Being An Actress
Updated: Sep 1
I remember the moment I decided I wanted to be an actress. I was walking across the parking lot of my high school after an undoubtedly stellar performance as Portia in an all-girl production of The Merchant of Venice when my father turned to me and said, "Do you think you might want to do this for a living?" At the time I remembered feeling a little insulted. My grades were excellent. Didn't my father think I could be a lawyer or a veterinarian or a psychologist? It wasn't that I didn't love to act, but everyone I knew who wanted to be an actress was either egotistical or insecure. Not that one was mutually exclusive of the other. What did this say about me? No one in my family acted, although my Grandmother often hinted of an unsubstantiated family connection to Hermoine Gingold. Occasionally my parents would take us to see a play or listen to a concert, but only to help make us well-rounded individuals. When someone would go on about the Sound of Music my father would roll his eyes and say, “How can I take a nun singing on hilltops seriously?” And I found myself admitting that he had a point.
When I was four I appeared on Romper Room for an unprecedented two weeks. At the time my best friend, Mary Lou, had been selected for the local cable network but her incredibly shy demeanor had her mother worried.
“She’s gonna sit there like a sack of potatoes.” Mrs. Dean told my Mother who quickly suggested that I accompany Mary Lou for moral support.
“What do I have to do?” I asked my mother as she was tucking me into bed.
“Just be yourself,” she replied. My mother knew exactly what that meant. Naturally loquacious I kept things hopping on the set by constantly commenting on the camera man kissing the teacher. When asked what my father had in his garage, I remarked that it was presumptuous to even assume we had one. There was some discussion about a third week, but Miss Dawson put her foot down and said I was stealing the show.
Soon I was taking dance classes and skating lessons. My first stage appearance was as a rabbit in the famous ballet, Bugs Bunny's Birthday Party. I was excited because we second tiered rabbits were going to eat sandwiches on stage. Then disaster struck. The sandwiches were going to be peanut butter and I hated peanut butter. Teary eyed I complained to my mother who told me to grin and bear it. “That’s acting,” she said.
In grade four I wrote a play about a pair of motorcycle lovers and sang Baby Driver while they straddled their desks and rode off into the sunset.
“Hit the road and I’m gone.
What’s your number?
I wonder how your engine feels?”
“Okay,” Mrs. Orcutt interrupted, “I think that’s all the time we have for that today.”
After my father gave me his blessing to pursue a career on the stage, I decided to explore all of my options. I auditioned for an amateur theatre company and played bird #4 in Aristophanes’ The Birds, and a milk maid in Galt MacDermot’s musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona. Not exactly earth-shattering roles, but I knew there was a pecking order (no pun intended) and that dues must be paid. In Niagara Falls, where I lived as a teenager, there were two amateur companies. The youth group that took over the Firehall Theatre in the summer months of July and August, and the adult group that staked their claim the rest of the year. The youth company was run entirely by a handful of 18 to 20-year-olds who took themselves very seriously. We stretched ourselves artistically, which is really just another way of saying that were out of our depth. I remember as Bertha in Pippin I had to say, "Men raise flags when they can't get anything else up." At the time I had no idea what that meant but I certainly enjoyed the response I got every time I said it.
The amateur theatre company in the neighbouring city of St. Catharines were doing large scale musicals with professional directors and a cast of a thousand. Even I could tell the difference between Garden City’s production of West Side Story and the Niagara Falls Music Theatre Production of A Shadow Box. We told ourselves that we were doing something significant for the five or six audience members who sat in the dark to watch us perform. “At least they can appreciate art.” we told ourselves, ignoring the occasional snore beyond the footlights. When someone who had seen our production complained in the paper that “…smut didn’t belong on stage.” I was devasted.
“Some people just don’t know a good thing when they see it,” I ranted, “It’s a Pulitzer award winning play.” I forgot that we weren’t Tony award winning actors.
Anxious to spread my wings and get a taste of the real thing, I auditioned for a one-act play festival at the nearby University and managed to get the part of an uptight bible thumper in an original musical called A Hundred Bucks a Week. It was the story of a topless shampoo parlourist who castrates a guy with her teeth. Did I mention that it was narrated by a cat? I still remember singing:
“We all must be as babies in the garden.
Smiling with our mouths all bright and new.
Innocently smelling lovely roses.
Not prying with our fingers in dog doo.”
Needless to say, my father was a little shocked when an actress appeared on stage topless while I sang my heart out in a futile effort to convert her. This time as he walked me across the parking lot to the car he suggested that perhaps I should seriously consider journalism at Carleton. “Impossible!” I stated dramatically, “I’m an actress.” And I actually believed it.
I arrived at University wearing vintage clothes with frizzy hair and John Lennon glasses. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be Doris Finsecker from Fame or Janice Joplin. My dorm room-mate was an engineering student who was the first to know of a kegger and had never seen a play in her life. She often returned to our room late at night reeking of booze and sludge water after spontaneous dips in the Detroit River. What does it say about my time at school when I say that my room-mate was the best part of being there? I was told I couldn’t dance, I couldn’t sing, I had speech impediments and a wandering left eye that would completely destroy any hopes of a career in film
“Too bad you didn’t have it looked at when you were a kid,”one professor told me, “It’s easily treatable if caught when you are young.” At the age of five I was a frequent visitor to Sick Kids Hospital for my eye and wore a patch over my glasses for a year. It didn’t cure me. So much for trusting the knowledge of my professors. Strike one!
I began to sink under the pressure of looks and expectations. While the rest of the women in my class wasted away proclaiming to have eaten nothing but broccoli over Thanksgiving, I gained seven pounds over a new found love of peanut butter and developed a bad attitude towards anyone who encouraged me to “feel space”. When my teacher overheard me mutter under my breath one day that I hated improv she called a class meeting to discuss why I hated her. Everyone stared at me shocked and disappointed. Why was I resisting the pu-pu platter of techniques spread out before me? “You’re a very stubborn actress,” the teacher announced, “but I’m going to break you.” That was strike two.
At my first semester tutorial I was told that I had talent, but I wasn’t tall, thin or pretty enough.
“You have the face of Sally Field,” the department head told me, “but the body of Kathy Bates.” Strike three. I went home for Christmas and announced to my father that I was dropping out to focus, instead, on getting into a proper theatre school in New York. After all, I reasoned, it’s where I really wanted to be anyway.
There is probably nothing quite as depressing as returning to your hometown in the middle of winter when all of your friends are away at school having the time of their lives. The overall perception is that you have failed. It didn’t help to think that I had willfully brought myself to this point in time. The phrase, “small fish in a big pond” kept going around in my head. While my best friends were acing all of their classes and dating interesting freshmen, I was eating cookies, and counting the days until everyone would return to amuse me. In the meantime, I moped around the apartment, wrote letters to theatre schools and read a lot of plays.
“You have to get a job.” My father announced and for the first time I was forced to slog my way through the want ads in a half assed attempt to find work at either a wax museum or a fudge shop. Completely unqualified for anything except theatre, I was forced to become a chamber maid at a tacky little hotel near Clifton Hill. Picking up after the kind of clientele that honeymoon in tacky hotels in Niagara Falls is enough to get one thinking seriously about their life choices. Maybe Dad had been right. A career in the theatre wasn’t looking so good anymore. Something had been tarnished from University and I couldn’t pretend that my trajectory to success was going to be one clear straight line to the top. I’d hit rock bottom and was picking up the condom rappers and dirty Kleenex to prove it.
There have been many times in my career when I’ve been very close to throwing in the towel and becoming a librarian or a tour guide. At each one of those moments of genuine universal surrender something miraculous always happens. That year it was a letter of acceptance from the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. By now my father, less convinced that I could make a go of it, made me a deal. If I could find a place to live in Manhattan within a week, he would allow me to go. So, I boarded the train in Buffalo and headed for the Big Apple.
I arrived in New York at around 2:00 PM on a very, very hot day in August. I walked straight to the library, took out the Village Voice, circled an advertisement seeking a room-mate for a four-bedroom brownstone on the Upper West Side, was interviewed at 7:00 PM and secured my living accommodations within twenty-four hours. It didn’t matter to me that I had no idea who the three men I’d be living with were. The place was nice and the price was right. I think I heard my father drop the phone when I called to tell him that I had accomplished the impossible.
Studying in New York proved to be the best and possibly the worst thing that ever happened to me. I developed a philosophy of acting that has served me in every way, but it also created a high standard that hasn’t always been easy to live up to.
A few years ago, I was invited to direct a production of Blue Stockings at the same University I had so unceremoniously departed from those many years ago. Parallel universes collided as images of my past kept imposing themselves on the present. There was the quad I had been initiated in. There was the building where I’d slept and laughed and cried. There was my window with the view of the cemetery and McDonalds. There was the theatre I did my practicum in, all pretty much the same as the day I left. The walls, hallways, buildings hadn’t changed, but I had. I didn’t need reassurance anymore. I didn’t need someone to tell me what I wasn’t or couldn’t be. If only we could teach students the value of tenacity and resilience.
I enjoyed directing that class. I hope I encouraged and inspired them. I was happy when they came to rehearsals in sweats and tee shirts, less concerned about how they looked than we had been. They seemed more confident in their choices and more involved in the inner workings of the department. On Opening night after the cheers and flowers and the congratulations, it felt good to climb into the car and head for home. I’m not cut out for institutions. I don’t like the brick and the neon and the bureaucracy. I get tied up in knots over paper work and keys and passwords. Still, it was good to make my peace with that time in my life.
On the four-hour drive to Niagara I was thinking about the young people I had just worked with making the transition from student to actor. Maybe some of them would end up in New York. Maybe not. The thing about acting is it can take you anywhere…from Romper Room to the stars with a few tacky hotels in between. The trick is to just keep going.