The Actor vs. The Unknown.
I recently read a blog post, An Actor’s Dilemma by Bobby Steggert, that reflected a lot of my same feelings on my journey as a theatre artist. What affected me most was reading it while unemployed and going through an experience with a surgery in my family. I’m always drawn to the concept of art imitating life and vice versa, I find that many challenges and obstacles that the actor faces on stage and in their craft are those that happen in “real life.” My partner showed me a short video with Dame Judi Dench sharing advice on acting. What she expressed about working on a character sounded like advice that could be given to anyone having a hard time figuring out who they are and what exactly they are doing on this planet.
When faced with a struggle on stage (what does my character want) and off stage (am I going to be eligible for health insurance) the actor is consistently wrestling with uncertainty. This uncertainty is prevalent in the human existence, and those tools we use as actors to face this beast (living in the moment, listening, breathing, flexibility), can also be used when dealing with matters concerning “real life” struggles, including the health of a loved one.
Many of us have experienced a hospital waiting room at some point in our lives, either for ourselves or others. A few blessed people may never have had to sit for extended periods of time, waiting, wondering, pacing… the hospital waiting room is filled with the unknown. You go to a hospital for a procedure and even though it may be the most routine and highly successful procedure, it’s still scary as hell to wait to hear if your family member got through it all okay. There are constant pokes and prods from your imagination and you have the choice to talk and listen to those around you, or be quiet and sit still with your thoughts, distract yourself with your phone or a book, drink cups of coffee and/or walk laps around the hospital… It’s a time to reflect on relationships and inner strength or go batshit crazy.
I will admit, there was a part of me that was constantly intrigued by the hospital staff and the hospital itself while waiting for my Mom to undergo surgery. My father and I received all of the updates and information, before, during and after the procedure. I made sure to memorize and learn everything they told us. I was also doing my best to be the point person for family and friends who were inquiring about the progress of our dear patient. These actions were what helped me through the period of the unknown, being active. (Another admission, I am a loyal fan of Grey’s Anatomy, so every once in a while I would watch the nurses and doctors and decide if they would make good characters on the show, or if they reminded me of anyone on the show.) When we were finally given the green light to visit my Mom after she was out of surgery another form of uncertainty took place. We watched her progress like hawks, absorbing all details the ICU nurses could give us. Watching the monitors for her heart rate and oxygen levels. Listening to her voice and watching her face for signs of pain or discomfort.
My cousin is an ICU nurse who spent a lot of time with me and my family explaining things and even interacting with hospital staff on our behalf if we needed. I watched her patience, humor and intelligence with awe. In her life she is responsible for so many lives and feelings and knowledge. I wondered if I would have made a good person of science and health, if I could have been a nurse or a doctor. I have a really good memory and a lot of patience. But then I remembered how my stomach flips at the sight of blood, probably the same way some people feel about walking out on a stage in front of hundreds of people. Another person who was like a rock for my dad and I was my mom’s sister who is a chaplain at another hospital. Her peaceful energy and knowledge of all things hospital helped us feel like everything was going just as planned. ( My Aunt, Angela Varela has a fantastic Blog of her own called Simple Faith.) She also deals with lives at fragile and transitional moments and has had her experience with loss, tears and uncertainty with her patients. During our week in the hospital taking turns with my mom, making sure she was comfortable, I reflected on how their lives in the hospitals were not that far from my life as an artist. How health and surgery and recovery force humans to deal with the unknown, uncertainty and reality. What helped all of us during this process was communication, listening, breathing (especially for my Mom after the procedure) and flexibility. Things did and didn’t go as planned. There were quiet moments of peace and tense moments of alarm.
We brought my Mom home to her sister’s house for a week before taking her back down to New Mexico. While she rested and recovered I spent a lot of time reading and reflecting. The Denver weather was beginning to warm and my aunt’s backyard was a place for solace and fresh air.
Outside of my Aunt’s house there is a wild cat named Uno, who has been visiting my Aunt and Uncle since he was a kitten. They feed him and talk to him and sometimes if he lets them they can get a few pets in. He lives in a life of uncertainty, an alley cat, living on the streets. I would watch him from time to time, his grace and confidence that could quickly turn to fear and skittishness if someone approached too fast. He lives completely in the moment. Then there was a day with the squirrel. I watched for about an hour, entranced as if I was watching a nature show on television, this delicate dance between two wild creatures trying to get food. At first Uno wasn’t having it, he chased the squirrel up a tree and around the yard. But the squirrel never gave up. Eventually Uno sat on the grass, away from the food bowl and watched as the squirrel munched on the cat food. Finally, there was a point when both squirrel and cat were sharing a meal. I walked over ever so quietly with my phone to capture video and photos of this unlikely lunch date.
I bring up this Denver “wildlife” story because of the lesson I got from it. These two creatures were both fighting for what they wanted and needed, food. To nourish oneself is an act of survival at the most basic level for all living creatures. The squirrel was willing to face off with a beast that probably could have taken him out, but he has courage to follow through on his objective. This tenacity caused tension, conflict and drama between Squirrel and Cat. The feline antagonist in this story had a choice to make, deflect the squirrel’s constant moves towards the food bowl or to eventually settle down and accept that they both could share a meal. It was the acceptance that moved me in this backyard theatrical show. That moment when there was a peaceful understanding between these two hungry beings. I was reminded of struggle, of challenges, hardships, wants, desires. Every living thing deals with these, and with these situations come uncertainty and the great unknown. Sometimes after what can feel like a perpetual struggle, a moment of acceptance can be a breath of fresh air. Sometimes strength can come with surrender.
Bobby Steggert, in his blog post An Actor’s Dilemma, shares: “I come up against a very powerful wall of fear every time I approach the end of an artistic process, and I’m encountering a particularly daunting one right now. It’s because the end of an experience marks such a peculiar confluence of endings — the money, regularity, responsibility, personal and external validation, and sense of purpose all wrapped up into one confusing ball of human angst.” What happens to us when we are faced with struggle and what happens to us when we overcome it?
As an actor I am faced with struggle on and off stage. I can fight for what I want and desire as a character, keeping my objectives in mind but also being accepting of what the other characters on stage are sharing. I must listen, I must breath, I must be flexible. In “real life” I am dealing with student loans, unemployment, exhaustion, physical stamina, being away from my family and a relationship that sometimes has to be long distance depending on where I am working. There is so much uncertainty in my life, but that is part of everyone’s life, not just the life of an artist. Those working in the health field, those facing health issues, those covered in fur and living in the trees and alleyways… all living creatures face the unknown. It’s how we deal with it that makes the difference. So far the tools that I have been given in my profession as an artist (breathing, listening and flexibility) have helped me face these situations as well as an acceptance of uncertainty. My Mom’s health still needs to be monitored, she is still recovering, but we made it through. She is dealing with her own unknown and I continue to face mine. Existence is dynamic, always changing always progressing, full of action. The unknown is scary, sometimes feels impossible, risky, pointless… yet the struggles, the challenges, the facing of fears are what can continue to enhance our search to find out who we are. It sure isn’t easy…but would it be worth it if it was?