to play, because they’re not the roles you want to play.  They’re simply variations on a theme of crazy–hysterical, character, over-achieving East German.  But you play them so well it’s almost like breathing.  Screaming and shouting and flailing and kicking and rolling on the ground onstage is not a problem for you.  You don’t care if someone sees your underwear.  You’re shameless.
You’re a whore, only whores get paid.  You do it for the audience’s laughter.
It’s a default mode, and it’s safe and comfortable and you can do it…but you want to do more.
Can I do more?

You don’t know.  You were taught that acting is a thinker’s art, and you try to think, but the fear chokes you until you’re sure your performance is less than perfect, less than the truth, less.
You foolishly dream of having someone unlock a freak octave in your galley-slave’s voice and you getting to play Christine.
Your dreams may be stupid, but they’re still your dreams.

My Life, In Auditions

408189_10150576570858698_563373697_10937546_1432360316_nThere I was, shaking in my chair, my over-sized linen polo soaked through with sweat.  In front of me, a jury of my peers: my audience and my competition both.  To beat them, I had to win them, but most of all I had to win the two people seated to one side, staring at me with notepads in hand, waiting for my next move: the directors.

No actor likes auditions, and with good reason: the pressure of trying to leave a good first impression can often feel like trying to navigate a shark tank while hoping none of its inhabitants smell blood in the water.  The process is a lot like going to court: you stand in front of judges, present your case, and hope that the verdict is in your favor.  Sometimes it is.  More often, it isn’t.  Either way you end up confronting your demons, waiting on that callback announcement or cast list or text message that will somehow prove that, at least this time, you were good enough.

The uncertainty is enough to drive a person crazy, but then again, uncertainty characterizes the life of the performer.  When you’re only as good as your last show, last audition, last review, uncertainty is your constant companion.  Auditions are horrible, but they are merely one of the many less-than-glamorous parts of being an actor.  The theater is a high-maintenance love, and falling for her means dealing with the bitter along with the sweet.  If nothing else, you deal with a never-ending series of auditions, of having to prove yourself over and over and over again, even when you don’t believe there’s anything left that you can prove.

It’s a lot like life.  If we really think about it, we spend most of our lives trying not to be the best, but to be good enough–good enough to belong, to have friends, to be worthy of notice.

To be loved.

This is a feeling I can relate to.  It’s not readily obvious (yeah right), but I am incredibly insecure, stemming from the fear that I am not good enough, but that I must needs fool everyone into believing I am otherwise I will never be accepted–I’ll be alone.  I live with fears of being replaced, of not getting chosen, of being ignored or cast aside or–worst of all–rejected.  I talk about these fears openly, but most people don’t, because to do so is to violate some sort of unspoken taboo.  It annoys people when you admit that you’re scared, that you’re vulnerable, that you’re actually afraid no one will love you.

Not so at an audition.  Here, surrounded by other hopefuls who make no bones about wishing you well and yet hoping they get in (even at the cost of you not making the cut), the demons that plague you can no longer hide in the dark, whispery corners of your mind.  They’re right there, in the open, for everyone to see, and that’s okay, because everyone in that moment feels them too.  And it’s not just in auditions where these little hidden things are forced to come into the light–this is the very thing theater is founded on.  It’s a counter-culture world, the world of the stage: you are forced to strip naked, lay yourself open, become vulnerable knowing that there’s a risk it can be used against you, because unless you do, you won’t survive.

And so that is what I did.  When my would-be directors asked me why I wanted to get the part, and why I wanted them to pick me, I burst.  With a voice full of self-deprecating cockiness at first, and later on the quaver of almost-tears, I told them that the theater was one of the few places that felt like home to me. (Perfect, given my audition song was in fact “Home,” from The Wiz)  I told them that despite being a selfish person, when I was in theater, I knew how to give.  I knew how to be.  Most of all, in theater I knew I was accepted.  That I was a crazy in a world full of crazies, safe behind the fourth wall and that in that safe space, I felt the most human, the most myself.  Finally, I told them–barely managing not to start sobbing on the spot–that they should pick me not because I was the best, not because I was good enough, but because I loved that home so much that I would be willing to put in the discipline, the hard work, the dedication–such unglamorous things, but the bread and butter of an actor, really–just so I could be part of something bigger than myself, to feel significant in my own insignificance, to belong.

I’m pretty sure my potential castmates thought I was nuts.  I wouldn’t blame them.  As I mentioned earlier, laying your heart open is a taboo in the “real world,” because in the real world, trust is a chancy thing–you don’t go giving it to just anyone.  In theater, however, you have to trust everyone, otherwise you’ll collapse.  An actor survives as part of a community, and even though after the show the community more often than not dissolves, the feeling of having been part of one doesn’t go away.  Lifelong friends are formed because of the necessity of trust.  My best friend and I met and bonded because we were, at first, castmates.  (Not to mention that I’ve fallen for at least three of my former castmates.)

In that audition room, I took a leap of faith, hoping that since the directors were theater people and this was a theatrical context, my breaking taboo could be understood.  I trusted that I could say things I wanted to say but couldn’t, and that in revealing my real self somehow that could be validated as worth something.  I didn’t perform, that night: I was actually me.  The irony was that it looked so much like a performance–like melodrama, really–that, as I said, I’m sure most of my potential castmates thought I was crazy.

In truth, maybe I was.  Auditions leave no room for sanity, really.  True, theater is a place where I can feel most myself, but that feeling comes at a price: forever questioning if that self is good enough.  With each audition, I am forced to face those demons that dog me daily in the “real world”: feelings of insecurity, of inadequacy, of the need to belong.

And if I do pass the audition, though there will be the excruciating sacrifice and stress of mounting a production to follow, there is also the joy of being chosen, belonging for a while to a cast and a family and a little world within a world where connecting with someone need not be as hard as it is across a crowded room or even a table at a coffeeshop.  I can ask my crush to marry me (and I did, for one workshop) without fear of repercussions, play a whore or a murderess and remain untainted.  Under the safety of an illusion, I can strip myself naked, explore my darker side, show my shadows as well as my lights, be completely vulnerable without fear of judgement…because it’s just a game.  Just pretend.  Just a show.

Only it’s never just a show.  For someone like me, theater is an opportunity to be a real human being–someone who lives for others, gives all she has, is authentic.  In the real world, I am playing the role of a girl of marble–high-achieving, self-reliant, intellectually superior, hyper-confident to the point of arrogance, impermeable.  But in the theater, I become myself: a scared, vulnerable, sensitive little girl who still craves a home and a family, a place to belong.  When I play the role of wife, mother, sister, daughter, lover, friend, I can be, for a little while, something that I am not sure I ever will get to be.  When I get to call a girl my daughter, a boy my son, another a husband or ex-husband (there have been a string of them) or boyfriend or ex-boyfriend, I become part of a family I can safely belong to, a group of people I can feel responsible for and be vulnerable with, even if it is just for a while.

Theater is home, hearth, career, and family all rolled into one.  And by its artifice, it proves that I can be real: human.  I think this is the reason why God–yes, I give all the credit for this amazing, painful, beautiful universe to Him–placed that longing in my heart, led me to the stage, turned a little girl who once performed for fame into a young woman(?) who treads the boards in order to learn more about herself, to be, to (and I will rip from an EDGES song here) become.

I will take those audition demons any day, because they keep the other ones I’ve nurtured in abeyance.  Better still, it silences them, proves them wrong, shows them that no, I will not always be that self-centered, self-absorbed, callous, tactless, insensitive, arrogant bitch (pardon my French) that I can be and most of them time am.  In theater, necessity makes me into someone better, and the fact that I can be that person in the glare of the spotlights gives me hope that one day I can be her when I am out of them.  Not the characters I play, no, but the person I must become in order to play them–sensitive to others, dedicated, concerned only with giving and being part of a cast and doing good for everyone’s sake and not just her own.  Most of all, I can be vulnerable, can by putting on a mask take off the one I wear every day and show the world the innermost, unspoken fears and desires and longings that offstage I would be foolish to show.  There’s a relieving of inner tensions here, a hope that things can get better even when things can’t.  It’s why, I think, I’ve often been pushed into theater in times I’ve needed an escape, when life has gotten too hard, relationships too strained, the future too bleak to be consistently thought of.  God knows that I needed it, needed the safe place to take off the mask and forget the restrictions I’ve placed on myself in order to be palatable.

I’m not the only one who feels this way.  Stories, essays, whole books have been written about theater and its power to help a person discover who they are and where they belong by allowing them the privilege of living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.  This is why people speak of needing theater–because there’s nothing else like it.  Nowhere else in the world (except maybe in that wonderful community called a Spiritual Family, but that’s an essay for another time) does the magic exist that allows a person to be at their most real.  In theater, we are freed by living a flight of imagination.  Most of all, we don’t have to do it alone.  You are part of a community of similarly naked people.  And when you’re all naked together, being naked doesn’t feel so strange or embarrassing or scary.  You can be yourself with other people, and they will accept you.  Most of all, together, through that arduous process of audition-rehearsal-show, you can hope to become better versions of yourselves, emerging transformed and as transformative agents.

One last thing about vulnerability: it actually makes you strong.  In being vulnerable, you show the world your demons, and because you show them, they lose their power.  They cannot feed in those shadowy places anymore.  Your strength lies in your weaknesses, in the fact that you face them head on and each time, you come out alive.

Isn’t that a lot like an audition?

Better yet, isn’t that a lot like life?

I got into that production–a musical revue united by a single storyline that, in a very poor summary (it’s past midnight and I should be asleep by now; forgive me), could be described as the lovechild of Glee married to A Chorus Line.  In it, ten teenagers competing for roles in the school’s musical (how very meta of us) end up, in that sacred space known as the audition room, discovering and revealing more about themselves than they’d known or shown before they walked in.  The show itself lasted little more than an hour, but it became the sleeper hit of our college theater season.

It’s title?  LI(F)E Auditions.

In the end, that title pretty much sums it up for me.  Theater, with its process of auditions and callbacks and casting and readings and rehearsals and shows and all the mess and the drama in between, has taught me to be vulnerable.  If my goal is that sense of belonging, then the price I pay is the questioning, the vulnerability, the courage to be myself and unmask the earnest longings theater has made me unafraid to hide.  Being an actor has helped me make peace with that, with the fact that while the demons may never truly go away, by acknowledging that I have them, I can survive.

Theater has been an audition for life: a test-drive to see if I can make it in the biggest role I’ll ever have to play: me.  And that is why I keep going back to it–because each time, I face another demon, discover something new, come out battle-scarred and exhausted and bordering on insanity but alive, vitally alive, and somehow better for the suffering and the self-doubt.

In closing, I’d like to end with a quote from an NY Times article that I “stole” from one of the directors of LIFE Auditions, Ikey Canoy.  Written by veteran actor Frank Langella, it’s called Theater; The Demon Seesaw Actors Ride (I know, fun title, right?), and gives a glimpse into the masochism–the fear, the trembling, the ups and downs and always, always, the demons–of a life lived on the stage.  But despite the pain, Langella concludes, or perhaps because of it, the work has meaning.  At the article’s conclusion, he writes:

With each new role comes a test of heart, mind and spirit. Through the work an actor find his place in society. Up against a task larger than himself, he can transform and overcome. More than suffering, more than success, more than defeat, the work strengthens and illuminates. It calms the tremble. It steadies the seesaw.

This is what theater is for me.  It calms my trembling.  It steadies that balancing act between role and self.  It forces me to look my fear in the eye.  And while I don’t always win, and the battle is never really over, I can be thankful for the small blessings of passing the audition, of clearing the hurdle, of discovering that somewhere there is a sliver of hope, a light I can share.

Regardless of the outcome, the glory of success or the desolation of failure, that knowledge is always, always a relief.