One of the through lines I’ve noticed in this blog o’ mine is how unconventional decisions turned into unexpected positive experiences throughout my life. And I have been so so lucky with many of my jumps off of various cliffs. But it hasn’t always been so smooth. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more and more in touch with a certain inner wisdom, my intuition or ‘gut’ or whatever which has led to taking risks that really paid off while holding off on certain things that just weren’t right for me. But when I was younger, so much younger, I was pretty clueless about my inner AND outer world and boy did I pay for it. And one of my biggest lessons can be summed up by a sign Daddy pointed out to me one day long ago when we were both playing a folk festival in St Augustine, propped up in a busker’s guitar case:
“Play for the love. Play for the money. But don’t play for the love of the money.”
I learned this during my strange, murky Miami days – which kicked off so promisingly during that halcyon, hope-filled time after college when I moved to the closest big city to ignite my acting career. By the time of this lesson, I’d had some initial success in regional theater at a respected playhouse: gotten some big shows under my belt, a good review in The Miami Herald and enough money to pay the bills. I was living the dream! And it really was wonderful. I was dirt poor but spending my time rehearsing and performing, staying out late, getting up late and even finding a tiny but adorable little efficiency in Miami Beach across the street from the ocean. I had just gotten involved with the theater’s children’s program and was cast in the lead role of its next production – slightly less pay than the main stage, but still enough to live on and working with great people.
Then a friend of a friend mentioned that a certain Very Big Theater needed a new actress for their education outreach program and they wanted to recommend me. It was a pro-literacy, anti-drug play that would tour around to the local schools. Marquee lights burst from my head just thinking about it. This was a nationally renowned theater that had debuted several Broadway productions and showcased various legends of theater in its time. Not only would I be working for this amazing institution, but the pay was easily twice what I was making at my current gig. More dinners out! More shopping! And who knows, maybe I could get my foot in the door and eventually get cast in one of the main stage productions! The only problem: I would have to back out of the children’s show I’d just started with very little notice.
With stars…well, sequins…in my eyes, I hesitated for a second and then auditioned. Without asking any questions about the program itself, aside from pay, I jumped when they offered me the part. Then I contritely made my apologies to the very cool and nice director as I bailed on his show. My heart squinched a bit as he took the news well but was obviously disappointed in my decision – especially since he’d have to hustle to find someone else. I just told myself “business is business” and was thrilled to be moving on up in the scene so quickly.
Reality hit soon after the first rehearsal:
- The outreach program – a requirement for certain grants – was run by the artistic director’s wife. And the only qualification she had was that…she was the artistic director’s wife. In addition, she had pulled in a good buddy of hers as co-director whose only qualification was that…she was her buddy. No clue, no artistry, scant intelligence, nothing but good intentions.
- After a brief rehearsal period, we started the tour. This translated to showing up for the bus at 5 am, five days a week, loading the set on the truck, traveling to that day’s school, unloading the truck and building up the set.
- The play itself was written by, who else? the artistic director’s wife’s buddy and was the tritest, worst-written piece of drivel ever staged – even by high school production standards.
- My part was the “straight man”, the high school jock’s sister who nags him about skipping class and doing drugs then nags him some more when he ends up in a wheelchair because he skipped class and did drugs. Not one bit of humor or humanity or dimension to be found anywhere.
- After each performance, we then had to stick around and counsel the students about not skipping class and not doing drugs.
This last part was pretty ridiculous to the whole cast. We were not counselors. None of us had any training as teen counselors. And on top of that, we were spending our nights drinking and smoking copious amounts of pot to counteract what a terrible waste the rest of the day had been. There we’d be, still slightly hungover, simmering with frustration and anger at our theatrical overlords, talking to sullen high school kids about stuff they couldn’t care less about. Then we’d break down the set, load up the bus, get back to the Very Big Theater, unload the bus and self-medicate again because we were about to start the whole cycle over in a few hours.
That was my life for 12 weeks. 12 long, rancorous weeks. On the upside, much of the rest of the cast were cool, talented people who were as frustrated as I was about how this allegedly big opportunity was panning out. But hey, we’d made some contacts at the Very Big Theater and surely it would be worth it! And as we all consoled ourselves: at least we’re getting paid!
Except the outreach program was so inconsequential to the actual main stage theater, none of us had any chance of getting attention or being taken seriously. In fact the program seemed to be a bit of a laughing stock as people sniggered about the AD’s wife behind her back. By association we were tainted, too. And that turned out to be the last theater I did in Miami. I’d felt so bad with how I’d left things at the other theater, I couldn’t bring myself to audition there again. I tried out at other venues and never even got a call back.
Finally, I realized I had to find other work, which brought some humbling experiences, including:
- Working a brief stint on Abe Hirschfeld’s campaign for Mayor of South Beach, where it turned out one of my duties was lookin’ pretty and going to Joe’s Crab Shack with him while he tore through a mountain of crab legs. Which was not the most pleasant of images.
- Various failed attempts at waitressing. I was great if I had two tables, but after that my level of service would descend into sheer frazzled pandemonium.
- Pawning my beloved Martin for rent money.
I eventually learned how to navigate life in a way that resonated with what I want AND what I feel is right. And I ended up doing a good amount of theater back in my hometown, in the non-profit community scene, for ten years. It wasn’t professional or highly connected but Theatre Jacksonville was high quality, with great people and gave me some of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.
Now, I’m not saying a well-paying gig is bad – or that you’re a sell-out just because you’re getting some do-re-mi out of a situation. But I never want to forget that there’s other things much more vital to my fulfillment and happiness.
Image by sushiina on flickr