Refefining “The Default Character”

A couple of days ago I read the New York Times article What It’s Really Like to Work in Hollywood (*If you’re not a straight white man.).  More accurately, I read the article over a two-day span, because I became so disheartened and angry that I stopped reading halfway through the first time and finished it up the next day.  It’s an excellent piece, a collection of honest and insightful interviews with women and ethnic minorities who have managed to forge ahead and establish careers for themselves in Hollywood, in spite of the gatekeepers, the good old boys and the white monopoly that exist all the way from the cast and crew up to the studios heads and executive producers who see no reason whatsoever to have people of color and women be a part of the industry unless it would serve their bottom line.

The article got me thinking about and remembering experiences in both my personal and creative life – including 13 years pursuing and working as an actress in Los Angeles – that relate to a number of the stories contributed to the article.  I decided to explore it section by section and use it as as a jumping off point to blog about some of those experiences.


SAM ESMAIL, Creator, “Mr. Robot”

“Growing up, I [thought] white male was the norm, the default character in every story. I never thought other possibilities could exist. And I remember thinking, when I would watch Woody Allen films or films that felt personal, I wonder what I’m going to do when I write my personal films, because I can’t cast an Egyptian-American; that would be weird. In film school, there was this need to talk about your ethnicity and to make essentially social-message films. But I resisted, because I felt that it changed the conversation of what the movie was about.”

I grew up as part of my closely knit tribe of Nigerian-Trinidadian family, and although my childhood and adolescent years were spent in white-majority neighborhoods, I don’t recall actively thinking that white or that white male was “the norm.”  Yes, I was different, and while that felt alienating at times, I also liked being unique.

I read a lot, and every story I read for school or for leisure, with a handful of exceptions, had a white protagonist.  Not that I ever thought much about whether they were white, it was obvious they were.  I also grew up assuming they were, because if they weren’t, it was mentioned.  The default was white.

In my preteen and teenage years, there was this series I loved called The Girls of Canby Hall, and there was one black character of the trio of friend.  Her name was Faith.  She was pictured on the front of the book with nice coco-brown skin, and she even had short, Afro-curly hair.  Some of her story lines had to do with her stuggles to fit it because of looking different and also coming from a working-class background to a presigious all-girls boarding school.  However, while Faith was aware of her otherness, she mostly had the same types of struggles everyone else did, trying to fit in in high school.  I appreciated that, that her story wasn’t all about her being black, that she was a whole person that I could relate to as much as I could relate to the other girls.

Fast forward years later when I was serious about acting as a career. I became more and more aware that many of the movies I had grown up watching, loving, and that I still aspired to be a part of were about the full spectrum of life experiences and human emotions, fleshed out and put up on screen.  But those movies never had black people embodying those roles, telling those stories.  They were always white.  Always.  Black people were in the movies about gangs, the ghetto, inner-city life, extreme poverty, drugs – all stuff that was far outside the realm of my protected, suburban upbringing.

Sam Esmail says, “In film school, there was this need to talk about your ethnicity and to make essentially social-message films. But I resisted, because I felt that it changed the conversation of what the movie was about.”  I had a similar resistance because I didn’t grow up thinking of myself as a “black girl” or a “black woman” – I found that so limiting to define myself in those terms, and it wasn’t me, to view myself so narrowly and make that one aspect the most important aspect of my identity to the exclusion of anything else. So, I had no desire to take on roles that put me in that position, where blackness was the basis and often the extent of who my character was or where she was coming from.  To incorporate it as part of a fully developed character or story is one thing.  To make that what every story is about, simply because of the way that I look, does change the conversation of what the movie is about.

What makes me mad is that white people and white stories don’t have to do this.  Why?  Because they get to be the default.  In fact, white people are just “people,” and they’re not “white stories,” they’re just stories.  That’s the message we get time and time again.  On the other hand, actors of color are permitted to tell stories about their particular group’s experience, with the implication often being that it is something “other” than a more complete human experience.

I find this ludicrous.  It’s almost funny, except that it makes me so frustrated I can’t laugh about it.  Usually I’m steaming, seething, and once or twice even crying with rage and bewilderment about the arrogance that would drive somebody to see me in such a one-dimensounal way – a way that I have never, ever seen myself.

These days when I read stories and scripts, I have less of an automatic assumption that the protagonist is white, but the tendency to assume white is the default is still there.  I have changed, though, from my childhood and teenage years; now I seek out more stories written by authors of color and writers of non-U.S. origin, because more often than not, the default is not the white, middle-class default I grew up reading.

As for the movie business, I’m no longer in Hollywood (and not missing it), and I so appreciate the creatives of color who are contining to push forward not only with stories that are ostensibly about race and ethnicity in the United States, but also the stories that aren’t about that.  Maybe I look to those films more to push through the gates of stereotyping and prejudice in a subversive and very powerful way, because they show us the lives and universal human experiences as told by protagonists who happen to be Mexican-American.  Chinese-American.  Nigerian-American.  Indian-American.  That’s redifining the default.

Just Blog Already. Damn.

I kind of want to start over with this whole blogging thing.  Meaning, I sort of want to delete my three or four previous posts that I wrote, and rewrote, and overthought and overedited.  Yeah, I could do that, and it would mostly be symbolic gesture.  What I’m saying is that I (sort of) want to jump into the void that is exposing myself, which is how I see this whole blogging thing.

I have a thing about exposing myself.  Frankly, I don’t want to do it.

It’s ridiculous because here I am, an actress, and I definitely want to be seen and all, but the last thing I want to do, willingly, is expose myself.  I can guarantee that every single time I have an audition piece to work on, or a role I’ve booked, I will do everything possible to avoid working on the thing, and there is always some aspect of the script/role/project/team that I want nothing to do with.  For a long time I used to beat myself up about that, like it was a sign I wasn’t a serious actor.  However, my beautiful, long-time acting teacher in Los Angeles, Judith Weston, helped me to recognize that this resistance is part of my process; it is simply something to know about myself – to embrace, even – because it will tell me exactly where I need to start my work.  By acknowledging and then dealing with what I’m resisting.

I can’t even freaking remember the reason I started this blog, but I’m sure it had something to do with practicing writing as a way to finding a pathway into creative writing.  Yeah, that sounds about right.  Well, what I am realizing is that my time is limited (yeah, yeah), so I haven’t been blogging, and I certainly haven’t been writing creatively, but this avoidance of blogging is much more about wanting to avoid exposing myself.  After all, I kept journals for 20 years or so, and the things that I thought, felt and spilled out onto paper were, well, PRIVATE, so what the hell was I thinking with this whole blogging thing?

I know that people can and probably should choose a “platform” for their blogs, and it doesn’t have to be some sort of confessional, tell-all medium…but it just so happens that the blogs I gravitate towards the most , and also the writing I happen to enjoy the most, in general – whether fiction or personal essays or creative nonfiction –  is that which feels personal and real and gut-level honest.  But it’s one thing to write that shit in your journal or to a friend in an email, and it’s something else ENTIRELY to put it out there in the world for anyone to see.

So, don’t blog.  Simple solution, right?  Indeed.  Except that I (sort of) want to challenge myself to be that brave, knowing that as a last resort, a saving grace, I can always go back and edit it, delete it entirely if I just can’t stand that I put myself out there…until I get used to it, until I have the courage to stand up and to let my thoughts, feelings and words stand on their own.  (Yes, I know that once something is out there on the internet, there’s really no taking it back permanently, but these are the white lies I will need to tell myself in order to keep me honest, you see.)

My good friend Tierney send me this great book a couple years ago called “The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage.”  I remember reading it and thinking, “Holy s**t!  How are these women actually letting people SEE all this stuff they think and feel? Are they crazy!” Why don’t they just take all their clothes off and go stand in the middle of the highway already?  Why not give everybody the ability to flip the lid on their heads, see all their thoughts and dreams, and then hand over the freakin’ keys to their hearts and loins while they’re at it, because they are definitely putting all their stuff OUT there.  Do they not have living parents that could potentially read what they wrote?  And how would they not die of shame if that happened?

But I loved that book, and I admired those women for telling their stories.

A couple of days ago it occurred to me that I not only want to write fiction because I think it will be more “interesting” than writing personal essays and continuing the navel-gazing I’ve done since I was 13 (up until I tapered off from keeping journals a few years ago), but really, it’s that I want to hide out.  I want to hide behind the fiction and not have to delve too far into things that are deep, personal or painful, which is always where things always seem to go when I’m writing about myself.

Excpet that I think I’d like to no longer be afraid of what’s deep and personal.  I see examples of women, women I know, putting themselves out there, and I find it awesome!  Like, so cool, and so amazing!  The fact that I know now what my resistance is about that makes me want to (sort of) deal with it.

I happened to have had two small glasses of wine and a few sips of beer this evening, and this post is very much like the type of “blurt” email I would write to Tierney, one of my precious few soul sisters, a person in this world to whom I can pour out my heart.  I am not going to question what I’ve written, otherwise I won’t post it, and I’m not going to give it more than a cursory reading to see if it makes any sense at all, otherwise I definitely won’t post it.

This is how I’m going to deal with my fear of exposing myself through blogging.  By blogging.

NOW HEAR THIS – It’s Really Happening!

NHT Poster_October 10

I have been thinking about the Now Hear This performance coming up this Saturday and vacillating between imagining the various things that may not go as hoped and planned and fantasizing that the show will be wildly, unexpectedly successful.  If it lands anywhere in between the dream and a nightmare, I’ll be happy.  Actually, I think I’ll just be happy that it happened at all.  Wow!  I guess in spite of myself, I am learning to let go of expectations and end results and just be in the process.  Progress!

Let me back up.  So, over the summer I came up with a concept for a show, a performance series called Now Hear This.  As an actress and also a writer, I drew inspiration from various storytelling and story reading formats, including plays, staged readings, Stories on Stage right here in Sacramento, Selected Shorts on NPR and Word for Word in San Francisco.  The original twist I added is the element of live music accompanying the storytelling and – voila!  Now Hear This: A Story & Music Performance Series.  It’s cool because my husband Clifford and I get to work together on something, with him handling the music side of things and me handling…um, everything else. (Oy.  I mean, yay for being in charge of putting creativity out there in the world!  But also, OY!!!) .

Anyway, for several weeks I have been – I’m astonished to say – producing this show.  Me!

The truth is that I am pretty damn proud of myself.  Even if nobody but my family and a smattering of other souls turn up, I’m proud.  I had an idea for a way to give myself something to DO creatively, and then I began, and now I’m doing it.  Holy shit!

There were dozens and dozens of steps along the way.  I omitted a few.  I purposely skipped a few.  I had to repeat a few again and again because I kept messing them up.  I learned.  I am learning.  I literally would not have known what to do had it not been for my super-talented producer/director/writer/actress friend Elise Hodge guiding me.  The way she has been there for me throughout this process has been pretty amazing.  I’m smiling just thinking about it, that this performance is as much a reflection of her generosity and support as it is of my efforts and some additional help along the way.

I have a vision for this thing.  Not all of that vision is going to be realized in this first show.  In fact, that’s one of my “mistakes” that I’m still trying to let go of.  No, I am letting go of it.  It’s gone.  (Not really, but I am letting go, I am letting go, I am letting go…)  So, yeah, this first Now Hear This features three writers, three actors, including myself, and four musicians.  All contributors are wonderfully talented, truly.  However, my cast isn’t as… well, balanced as I would have liked.  Mostly I’m talking about gender, but I’m talking about ethnic diversity.

When I wrote out my prospectus about the show a couple months ago, here’s what I said:

“Since university, acting has been my primary form of performance, though not always to the extent or with the range I would like.  I have long grown weary of the way actors are famously shoved into boxes, labeled and then assigned very specific roles to play based on ethnicity, height, attractiveness, age and accent.  We are catalogued and cast according to the limitations of other people’s imaginations.

About five years ago, I began to write again as a form of personal enjoyment and creative empowerment—scenes, short stories, and recently, a play.  I would no longer have to wait to be seen or heard; I could create more acting opportunities for myself by writing them, and I could continue to develop myself as an artist without waiting for permission or invitation.

Thus, my mission with NOW HEAR THIS is to create more opportunities for myself and other writers, actors and musicians who want to make their stories and their voices heard.  I also intend to engage a wider range and a more gender and ethnically diverse population of talented artists, going beyond the usual talent pool granted the opportunity to share their work and creativity on stage.”

Ah.  I’m glad I cut and pasted instead of trying to rephrase that.  Every part of is still true, still resonates.  So maybe this show is a little lopsided with me being the only woman participant and all, but now I have something to build on, so that’s also good.  It’s great, in fact!  I feel more driven to find ways to manifest my original vision “to engage a wider range and a more gender and ethnically diverse population of talented artists” – writers, actors and musicians.

Whether by writing, performing, producing or all of the above, I’m excited about not waiting.  I’m excited about encouraging and engaging other artists who also don’t want to wait to put their creativity out there.  Who don’t want to wait for opportunities that specify “African-American female, late thirties to mid-forties” or “Asian man, 20s” or whatever.  Unless that casting adds something critical to the role, which it sometimes does and could more often if people would think outside of the freaking box.  Casting according to race and ethnicity and casting with an eye towards it, being more inclusive with it, is something I continue to ask questions about and to explore.  But in this case I’m talking more about the default action taken by too many producers, casting directors and directors that when ethnicity is not specified for a role, the character is automatically assumed to be white.  The default is white, and I don’t think it should be.  That’s a whole other blog post, though.  I’ll be getting to it!  😉

Back to NHT and what I find wonderful about short story fiction as material for performance is that anybody can read a story.  At least, that’s how I see it.  It’s about interpreting the written word, making it come to life with your energy, your voice and your “voice.”  I know this because I read stories to my children all the time, and I am a lion.  I am a boy.  I am a girl.  I am a curious kitten.  I am a truck, a car, a plane.  I am the voice of whoever (whomever?) and whatever is on the page, and nobody questions it.  This is another goal of mine with Now Hear This.  “I’d like to give audiences a fresh way to enjoy live entertainment and suspend their disbelief, leaving their preconceived notions at the door for the evening; this is an art that is being lost, and I want to find it again.  I believe audiences do as well.”

I’m looking forward to Saturday.  I’m starting to feel sick with nerves and anticipation, but MAN am I excited!!!

Getting on the Inside of Writing

Let me begin by saying that I’m only here because I have recently been inspired by author, teacher and blogger Maureen O’Leary Wanket to start blogging again.  She just finished a 30-day blogging challenge, which I happened upon midway through.  While I don’t know Maureen’s actual writing process, I am struck by how her words flow, how her personality comes through, and how reading them feels natural and easy, as if we’re having a conversation.

One of the things I find difficult about writing for any sort of public audience is that it feels labored.  I put so, so much effort into choosing my words, my thoughts even, that by the time I’ve finished, very little about what I’ve written feels honest or connected.  It’s clunky and effort-filled.  This is exactly how it is when I write scenes, a play, short fiction. It’s like each word has been pushed out of me with much straining and too much damn thinking, tweaking and editing.  My writing feels constipated.  It’s something I want to work on.

I kept journals for almost two decades, and while some of that writing was self-conscious and over-thought, most of it was me pouring onto the page what I was feeling and grappling with in the moment. Starting in my late 20s, I mostly replaced those journal entries with lengthy emails I exchanged with two or three select friends, and the discussions and rants about work, and relationships and people were layered, thoughtful, illuminating and super interesting.  I would venture to say that most of my best writing is in those emails.

I am trying to find my way back to writing from an honest place with the knowledge that what I’ve written will be shared at some point. Ultimately, I want all of this truthfulness and depth to spill over into my fiction writing.  It’s weird to me that I read other people’s stories and feel so at home with characters and situations they’ve created that it feels like I could have written it.  That’s how good it is.  And then I read what I have written, and it feels like I wrote it standing on the outside of my own people and experiences.  My writing doesn’t have that same texture, it doesn’t evoke the same feelings, even for me.

I want to get on the inside.  I am thinking of this as practice.

Sounds in My Ear


Almost two weeks ago, I started having a problem with my right ear.  It seemed to be blocked and full of fluid or something, to the point that my hearing was diminished.  I tried various remedies over a period of about 10 days, from hydrogen peroxide, to over-the-counter ear drops, to Benadryl, but nothing worked.  I couldn’t hear, and I was growing more and more frustrated – and scared.

I was scared for two reasons.  First, I thought the problem was my fault.  For many years I have had itchiness inside my ears that comes and goes.  It has been attributed to stress, allergies, and changes in season.  Very occasionally I have treated the symptoms with drops, creams, and pills.  Mostly I just deal with it the way most people deal with an itch:  I scratch.

The problem is that I tend to scratch with whatever I have on hand – a finger will do, but if hairpins, pen caps, or keys are within reach, I can get that deep relief, that Ahhhhhhh that scratching with an index finger simply cannot provide.  I know very well I shouldn’t do this, but I still do it now and then.  So, with respect to my recent hearing loss, I wondered if it was related to some type of deep damage I had inflicted to the inside my ear by way of “instrumental scratching,” as it’s called.

The second reason for my fear was not about hearing loss but about what I was hearing: a constant tone in my ear, similar to a dial tone but not as resonant, closer to the sound made by a flute.  Ooooooooooh-oooo-oooooh.  It was actually two tones, a little melody buried amidst static noise, like radio silence.

Was it real or imagined?  It sounded like it was coming from inside of me, but I could only hear it in my right ear.  With the constant noise of the day, I didn’t hear it unless I was in a quiet place or I “tuned in” to the sound.  Mostly I was aware if it when I was lying down to sleep, or when I awoke in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and check on my children, as I always do.  I would hear the sound and start to feel agitated.  It was an alarm signal that something was wrong, all the more distressing because that I may have caused it.

Two days ago, I finally went to the Emergency Room.  The doctor washed out my ear, removing significant wax buildup, and my hearing was restored.  Hurrah!  There was no damage and no infection.  Cerumen impaction was the cause of the hearing loss and supposedly the reason for the “buzzing” noise as well.

Oh, it was wonderful to be able to hear everything again!  Talking, music, footsteps, traffic. Even my own voice was beautiful to hear, which sounded rich, resonant and rather loud after two weeks of hearing it at a distance and underwater.  I sent my husband a text message from the hospital:  Hallelujah, I can hear!  Can’t tell if buzzing/tonal sound is still there until I am in a more quiet place, but I think it’s gone.

That night I went to sleep comfortably, feeling grateful that my world had been restored.

In the middle of the night I awoke to hear the same tonal sounds I had been hearing for the past couple of weeks.  They were more faint than they had been, but they were still there. How could this be?  I raised my head off the pillow and listened closely, heart pounding. I blocked my ear to make sure it wasn’t a sound from the room.  It wasn’t.  I blocked the other ear to see if I could hear the same thing.  I didn’t.  The noise wasn’t gone.  It was still there.

The ER doctor who treated me happened to be Nigerian, my own heritage on my father’s side.  I can still hear the familiar musicality of his rich voice and accent when he told me, “It’s not your fault.  You haven’t done anything wrong.  Your body just produces a lot of wax.”  The situation had been quite stressful for me, so hearing the words, “It’s not your fault” actually made my throat catch.  Now, waking in the night and once again hearing the two-tone melody I had thought was gone, his words came rushing back to me.  Whatever was happening may not be my fault, but something was definitely wrong.

I managed to fall asleep again, and in the morning, I didn’t hear the sound.  In fact, I forgot about it until last night when my husband and I were going to sleep.  I told him my experience and that I wasn’t entirely sure if it had actually happened or if it had been a dream.  I went to sleep with no problem and awoke only to use the bathroom and peek in on the children, as usual.  I don’t recall hearing the noise in my ear.

Until this morning.  This morning I woke up to it.  I lay there for a full five minutes, listening, feeling a quiet despair.  Even as I am processing whatever is happening, knowing that I will need to make a follow-up appointment with a doctor and secretly hoping that I will simply stop hearing things and this problem will go away, I am also analyzing my response.

The last two weeks I have been all over the emotional map.  I have felt frustrated at my inability to hear properly.  I have felt irritated, irrationally, at everybody else who has had to repeat themselves several times for my benefit.  I have felt sad and distressed about the possibility of having to accept a new reality and relationship to sound.  I have to tried to put a positive spin on things by thinking the tones are the sound of my inner voice trying to tell me something.  I have felt regret that I didn’t appreciate my hearing when it was good and problem-free.  I have felt elated and a newly determined to take care of my ears and appreciate my hearing from here on.

On a less emotional and more rational level, I seem to be preparing myself for the possibility of a new reality, because I have already started playing the “It Could Be Worse” game to make myself feel better – and to put this all in perspective.  It could be worse; instead of faint tones, I could be hearing a high-pitched screeching sound like that person on that public radio program on Tinnitus I was listening to the other day.  Or, It could be worse; it’s not like I can’t hear at all out of my right ear, and my left ear has no problem at all.  Plus, I can see!  My other senses are fully intact!  And I can walk, and jump, and run and…  Or, It could be way worse; these are sounds in my ear, that’s all.  What if something truly awful and inescapable happened to me, like if I had locked-in syndrome like the guy in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly?

I am still hoping that all of this is a figment of my imagination.  I am hoping it is temporary.  I am hoping I can go back to the way I was before there was a music in my ear that I never wanted to hear.

And if none of the above happens, I will handle it.  It doesn’t mean I will like it.  At all. But there are worse things than hearing sounds in my ear when everything else is just fine.

Secret Heart

Secret heart come out and share it
This loneliness, few can bear it
Could it have something to do with
Admitting that you just can’t go through it alone

– from Secret Heart by Feist


A few days ago I sent a text message to my good friend.  Do you have time for a little chat?  No small talk, let’s just cut to the nitty gritty.  When we spoke a couple of hours later, she commented on how rare it is that we – any of us – actually do this: tell the truth about how we’re really doing.

Case in point:  I started writing this post four days ago, and this morning I pretty much deleted the whole stupid thing and started over.  I had written a bunch of stuff about the difficulties of truth-telling.  I went off on a tangent analyzing the difference between closeness and intimacy.  I even had a bullet-point list of reasons why we’re all afraid to be honest in our relationships.  It all sounded like bullshit.  It seems that I’m the one who has a problem expressing the plain truth.

So, here’s a truth:  at this moment in time, mine is a lonely life.

It hasn’t always been this way.  Throughout my adult life, I have had half a dozen relationships that have been truly intimate.  Since I was a girl, my heart has always longed for this.  True friendship.  Deep intimacy.  Kindred spirits.  My life right now often feels isolated, disconnected and lacking in deep and meaningful connection.

A lot of it is on me, I know that.  If I want intimacy and connection, I need to open up.  Speak more truth.  Share my secret heart.  Maybe that’s all I can do – which is no easy task – and then see what happens from there.

One of the things I love about acting is that it’s an emotionally risky business.  Only by delving deeply into personal associations, emotions and experiences can you get to something honest on stage.  Something that strikes a chord with others.  I used to say that I have had more moments of magic and connection in rehearsal and performance than in real life.  I think this is still true, which is a bittersweet thing.  I very much want my life to have more magic, my art to have more soul, and for both to be filled with what’s deeply true – beautiful, ugly, honest, real.

My good friend and I did end up having a truthful conversation that particular day and other occasions since then.  I live in Northern California and she lives in Southern California, so the phone is our primary mode of communication, along with occasional multi-paragraph emails.  We talked, and laughed and teared up about life and marriage and mothering.  We admitted that we had never imagined that parenting would bring so many painful and unpleasant emotions and experiences.  We talked about what’s going well and what’s going all wrong.  We talked about being lonely.

She is one of my closest friends.  Our relationship is one of true connection, which doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes hide the truth from one another, or talk around it, or skim the surface of it.  But not that day.  Not all of the nitty gritty stuff we shared was happy, but it was real.

I would like to share more of my secret heart.  This is me admitting that I just can’t go through it alone.

Dancing Out of a Rut


I am in a rut.

This is literally the most stressed out I have been in my life.  My finances are in disorder. My creative life is at a crawl.  Family life is the usual craziness.  And, of course, there’s that everpresent voice screaming What the hell am I doing with my life?

I vascillate between drowning in the details of daily life, feeling weary and uninspired, and then the next day (or next hour) exploding with pent-up anger and frustration that my dreams are going to waste; my potential remains trapped because I can’t seem to figure out how to free it.  How to free myself.

I want to change.  I want to leave this road and step onto the fresh earth of an untrodden path.  I do.  But…

There’s always a but.

The thing is, I want to be forced to change – not because I’m faced with a life-threatening illness; not because I’m a victim of war, or famine, or my basic freedoms being assaulted; and not because of a terrible and irrevocable event striking me or somebody I love.

What I’d like is the kind of forced change that happens to people on “Dancing with the Stars.”

While some of the contestants come onto the show having had some background in dance training or musical/dance performance, most are being flung far out of their comfort zones and into unfamiliar territory – ballroom dancing.  They are starting from scratch. They have to learn to dance, rehearsing several hours a day.  They have to push themselves.  Take risks. Fail publicly.  In the process they discover things about themselves they never would have learned if not for the context, competition and exposure of a nationally-televised show.

Nobody goes home a loser, as cheezy as that sounds.  Many of them cite the experience as the best of their lives.  There’s all that bonding that happens when you’re in an intense but fun situation with other people.  Of course it’s a great experience.  However, they are mostly talking about the lifelong value of what they learned from themselves and others: how to push their limits, overcoming fear, doubt, and inexperience in a very public way, in order to do and become more than they ever thought possible.

Yes, they went on the show willingly.  Nobody forced them.  However, once they commit to being there, they are forced to change.  It’s virtually impossible to show up week after week, put yourself out there, and remain the same.

I want that.  I want to show up and be forced to change.  I want to be in a place that makes me commit completely, for once, because I suspect it’s the only way I will f*#king do it.  My friend Rae recently reminded me that people don’t change because they want to, they change because they have to.

I am an unknown entity, and I’m not going to be asked to go on a celebrity dance competition anytime soon (sadly).  I need a way to dance my way out of my rut.

There are times I want to stop everything I have been doing and pursuing for the last few years – including acting – and start fresh.  Start clean.  I’d rather return to it 6 months or 3 years from now, freshly scrubbed and newly committed than continue this half-assed and haphazard pursuit.

It’s time to figure out if any of the things I have been up to for the last few years are things I actually still want.

I feel the pressure of time, and not just because I will turn 42 in 2 weeks, although that certainly has something to do with it.  Who knows how long any of us have in this life?  All this introspection and soul-searching business takes time.  It also takes emotional toll when, months or weeks – or days – after you have completed your search and thought you found The Answer, you realize that once again, you are still not on the path that makes you feel most alive.

I want to dance with my own stars.  Let me show up and be flung into the atmosphere.  Let me be someplace I have never been before and be forced to learn, act, change, else I come crashing back down to the ground.

And if I crash, let me learn from that, too.  Learn by getting up and doing something differently. Learn by realizing I can get up because the crash didn’t kill me.

The only thing I can think of to do right now, as a first step, is to examine what puts me into orbit in the first place.  I’m getting pretty tired of hearing that overused word “passion,” but I suppose that is what I’m talking about.  I am going to remember, with relish, everything that has truly turned me on in the last few years of my life.  I am going to delight in the details and take a good hard look at when I have felt most alive.  And then I’m going to say, “More of that, please” and go get/do/have more.

Along with that, I need to find a way to engage with these passions with the type of intensity, commitment and risk-taking needed to catapult me out of my comfort zone, since that’s what the rut is.  I am doing the same old thing and somehow hoping for a different result.  If I want to get that “Dancing with the Stars” experience, I’m going to need to do something new and unfamiliar, not just once, but again and again.

Let the dancing begin.

Leaving Bohemia or Why I Need a Steady Paycheck

sleeping gypsy

The Sleeping Gypsy by Henri Rousseau.
(French: La Bohémienne endormie)

A few years ago, I started to realize that while I embrace the unconventional lifestyle of artists, I am not as bohemian as I would like to believe.

I lived in Los Angeles for 13 years, doing theatre and pursuing a film/tv acting career with varying levels of effort.  My personal insecurities and resistance to having to navigate the dreaded business side of acting were my most significant obstacles.  On top of that, I had real difficulty solving the conundrum of how to be an actor and still pay my bills.

The main issue is that actors need jobs with a lot of flexibility so we can go to auditions – several times a week, if we’re lucky. (I was never that lucky.)

For me, working a full-time “regular” job doing something that doesn’t allow for creativity or self-expression is not only a deathtrap for the soul, it makes it nearly impossible to have the flexibility needed to attend auditions.  Yet, over the last 18 years of my life, I have taken full-time jobs (kicking and screaming) for periods of 2-4 years.  I have had several steady part-time and short-term temp jobs.  I have done numerous random gigs, from catering, to paid market research, to background work.  And I have been unemployed.

I have noticed a strong connection between the stability of my financial life and my ability to be creative.

Rather than journeying through life, gypsy-style, happy to be a striving/struggling actor with little money but a lot of commitment to her art, the burden of having bills I can’t pay puts me into creative distress and, eventually, shut-down mode.

Before I know it I am huddled in a corner, rocking back and forth, imagining a hungry, lonely life from street-corner cardboard box.

The thing is, I need freedom and independence.  I have always been a free-spirit at heart, and I feel stifled by rules and red tape.  I crave and require a life that has less predictability and routine (I get bored), less rigid structure (I feel trapped) and more creative freedom than the non-artists I know.

However, I seem to need some amount of stability, routine and structure in my life – quite a bit, actually, and certainly more than a true bohemian would need – otherwise everything falls apart.  I have always been this way, long before marriage and children, I just never really wanted to face facts.  If I don’t have an anchor, particularly with regards to my finances, my creativity stops flowing completely.  Or what comes out is dry, crusty and not fit for consumption.

I secretly feel a bit disappointed at my true and rather unbohemain nature.  I don’t like admitting that there are things about having a “traditional” life that appeal to me, including having a predictable cash flow.

But I think it’s okay to acknowledge that my vision for my life has changed.

So, whether a steady paycheck comes from my husband, from me, from the ether, or from some combination of human and divine sources, some steady dinero is definitely needed to make my personal and creative life work in the way I want.

I still need freedom and independence.  I still want my creativity to be at the core of what I do and who I am.  I’m still not going to work chained to a desk for 40-50 hours a week, slaving away for a paycheck at a job I find desperately limiting and unfulfilling.  I don’t want that for myself, and it’s not the example I want to set for my children.

But I do want to be able to put food in their mouths.  That’s pretty important.

Farewell, Bohemia.  You will always be in my heart.