Shortly after Christmas, I got a call from my friend Lucy. It’s a little new for me to refer to Lucy as a friend, because technically I am not her peer – I met Lucy when I was an adult and she was maybe four or five years old, while I was working on a play with her mom. I’ve watched her grow up, and have even had the privilege of being her teacher, since from a very young age, she has loved acting and took the improv classes I taught at a children’s theatre.
But she’s 20 now, and has grown into an incredible young woman. There is every possibility we could be in a play together someday and I’ll find myself sitting with her and the rest of the cast after the show, having a drink and hanging out. But instead of thinking of her as my student or my friend’s daughter, she’ll just be one of my friends, like her mom.
Lucy is currently in college, as a theatre major with a political science minor. She’s interested in all acting, but specifically loves comedy – improv, sketch, etc. Lucy is FUNNY – both onstage, and just in life – she has a natural flair for comedy, which training has only served to enhance. She called me because she was debating the opportunity to do a “comedy studies” program for a semester with Second City, but was facing some uncertainty around her decision – like taking time away from school and potentially delaying graduation, how her parents would feel about it, the financial end of things, and what would happen if the program didn’t turn out to be what she hoped it would be.
I cannot tell you how cool it was to be able to talk to Lucy about this decision. Mostly, it’s cool because Lucy is someone I totally believe in – her natural gifts are backed up by intelligence, kindness, and an awesome personality. She’s been acting in professional children’s theatre since she was a kid, so she is already familiar with “the biz.” I have every faith that whatever she sets her mind to, she will achieve.
But talking to her reminded me so much of what it was like to be twenty years old, and standing on the precipice of so much possibility, and at the same time, so much uncertainty. To be fair to Lucy, I must state that she is more confident, well-adjusted, and willing to take a risk than I was when I was her age. But she expressed a lot of the same doubts I remembered having when it came to pursuing my dreams. Going after something as competitive as acting, and doing it somewhere prestigious, like Second City, feels risky. And if she doesn’t have success, and quick success, has she wasted her time, and her parents’ money? And what if the program is just so-so, will she regret it?
I knew I wanted to be an actor from the moment I stepped onto the high school stage and said my first line in the understudy performance of Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced . I was fifteen years old. It was the most sure and at home I had ever felt in my life. From then on, nothing has ever given me a stronger sense of identity, happiness, or satisfaction than being an actor.
But when I was deciding on colleges, my parents, like most normal parents who want to make sure their child doesn’t end up starving under a bridge (or permanently living at home), gently discouraged me from going to a conservatory, or even majoring in theatre, since the odds of making a living as an actor are not the best. And God bless them, they paid for my education, which they didn’t have to do, so they did have a right to weigh in on the matter. I remember my dad saying he wouldn’t pay for college if I was going to major in theatre, because he didn’t feel it was a wise investment in my future. He didn’t say it to be unsupportive – my dad has never liked theatre or even movies for the most part – so my obsession with theatre has never made a ton of sense to him. He’s a great dad and he loves and supports me in many, many ways, but on this issue, we were very different people. Also, there were no professional theatres where I grew up, and we didn’t personally know anyone who was a working actor, so for me and my family there was no real blueprint or proof that being a working actor was something you could achieve without moving to LA or NYC with your life savings and fledgling dreams of being a star. So I went to a state school, and majored in English.
But I couldn’t stay away from acting. My freshman year of college was all about starting over, proving myself, and paying my dues in a new environment, and while I did work on some shows, it was always small roles/backstage work, or sometimes nothing at all, and I spent much of that year feeling massively lost and depressed. The summer before my sophomore year, I told my mom I was considering quitting school and working, and she surprised me by being supportive of whatever I decided, but did suggest I go back and give it a try for just a couple weeks. We made a deal – I would stick out those first two weeks, but if I didn’t feel better about school in that time frame, I was going to quit and do something else.
I called home every night to give her a status report. And every night, for a week and five days, I called home and said ” I HATE it here. It sucks. I don’t think I’m going to stay.”
And then, with a total “whatever-who cares-I’m gonna leave this joint anyway” attitude, I went to auditions for the fall show – Noel Coward’s Private Lives. And I got cast. I called my mom one day short of the two week trial period, and said, “Well, I got cast in this show, so I guess I’ll stay and see how it goes.” It was a good decision.
I still kept an English major, but added theatre as a minor. I did well in the English department, but for the rest of my college career, I was constantly in a show, and the theatre department was where I had my network of friends. By the end of my senior year, I was double majored in English and Theatre, and if I had gone one more term to take a few more liberal arts classes, I would have double degreed. But I was sick of being in school, so I deemed one degree was plenty. Before graduation, I had to decide what my degree would say – English or Theatre. Insecurity won, so I went with English.
After college it never really occurred to me that I could pursue a career as a professional actor. A couple of my friends went on to MFA programs, and hearing them talk enthusiastically about their experiences made me sick with envy, which I battled with excuses as to why I couldn’t do what they were doing. “Well HIS family has money. If I had a trust fund, I could do whatever I wanted to do,” or “Well SHE has a great support system. If everyone believed in me like that, I would have the confidence too” were two of my favorites. It’s possible those things would have helped me, but it was hard for me to admit that the fact I was too scared – of failing, of not making enough money, or of getting into it and growing to hate it – was what was really in my way. So instead, I went to work in the corporate world. I got an apartment. I bought furniture. I established a credit rating and a 401(k). It wasn’t a bad life. But it never felt “right.”
To make it feel more right, I started auditioning for shows in Portland, and soon I started working – on the side – as an actor. And then getting paid. First in low paying gigs, like dinner theatre and grass roots projects, but then more established theatres started calling, and after many years, I was working for theatres that paid Equity wages. I got an on-camera agent and a voice over agent, and finally, with my husband’s urging and support, I quit my day job, went Equity, and could finally officially declare myself a professional actor. And my life finally felt “right.”
It hasn’t been a terrible path – I’ve worked with great people in every phase of my career and made friends I treasure – in both the theatrical and non-theatrical spheres. I even know that some of my unhappiness and struggle in my desk job days has provided life experience that has made me a better actor. I kind of wish it had been a shorter journey, but in the end, I don’t have any profound regrets.
But I do wish that when I was 20, I’d had a friend experienced in the business say to me, “Girl, DO IT. Stop worrying about the money, what other people (including your parents) think, whether you’ll be successful or not, or whether you’ll like it or not. You are young, free of mortgage payments, a spouse, children, pets, or even houseplants. This is the best possible time in your life to try something new, be broke, sleep for a month on a friend’s sofa, and fail huge . You already eat Top Ramen because you can’t cook and you even kinda like it, so it’s not like you’re really going backwards in terms of your quality of life. Take out a loan if you have to, find a crappy part time job to cover the basics, but go after what you REALLY want with all your passion, energy, and youthful ability to function on only four hours of sleep. In the end, it’s better to have lived a life with regrets for things you did do, than remorse for what you never tried. So run straight at your fear, fully commit, and just DO IT.”
Which is basically what I said to Lucy. It was a gift to be able to say it to her- especially since she’s so worthy of hearing it. I was able be the friend I wished I’d had when I was twenty. Last night, I emailed her to see what she had decided about the program, and she said she is definitely going to apply. She asked if I would be willing to give her feedback on some of her essay questions for the application. Of course I said yes. I am her friend after all, and I couldn’t be more excited for her. She will find what is lagom for her much earlier than I did, and have that many more years to enjoy it.
Lucy, I am rooting for you. Girl, DO IT!