As a very young child, I could spend hours on the swingset outside my childhood home, telling stories to myself under my breath, playing every role. My parents have video of this– a tiny blonde girl in blue gingham, placing a dandelion blosson in the palm of an imaginary friend, circling the slide, talking softly to herself, weaving a tale in which she plays all the roles.
Even when I was “too old” for games, on warm summer evenings I’d sneak to the backyard, ice cream cone in hand, and swing high into the air, murming stories to myself, stopping the moment my mother peeked her head out of the screen door. On rare moments when I was home alone, I’d wait till the door swung shut and rush to the costume basket in my closet, pulling on my homemade Civil War Belle costume, and I’d use the entire house as my stage.
These were the moments of purity in years of turmoil. I suffered at home, where my bursts of rage shattered rare moments of peace. I was always being punished for something– either by my parents (“no ballet”) or myself (“you’re a terrible person”). My imagination was the only part of my personality that felt truly like myself. The sadness, the anger, the self-hatred, even the highs of mania and my talent in schoolwork, those were not the real “me.”
These are the kinds of stories actors love to tell about their childhoods– the vivid imaginations, the stories told to ourselves, the escape into our creative minds. While I know that this path is what I’m meant to do, I would never say that acting “saved” me or gave me some new outlet for my energies. There’s something much too twee, much too pat about those kinds of statements for me. My road is curved and forked and rocky and often unbearable, and there’s no part of me that romanticizes it. I include my eating disorder, my depression, my intelligence, my solitude, and yes, my craft, as parts of that “road.” My need to play pretend is just as much a part of me as my depression. They’re ingrained.
Now, I whine about agents and cry about my non-commercial body and freak out about callbacks. I have a new language for that part of me. I went to boarding school to study acting, but I also went to boarding school because I knew I didn’t belong at home. The decision was just as much about wanting to be an actor as it was knowing what I needed for my emotional health.
Last night, despite fighting through a nasty flu, I met a friend’s mother at Peter and the Starcatcher (a new Broadway show, transfered from one of my favorite off-Broadway houses, New York Theatre Workshop), who had an extra free ticket for me. When the lights went down, I felt a familiar leap in my heart. At some point during the second act, I glanced around me at the rows of filled seats, and listened to the synchronized, organic waves of laughter that scattered across the theatre. No one was looking at me. Everyone was sitting next to, or in front of, or behind, a stranger. We all glided together through the playful current of the show, no one ahead, no one behind, no one judging.
It’s like being onstage, I suppose, at least for me. The cast journeys together on the ever-changing current, sometimes pushed, sometimes pulled, by the energy of the audience and each other. I feel more like myself, an honest self, than in any other moments of my life. I am there because I have been selected to be there, and I am perfect there.
The self I know the best is the self that journeys on imagination.