Have you ever tried to explain to someone why you’re an actor? Let me go on record as saying I would not recommend it. Maybe you’ve had better luck, but for me it usually goes something like this:
“I’m an actor,” I say.
“Oh, neat! So do you want to be on broadway?” they ask, with honest enthusiasm.
“No,” I answer, all self-righteous, “Through my work as a perpetual acting student and infrequent fixture on the Chicago theater scene, I hope to impact social change and challenge the status quo in a way that is at once unconventional and subversive yet deeply meaningful.”
“Oh,” they say, deflated, “That sounds…fun.”
“Well it’s not really a job that’s just for fun, you know, it’s…oh, you’re leaving, ok, well, talk to you later then, I guess.”
It’s painful. For everyone involved. I try to give myself little pep talks here and there, reminding myself that I have to own my work, and that means taking seriously the reasons behind why I do it. But what I always end up asking myself is, “Why does this sound like such a bummer?”
I think it’s incredibly important to have a point of view as an artist, to know why you do what you do and to own that 100%. But as we know from our work onstage, we can’t get so precious about it. As Black Box is wont to remind us, we are not curing cancer here. And you know what? Yes, Aunt Esther, being on Broadway would be really neat! In fact, it would be so neat that I’ve spent plenty of nights imagining what my Broadway debut would look like, sound like, feel like and fucking taste like, and shouldn’t I have to own that just as much as my deeply held belief that a play should affect people in more ways than the ticket price?
This feeling that I have to be deadly serious about my work because other people don’t take it seriously, can very easily bleed into a preciousness that makes me feel gross. And because I let it happen in my life, it happens in my work, too. When I’m onstage experiencing the crap out of my circumstances, meticulously executing my activity, and honestly feeling the very profound emotions that come along with plotting how best to stab my cheating fiance in the face with my dead father’s swiss army knife, and my partner waltzes in soaking wet and laughing hysterically, I will dig in and refuse to see that behavior. I am going through something here, ok?!?
This patent refusal to live fully through all of our experiences, not just the ones that make us look the best and smartest and most unique, is the death of our art. We have to fight against it. That means being able to let go of our planning, our preparation, our hopes and expectations when the time is right and trusting that we will not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The work we do, and the reasons we do it, live in us no matter what. We have to be able to acknowledge every facet of our experiences, and be brave enough to respond truthfully.
So here it is, ok? I am Sarah-Jayne. I’m an actor who believes in the necessity of constantly exploring our understanding of the human condition, who revels in the beauty of watching an artist live truthfully through something onstage, and who grips her hairbrush with white-knuckled fervor as she gives her tearful yet eloquent Tony acceptance speech to the bathroom mirror.