Doing your Homework

Like most people who call themselves actors, I’ve known what I wanted to do for about as long as I knew what “acting” was. I started in dance, and I was quite good, but the parts I liked most in dancing were the acting parts. I always got the bit parts in The Nutcracker (“sled girl”, “naughty ladybug,”) and was always better at modern dance than ballet, where I could more openly express emotion. I still love dance, but really, it was a just a portal through which I discovered what I actually want to spend my life doing– theatre.

As you all know, if you’ve been reading, I’m well-trained. I went to the premiere performing arts boarding school to study theatre for my last two years of high school. I attended a top-tier university in New York City to study acting. I’ve been an apprentice at two different, well-known festivals, and I received my union card about a year after graduating from college. No one can deny it– I’ve done my homework.

As a kid, I had OCD tendencies. I was a perfectionist. I couldn’t ever be late. No “puffies” in my ponytail. I never missed an assignment in school. But I was also a very, very angry and a very, very sad little girl. I mean, let’s just diagnose it right here– I was bipolar.

I’ve written here about how my eating disorder(s) is a part of my psychological struggle, which I’ve been fighting since childhood. I started restricting unconsciously, because I was working too hard. I was trying to be too good. In recovery, I “let myself go,” got messy and angry and ugly and gained too much weight and fell apart and was late and fucked up all the time. Neither were gold-star moments in my life (and by moments, let’s call a spade a spade, I mean YEARS).

I think a lot about those two parts of me– the perfectionist homework-doer, who crosses her T’s and dots her I’s, and loves the feeling of succeeding because she put in all that hard work; and the messy girl, who forgives herself when she falls apart and trusts herself to make it to the other side, and who knows that sometimes hard work just means getting through the day.

Being an actor, or an artist of any kind, I think is finding a constant balance between these two extremes. And I don’t think I quite anticipated it upon embarking on my life. I guess I expected that if I did all my homework, I’d just be a really good, successful actor. And god knows I did my homework. But life isn’t quite like that.

There is the work, of course. The side of the “biz” that’s just nose-to-the-grindstone.
1. Look at audition listings every day. Make notes about when the EPAs (Equity calls) are.
2. Attend the EPAs (this means getting downtown to sign up for a slot at around 7am, while your appointment may be as late as 4:20 and the auditioners aren’t even really looking, since the call is just required by the union.)
3. Say yes to any audition that comes my way via my agent or some other means. Appointments are how you book jobs. Getting appointments is the key.
4. Say yes to any reading/workshop offered. At least you’ll be acting, and maybe, just maybe, someone will see your work.
5. Keep your headshots updated. Spend 500+ on top-notch headshots every two years.
6. Make a demo reel. Film it professionally. Spend the money to get it put on Actors’ Access.
7. Prepare for your auditions/readings/workshops/roles IF YOU’RE LUCKY.
8. Attempt to follow your agent’s suggestions– lighten your hair, lose weight, clear up your skin, dress better.
9. Stress out over what outfit to wear for each audition. Have days where you pack three changes of clothes and shoes, plus makeup and hair stuff, plus resumes/headshots and sides, and carry them in a backpack over your huge winter coat in 3 degree weather in NYC.
10. Oh, and during this time you’re not actually making any money acting.

Now, that’s all very extreme, and not every day is like that. In the last couple of weeks I’ve been blessed to have had a number of auditions (that 3 changes of clothes thing is a real true story from last week), and even a couple of callbacks, but failed to book the job. I’ve gotten so close I get apology emails from the casting directors (this NEVER happens).

And that’s where we come to the funny thing about the arts.

You can get an A+ in “being an actor,” but it still doesn’t mean you’ll succeed.

Frankly, some of the people I run into at auditions are those kinds of people– they go to every open call, they send thousands of postcards to CDs and agencies, they buy books to help them organize their finances, and they know EVERYTHING there is to know about EVERYTHING.

Hilarious true story– those aren’t the people that get cast. Those are the people who wait tables and wait tables and work HARD and never book a union part and end up as waiters. Or as indie theatre producers, or who get married and move to Philly. Now, this isn’t a hard and fast rule, of course. Everyone should do their homework.

But acting isn’t like school (unfortunately for those of us who did really well in school). In school, you turn in your homework on time, do a great paper, test well, and you get an A. Just like that.

As an actor (or an artist of any kind), you show up on time, do all your work, do it really fucking well, and then you never get a call. It’s like working really hard on a ten-page paper, turning it in on the due date, and having the teacher take one look at at it and say, “Oh, no, I prefer Georgia to Times New Roman,” and trash it right in front of you. You want to say, “But look harder! It’s so good!” or “I can edit that so easily, just give me a chance!” but it’s already round-filed.

All this to say, I think that it’s important to balance. If all I did was “work” on my “career,” I’d feel like a major, total failure. Because after all the hard work of the last month (okay, no, monthssssss since my last job) I haven’t had any measurable success.

But it isn’t just about the homework. It’s about being ME, and living my life, and knowing, deep within myself, that this moment is temporary. To forgive myself when I get another “no” or I’ve gone months without a “real” job. To acknowledge that I’m WORTH forgiving. To trust myself enough to believe that the next job will come.

It’s not that you don’t do the hard work– it’s that you don’t depend upon it to make your life perfect. I don’t think I expected that when graduating from high school, or when I moved to New York, or really… ever. Until the last two years of being in the world. I’ve become more and more comfortable with it, but I have to constantly remind myself that the balance is the key. As one of my favorite professors loved to say about the process of acting (and, ergo, the process of living) is “always balancing, never balanced.”

“The power is in the balance: we are our injuries, as much as we are our successes.”
Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible

“You will be fierce. You will fearless. And you will make work you know in your heart is not as good as you want it to be.”
Ira Glass

“It was possible to feel superior to other people and feel like a misfit at the same time.”
Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot

Musings on the Wild Waves of Feeling

I’m alive. I’m okay. In fact, I’m in love and I’m on a sort of half-baked vacation, so really I’m doing great.

Except for the moments when I’m not.

Isn’t it funny the way that they way we feel has such fluidity?
I can instantly retreat inwards, protectively, at the drop of a hat. He doesn’t immediately introduce me to someone. WHOOSH. He talks about the tour on which he met his ex. SWOOSH. He talks about himself in the past– a him I never knew. BAM. I close up tight.

But then, sometimes the little mushy parts are so easily exposed, and I can let myself NEED and FEEL and LOVE. Tucking my head under his arm and on his chest. PHEW. Feeling him reach for my knee under the dinner table. AAH. Having him ask about my family situation, and seem to really want to hear the answer. SWEEE.

There have been moments of this relationship that I’ve felt so in love, I’m afraid I’m manic. Because I was bipolar primarily as a young kid (I stabilized around 14 with the help of Zoloft), I have noticed the “manic” tendencies less apparently than the depressive ones. I doubt if I’d even still be diagnosed as bipolar at this point– but there’s no denying my moods are ever-shifting, and my ups and downs seem to move at a pace and an intensity that is, let’s say, more than most other people.

If I were to look at larger moments in my life as manic (after age 14), I could tag off my years at boarding school– I was an overachiever, always put together and organized, and eventually crashed into a horrific depression after I wasn’t accepted to Juilliard– my summer as an apprentice at a fancy-pants theatre festival– the beginning of the unconscious restrictive behavior, bouncing back from an illness by working EXTRA hard– and perhaps moments of this last summer– enormous joy quickly supplanted by depression upon returning weekly to NYC. I could pull out a number of times in my life that my bipolar moods (whether clinical or simply active) vacillated from mania to depression.

But maybe actually being in love isn’t clinical mania. I’m not restricting, I’m still messy and imperfect, I still get angry, I still tell him when I get angry. But is the excess of love an OVERexpression set in contrast to the amount of times I feel scared or upset or sensitive? Or is that what being comfortable with a person is like? I know that’s sort of what being with my family is like… And when I was a kid, oftentimes the mania was expressed by clinginess and an excessive need to express my love. Is THIS love THAT love?

I don’t think so. But again. I have to get used to feeling this way about someone. I’m so used to my own moods now, to allowing myself to regulate myself, to separate when I need it and feel when I need it and not have to do any of that in front of or around anyone else.

But with A, I have to negotiate my feelings with HIS feelings, my moods with HIS moods, my affection with HIS affection, my frustrations with HIS frustrations, etc etc and on and on. A lot of times this makes me anxious. I’m afraid that by feeling angry/frustrated/unloved/uncomfortable I’m pushing him away– I’m not doing what I’m “supposed” to be doing as a girlfriend/roommate/lover etc. But the fact that I am willing to go through that process with him, and I never want him to NOT be there, to NOT interact with me and my feelings, is a sign that there’s something right in all of this.

I tell him all the time that I’m still relearning how to BE with someone else. I’ve grown so used to only dealing with my own cyclical moods and my own mental hangups. I ask him to cut me a lot of slack… which I know is asking a lot. And THAT makes me anxious (of course). But I haven’t scared him off yet. I have been a bitch and a depressive and an angry, irritable crankster around him, and he’s still here. He still misses me when I’m not by his side.

And I feel the same way.

I’ve never really approached love in a way that tied into my mental issues. They have been the END of relationships, and I did have one relationship in which I said “yes, I want to” to someone who I eventually had to leave because it was a selfish kind of thing– I wanted his affection because it made me feel beautiful and special– but I’ve never been someone who had a lot of manic sex or lashed out at significant others or kept them out of my struggles (at least in a conscious way). And I’ve never felt more in love than I do right now.

Every day. Every fucking day. Isn’t THAT crazy, you guys? We muddle through every day with a portion of our brain always processing, always tuned in, because if we stop, we fall. If I don’t process what I’m feeling, it will take me over. That’s sort of how the ED stuff happened. But it can be an exhausting task. That’s one of the reason I like having A around. He helps me stay on the boat, even when the water is rocky.

    • “Listen to the people who love you. Believe that they are worth living for even when you don’t believe it. Seek out the memories depression takes away and project them into the future. Be brave; be strong; take your pills. Exercise because it’s good for you even if every step weighs a thousand pounds. Eat when food itself disgusts you. Reason with yourself when you have lost your reason.”
      Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression