Should I give up on having a life in the theater?

I've let go of my acting career, but it won't let go of me.

Published January 26, 2006 11:12AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I've composed the same letter yeahmany times over the past year without ever having hit the Send button because, during a writing episode, sooner or later I've been able to bury my little problem in my head just long enough to keep it from going nuclear. But this morning. Oh Jesus. One little phone call, and my emotions are stealthily clawing their way up through the grave. Again. Oh, the drama.

I never explicitly grew up with the need to become an actress -- it was never a life's goal -- but nevertheless I graduated with a degree in theater (I had fallen in love with Shakespeare) and went on to audition for, be accepted in, and finish an MFA professional actor training program out West. I moved to New York like aspiring actors are supposed to do, got tired of temp jobs and being lonely and broke and living off of friends and not having an agent. I left after only five months to take advantage of another job opportunity in another state -- in a different field 180 degrees away from theater.

Wouldn't you know it, that opportunity fell through, and since I had spent all of my money on the move, I found myself once again broke and stuck and lonely -- in New England.

I've been in Boston for four and a half years. The city is OK; wherever you go, there you are, right? I've stayed at one crappy job only to move on to another crappy job because I can't figure out what I want. Ironically, whenever I have made the decision to want something, I have always gotten it. Always. I want to want something again. Even if I'm wrong! I'm so sick of being in limbo.

So here's what prompted me to hit the Send button: I went to a play last night, something I rarely do nowadays because it's a surefire way to unleash old demons. The theater is incredibly seductive -- or at least my memories of it are. Now I've been thinking nonstop about the creative life vs. the present-day office life that I hate, and the breezy ways of actors vs. the uptight lawyers in their suits who occupy my building. I'm in my mid-30s now, and for the last two years I've been working as the assistant to a very needy octogenarian real estate entrepreneur (and I have little patience with needy men). This is the last place I expected to be.

I know I'm romanticizing a lot of this, because I never did honestly see myself living the New York actor's life in the first place, but I spent so much time -- a good 10 years -- in some kind of world of theater, be it either educational or, through my graduate school MFA program, professional, that I can't help feeling confused about where I think I want to belong. I know I don't feel like myself in an office.

So here's the rub. Myself and members of my MFA class all became Equity eligible after graduation (basically means that we are free to join Actor's Equity, the professional actor's union). I was disillusioned at the time and put off joining. I never joined. But seeing that play last night made me mildly curious, so I called Equity this morning to check on my eligibility standing.

Guess what. Seems I'm no longer eligible. My beginning date of eligibility was Oct. 27, 2000. Actors have five years from that date to join Equity after becoming eligible. I've expired! Grad school was a stupid waste of time and money. I'm an idiot.

This seems like the perfect opportunity to let go of a dream that never really was. Even though I detest my job, I have a lot of other things going for me -- I'm in a great relationship, I'm healthy, I'm still active and curious about life -- but even though I have done nothing during the last four and a half years to perpetuate the need of keeping a theater dream alive, still I keep it alive. I want it dead. I want to move on. But I still feel a part of me -- even though it's a constantly diminishing part of me -- is there (like I said, theater is seductive). If I could only figure out something else to want, I would be OK. But I feel like this stupid theater thing is what's keeping me from moving on and wanting something else.

So how do I let it go? And how do I get out of my own way? I hope you can help me.

A Reluctant Drama Queen

Dear Reluctant Drama Queen,

In the same way that you penned many letters before finally sending one to me, I have written many words to you already, before realizing that they were all rather empty. Perhaps because your question hits so close to home, because it is a question that I struggle with daily, I have been writing around it for the past two days.

So I had to go back to the beginning this morning and start again, trying to talk to you in a calm, level voice, aware that my motives are not pure, that I am stirred up and conflicted (I would like to impress you; I would like to dazzle you; I would like to show you that I know you; and all the while I am playing to the audience, not to you). But ... I do this a lot, don't I? -- I write draft after draft, unsuccessfully, before coming to, as it were, to find you still sitting there waiting to hear something useful that is not about me. And still, even as you are clutching your bag readying to go -- still I insist that I must carefully recap for you all the fruitless byways I have already explored; while much of my trouble is simply procedural and not artistic at all, still I allude to the difficulty of my craft, looking for sympathy, which is so co-dependent and unprofessional!

But as I fumble around like Columbo, I take in more than I seem to. I have an idea about you, about who you are and what your real problem is. To be blunt, I think it's clear that you have to find a place in your life for theater work. This may mean making some adjustments. If you cannot make a decent living working only in the theater, then you must work two jobs.

Doing this may involve making some discoveries about your capacities, your temperament. It may mean learning to live with some psychic discomfort. But I say this because I sense that you and I are close in temperament. The way you have scaled remarkable heights only to find yourself shrunken into servitude -- this I recognize, this outsize capacity for expansion and contraction and for extravagant achievement and careless waste, the feeling that one's calling is not a gift but a burden, the desire to be done with it once and for all -- all these things I recognize.

In fact -- and here I will share with you a paragraph drafted earlier -- I too let my eligibility for a professional milestone lapse. I completed all my coursework, passed my orals and had my creative thesis approved in graduate school for a master's degree in creative writing. Then I delayed for seven years the completion of some minor paperwork. Now I cannot have that master's degree that I worked so hard and so proudly to obtain. Strange, is it not? Indeed, such perverse delay is in one way a kind of proud renunciation, a protest. At bottom there is something pure and revolutionary about it. But there is also something self-destructive. The two work together in tandem, in a death dance, the revolutionary and the suicidal.

To be neither revolutionary nor suicidal but to pursue our work as it is revealed to us, to do the tasks that are handed to us by the force of our nature: That is the struggle that we actually must undertake to be whole, to be full participants in humanity.

You have a keen desire to work in the theater. This is the work that is handed to you by the force of your nature. Yet you run from it. Running from it pains you. Yet still you run. You will have to stop running sometime and face it.

We do not always find the work we think we will find; it is sometimes more as if the work finds us when we are ready. Look at me, writing an advice column. What am I to make of this? It is not drama or poetry or fiction or song. What is it? Why am I doing it? Why am I not onstage at some glittering event with some other writers whom I openly admire but secretly deride, all the while knowing nothing of their work? Why do I recoil from events at which writers are present? There I am, the untidy man in the corner at the art opening, drinking from the can in a paper bag! Why?

Well, perhaps because you and I want far more from the world than we let on. We have extravagant gifts, but we are deeply flawed. We are children! We don't know how to act! We can't concentrate! We grow bored and impatient! We'd rather slave away in an office than do mediocre art ... and all the while, we lie helpless before the gods; no matter what, we cannot stop doing what we do. We are in fact led to accomplish much, even as we deny what we are doing. At least you got the MFA. I didn't even get the degree. I started a punk band. What was that all about?

Anyway, now that I'm leveling with you, here is the way I was going to begin my response; here is my cerebral summation of the situation:

I see you onstage in a play. In the play something is hidden.

What is hidden is your essential nature. It cannot be killed. It won't go away. It must be dealt with.

What is the classic dramatic resolution to the problem of our struggle against our essential nature? Either this: We fail tragically fighting it; we go mad; we become rigid and monomaniacal; we shut ourselves into a room; we try to kill everything that disagrees with or threatens us. Or this: We make a discovery; a miracle occurs; the thing that threatened us is transformed, through revelatory action, into something beautiful that sustains us. Dammit, I am an actress! Dammit, let's put on a show!

Sure, make fun of it. But it's the truth.

That's what I had written. Isn't that rather stilted and pretentious? Sure, there is probably some truth in it. But Oh, the cleverness of placing you, an actress, onstage in order to make some point about "classic dramatic resolution"!

Here, though, is something else that perhaps we share: the grandiosity of our expectations. Have you ever felt, for instance, that if you are really to do theater that it must be the most pure, the most white-hot, the most completely absorbed thing imaginable -- that if you are to do it, you must surrender to it so completely that you might in fact disappear, or die, or become someone else, or stand naked and sobbing in the footlights? Is there an apocalyptic expectation deep in your heart, or a feeling that if you are to become an actress then you will be an actress like no other ... is there a fear that to acknowledge this dream means to expose something, or risk failure, or turning out to be ordinary?

I can only speak for myself in this regard. (Oh, boy. That's probably just pitiful me we're talking about.) I know that for myself the dream is to be an artist, but that attempting to live as an artist, the poverty, the betrayals, the insecurity ... have all led me to turn away, to seek jobs in journalism and industry. But I continue, in my way. I continue working. I know that I lack certain essential abilities. I am trying to acquire them. It seems to me that I have no choice.

Well, I have tried to give you some of my thoughts. I could suggest other things as well -- that your impulsiveness may be harming your chances of gaining a career, that you may need to learn to tough it out in a bad job while you keep going on auditions, that you may have a low threshold of psychic pain, that you need to simply work within your limits, things like that. But the one thing I would like to say most plainly is this: I do not think you can successfully fight your essential nature; if you fight it you only go mad; it must be transformed through revelatory action into something that sustains you.

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