It was the ninth false start I had with my student, Julie, for this one-minute drama exercise. After 20 classes with her, I was familiar with her delay tactics. After standing in place for a half a breath, she’d walk to a corner of the room. I’d gently coax her back. She’d hide her face; I’d convince her to drop her hands. She’d spin in circles, I’d get her to stop…all of this took longer than the exercise itself, if she would just get to it.
“It’s embarrassing,” she explained. Subtext: she’s terrified of what her peers will think of her. As a student in our theater arts program, she’s a poster child for low self-esteem, and exactly the kind of kid we hope to empower through a drama class.
I couldn’t let her skip exercises anymore. For her to make any progress, she had to face her fear. So I told her we would not go on with class until she did this exercise and asked how I could help. Red-faced and with a nervous giggle, she said everyone should turn around. Including me. I didn’t point out the absurdity of asking the very person who is supposed to evaluate you to turn around, I just did it. I heard her do the work with her voice, even if I couldn’t see her body. And I let that be okay because for Julie, finding a way to stand up there in front of everyone, even if they hid their eyes, was progress.
I know how she feels. I squashed my low self-esteem many moons ago, but lately I’ve been doing some mental karate with a subject that could leave me wide open and without cover. I’ve tried to avoid it; I’ve moved to the corner of the room, I’ve spun in circles, I’ve covered my face looking for something else to say. But this one is staring me down and not getting out of my way. So I’d like to ask you to do me a favor. While you read this, please close your eyes.
I came to a startling realization the other day: I’m not a star. (And by star, I don’t mean talentless people famous for their fame or for eating bugs on national television. I mean a consistently working actor.) I do not make all my income from acting. This is not what I had planned. I had planned to move from New York City to L.A., be successful in film and TV and return to NYC to be on Broadway. I’ve been trying to find my way to the brass ring hanging from the Hollywood sign, but that road doesn’t show up on any GPS.
This is embarrassing. For a long time, I felt like a failure. And I’m scared that everyone else will see only failure if I admit where I find myself at 42.
Are your eyes still closed? Good.
At 42, I make the majority of my money as a freelance marketing writer. The upside is that I work from home and have flexible hours that allow me to audition and act, when I am hired. The downside is that I don’t always like it. Marketing often borders on lying for profit and that’s never sat well with me.
When I look up at that brass ring, I see a lot of people I know swinging on it. A freakish number of my high school alumni have ended up in the entertainment industry, making newsletters obsolete. I can see what they’re doing just by turning on my TV or reading the billboards on Sunset Boulevard. I know full well it doesn’t do any good to compare myself to others, but that reflex is as primal as breathing. It’s hard to avoid.
A couple of years ago, I wondered if I should just give up. Just stop scrambling. It’s not that I doubted my talent; I don’t. But I understand the entertainment industry is a crapshoot with a table the size of my headshot and the number of players exceeding the population of New York City. I get it. But how long should I try to shove my way to the dice as I’m being trampled?
But if I stopped, was I a failure? Furthermore, if I didn’t describe myself as an actress, then what the heck was I? Being stripped of that identity would feel like I cut off both arms.
But if I decided to hunker down and keep body checking my way forward, would I have to agree to do things that didn’t feel right just to move a few inches?
After a year of a puke-inducing vacillation, I finally made a decision. I wouldn’t give up. I also wouldn’t push blindly forward leaving my compromised integrity squirming under someone else’s stilettos. Instead, I accepted something. I accepted that I live in a murky grey area between staying and leaving. I just decide each step based on whether I’m willing to take it or not. I know my chances of being a star probably dwindle, but my chances of staying myself remain strong.
In short, I chose a new brass ring. It hangs in my garden, just out of reach. Nobody else is on it. At 42, I get to work in my pajamas and make my own hours. I’m approaching the 10th anniversary with the love of my life who is still holding my hand. I live in a warmly painted house with a lush garden. I sing backup for an incredible musician. I’ve been mentoring a 14-year-old girl for two years. I drink wine with my friends and eat chocolate chip cookies with my family. I occasionally joyfully perform my little ass off.
And I teach kids with low-self esteem that the road to confidence is paved with vulnerability. I applaud them along the way so they know they’re not alone. I teach them the delight of taking risks, even if they make you spin in a circle. I show them how to stand up and simply be who they are, regardless of what other people might think.
So I suppose I’m content. I’m also human; so once in a while contentment and resentment do a sinister tango around my heart. But that’s okay. Regardless of what anyone thinks, I’m ready to stand in front of you and say it: I’m not a star. But I’m basically happy.
You can open your eyes now.