Monday, April 5, 2010

The First Time I Gave Up Theatre

I relived this story over the weekend, and I've been thinking about it since.

There have been times in my life when working in the theatre has become so completely odious to me that I could not continue. The first time this feeling ever came over me was during my undergrad work (like I had any post-grad work, but whatever).

The production was Peter Pan, the version you're all familiar with from the Mary Martin TV specials. Foy Flying brought in their rig, and the sets were huge and there were dozens of children underfoot, and I auditioned because I had a desire to play Captain Hook. I remember the day of the audition I had this inner conversation with myself, because I had sworn to myself I was not, under any circumstances, going to audition. I talked myself into it. I said, "if you don't try, you'll always think maybe you could've done it."

I mean, it's not really a singing part....

My resistance to audition for the damn show should've tipped me off. I KNEW it was a bad idea, I just knew it. However that little voice of ego in my head, which I really needed at that point in my career (another LONG story), kept telling me I could do it, and I needed to try.

Well, that didn't work out.

So, Yeah, I was in the show all right, as "Kargo" the pirate (seriously, there's a list of names for the pirates in the one ever uses them or anything, but they're there) and...*sigh* Nana.

that's right, the dog. I played the damn dog.

What followed was nothing less than a hell for me. From the dog suit that was about 4 inches too short in the legs...AND CROTCH, to the screaming and yelling among the production team, and worst, watching someone play a role I absolutely wanted and knew I could do. John N, who actually played the role, was, in hindsight, good...this isn't about grousing over that failure on my part, but it was an annoying thing to come into everyday.

Kathy Zimmer likes to reminisce about my days as faithful pet to her Mrs. Darling, but in my mind, it was about being hot, with my knees, and neither regions getting beaten and smashed. People were injured, screamed at, and it was a generally unpleasant experience. Still, I've had those before, and since...

More to the point, it was the first time I really encountered a situation where absolutely NOTHING I did on stage mattered, at all. I have no problem playing small roles, I really do not, but I have to understand why those characters are there. If there's nothing to play, then I can't find a way to my character. If all I am is set dressing, then why am I giving so much of my time and energy?

It was shattering. I'd never been in a position where I actually dreaded going to the theatre, I found myself wishing I'd actually get injured by any of the myriad moving set pieces or fly rigs, so I could just stop having to do the show. Theatre and acting had been joyous to me at all times, but now I just wanted to escape. Nothing about the experience was leaving me fulfilled even in the smallest ways.

In contrast, When I toured in A Christmas Carol with Nebraska Theatre Caravan for two years, it was joyous...Same type of show, big, crowd pleasing, lots of small roles to play (Although, I had Jacob Marley, and that's always a hoot.) Still there was a palpable sense that everyone was important in that production. I relished the street scenes, where all I had to do was wander across stage.

Maybe I was older. Maybe I was more centered in myself. Maybe it was the paycheck. I have no idea.

The point was, I felt used on Peter Pan. I felt like everything I had come to believe about working on a show was smashed. When it ended, I felt like the weight of the world was off my shoulders, and I IMMEDIATELY started looking for something else to do with my life.

This was when I started trying my hand at music. Which had it's own disastrous aspects, but, no matter what, I always see as a growth experience. I needed something that was smaller and more immediate. Something I could control, take pride in as mine, and not something I was doing as an insignificant player. If nothing else, I got a couple of friendships that still warm me to this day.

I thought I would never, ever step on a stage, as an actor, again. I was prepared to give it up. It was only the fact that I NEEDED to do the work in order to graduate that brought me back, and eventually the ache and anger of those Peter Pan memories got washed over.

That said...It never fails that I have those moments, at least once a year when I think, "this is EXACTLY what working on Peter Pan felt like." It's in those moments that I wonder how much longer I can go on.


  1. "I needed something that was smaller and more immediate. Something I could control, take pride in as mine[.]"

    My friend, you have nailed the reason why I haven't written anything in the form of a play or film script in nine months. At an Easter dinner yesterday, someone asked me if I had "play-writer's block." My response: "Only if there was a play I wanted to write, but couldn't."

    Will I want to write more plays in the future? Most likely. Will taking a break cost me? Without a doubt -- theater pros, in general, don't like folks like me, who write when moved or motivated, who acknowledge that the desire ebbs and flows, and who listen to their gut. People like me are, apparently, less then serious and clearly uncommitted to the art.

    Oh well. And let me return this hijacked thread back to you and say "good for you" for 1) following your instincts and 2) recognizing that, good or bad, it's all a learning experience. Carl Rogers: "The facts are friendly."

  2. Maybe you do need to do something else for a while. Stay in the theater, but in another capacity? Writing is a pain in the ass, but damn, directing is the most fun a boy can have with his pants on.

  3. Like anyone else, I'm going in with my own bias on this subject - but it seems like the difference between experiences is often the people you're working with. In Peter Pan, for instance, you talk about feeling that nothing you were doing onstage mattered - but, as much as playing the dog may not be a glamorous role, Nana is certainly important to the story, and a well-played Nana actually reflects both the happiness and fears of the parents in a way that little kids can understand. As long as you have a production, and a director, that can make room for that.

    But it sounds like all of the human variables of that project were already negative (and, frankly, making you wear a too-small costume is a human factor), so it's not surprising that there ALSO wasn't an opportunity to be anything other than, "Oh look - we have a big dog!"

    We spend hundreds of hours (and dollars in therapy) discussing the people we choose to spend our time with socially or romantically, but comparatively little time thinking about the people we choose to work with. And a lot of times, we let other people make those decisions for us. No wonder the magical projects (or jobs) are few and far between.