The Adventures of a Young(ish) Actor Making his Way Back to The Stage
Episode 1: “Finding the Balance.”
Once upon a time, there was an awkward middle schooler with a crush. The middle schooler was me, and the crush was a girl in the school’s journalism club, whom we shall call “Natalie.”
I was tall and gawky for my age, and ungodly skinny to boot. My feet were too big, my arms were too long, my voice was cracking terribly and I suspect one could have connected the dots of acne on my face to draw a rather striking unicorn. Needless to say, I was horribly self-conscious and shy, which rendered already difficult tasks virtually impossible, like making friendships or talking to girls (particularly “Natalie”, with whom I was hopelessly in love).
Desperate for her to notice me, I strove for ways to get Natalie’s attention. But what was I to do? Sports were out of the question, as I had the agility of a drunken ox. I tried my hand at playing a musical instrument, but the only females I could attract with my mad clarinet skills were geese in heat. Could I possibly woo her with my charming smile and amazing sense of style? Well, you tell me…
I had just about resigned myself to being a mere editorial in the life of my comely correspondent, when I saw an advertisement to audition for the school talent show . Inspiration hit me like a Mack truck. I had always had a talent for speaking in front of a class for reports and whatnot… what about performing a monologue? If I couldn’t attract the lady’s attention through good looks or physical attributes, then perhaps I could attract her by making a complete and total ass of myself in front of the school!
I know what you’re thinking, and I assure you: I have just as much insight into what attracts women now as I did then.
I prepared for the day of my self-abasement with all the ritual of a holy rite. I agonized over just the right outfit (and, if you were paying attention to the picture, you can imagine how many good decisions were made there). I poured through books of monologues, until I found the one I thought would get the most laughs. Finally, the night of the talent show arrived. I was almost petrified with stage fright but determined to overcome it if it meant Natalie would see me. And so, I found the courage to take to the stage, find my spotlight, and proceed to chew ALL THE SCENERY. When I was done, the audience jumped to their feet in a standing ovation, every bully who had ever tormented me lined up to apologize for their trespasses, and the girl of my dreams rushed forward and gave me my first kiss before declaring her undying love for me. We have now been married for thirteen years and are the proud parents of three children.
Lol, j/k. None of that happened. The school bullies paid extra special attention to me for the next two weeks following the talent show. The girl of my dreams continued to not speak for me (though she did a report in the school paper about how I had the audience “laughing crazily” at me…my very first review), and now lives in New York with her husband and their newborn child. And while they didn’t give me a standing ovation, I did have the audience laughing. Afterwards, two teachers from the high school gave my parents a set of comp tickets the school’s fall production of “Anything Goes” and asked us to attend. So, as a lark, we did. From the moment I sat down until the last curtain call, I was spellbound. The smell of the set paint, the quiet hum of the ellipsoidal, the sparkle of sequins on the dresses of Reno’s Angels swirled my senses as I drank in every detail. I kept leaning over and pestering my parents with questions like “How do they get the set to turn like that?” “How many seconds do they get to change clothes?” “Where is the music coming from?” “Lord Evelyn Oakley says he has ‘hot pants.’ What does that mean?”
When I got home that night, I declared to my parents this newfound love affair for theatre, and pondered whether I thought I could find the talent and drive within me to pursue it. My parents looked at each other quizzically, and then looked back at me and asked:
“Well, why can’t you?”
And so a thespian was born.
From that moment and through my early to mid twenties, I was a man on fire, always searching for the next project, the next role, the next challenge. Through this, I made friends, contacts, and a reputation. I even received an invitation to attend a prestigious arts academy in New York. More times than I would care to admit, however, this quest came at the detriment of work and classes. Yet the long-reaching consequences of this zeal never entered into my head. Why would I be interested in finding the cube root of 1,325 when I could be up a ladder, helping adjust Fresnel on the lighting array? What did it matter to me what made up the insides of a plant cell when the more important mysteries to solve, such as how to effectively anchor a portable flat to a stage without drilling into the stage or relying on cumbersome sandbags and “L” frames? Eventually, I left school without a degree, figuring that it would never be important and that I would be able to make it just fine on my talents and the part-time jobs which came along. And then I met the amazing, gorgeous woman who would become my wife. As we began thinking of the life we were building together and the possibilities and choices which lay before us, we realized that sacrifices would have to be made to get the things we wanted. She put her dreams of filmmaking and travel on hold to take a job as a school teacher. For my part, I began to think about the poor choices I had made in my past. Much like Billy Bigelow’s epiphany that he can’t provide for his family by screwing around on the carousel, so too did I realize that I was never going to be able to support my fledgling family on my stage skills alone. Only then did I finally understand the hole I had dug for myself in not having a proper degree to go with the well-paying job and good life I desperately wanted. So, I made the decision that theatre would take a backseat to life. I returned to school with a new focus on completing the task past me had set out to do so long ago.
Things went alright for a while. I even found other outlets for my creativity. I discovered a passion for writing. I found out I have something of an eye for amateur photography. I even experimented with botany and floriculture.
As anyone will tell you, however, the ability to turn a blind eye to a driving force in one’s life is almost impossible to do. It’s that itch you cannot scratch, that fix you’re always hungry for. Like a mournful jilted lover, theatre always managed to find ways to lurk at the edges of my life. My wife would take on a directing or producing gig, and would bring me in to help out. A friend would ask for my help memorizing lines or running through a song for an audition. What made it worse was that, try as I might, it didn’t take much for me to indulge myself. A “reluctant agreement” to help build a set here, an “unenthusiastic acquiescence” to hunt for costume pieces there. The conscientious relationship between the itch and I finally came to a head while attending a recent production of “Richard III” from the St. Louis Shakespeare Company. From the minute I sat down until the final curtain call, I became that awkward teenager all over again, entranced with the painted splendor which lay before me. I realized then and there that a part of my life that I was trying desperately to ignore was one which I couldn’t afford to any longer.
That night, before we went to bed, I turned to my wife and told her of my desire to return to theatre, but of the worry that I wouldn’t be able to go to school, work, AND be an actor at the same time. She looked at me and echoed a question my parents had asked me what felt like a lifetime ago
“Well, why can’t you?”
For so many people, be they young men and women fresh out of college or longtime veterans of the workforce, the struggle to maintain a work/life equilibrium is all too real. In the theatre profession, it is even more so. Only a lucky few of us can survive solely on their skills. The rest of us can only heave a wistful sigh of envy as we shuffle along our respective roads to success. On the one hand, we would love to be able to throw life’s cares away and focus on nothing more than that one thing which brings us the most inner peace… but would we ever be able to pay the bills? On the other hand, if we only focused our energy and resources on making money and paying the bills, is that truly “living”? So, how does one find the balance? Can one find a balance?
Well, why can’t you?
Robert Stevenson is a St. Louis playwright and has served as an Assistant Editor for Women Arts Quarterly Journal since 2015. His radio adaptation of James Tiptree Jr.’s “The Screwfly Solution” was featured at the 2015 St. Louis ARCHON, and recently enjoyed a revival on the campus of St. Louis Community College – Florissant Valley as part of Women’s History Month.
**DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in this post are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of THE SCENE SHOP.