On Dying, an Actor’s Obituary

I’ve hesitated writing this blog post because 1. it’s going to probably seem melodramatic to anyone who doesn’t quite understand from where I’m coming and 2. it feels like too much of a low point for even this blog, despite it being entirely about low points. I mean, I write about the silly, dumb stuff that happens to me in my life that isn’t life alteringly bad, so when I get serious things get awkward. #amirite

A part of me died this month. [Again, this is not for the faint of heart when it comes to what could be classified by misunderstanders as melodrama.] And it hurt, and it was surprising, and I’ll be totally honest right now, I miss it because it had been a really integral part of what made me who I am.

So here’s the backstory. I started out my life a piano playing kid, and I had this dream to not become a concert pianist but to land a job playing the piano in Nordstrom (I kid you not. That was literally a dream I had.) for the rest of my life and be really happy playing flowery music for shoppers. I think I probably also figured I could buy stuff there as well, so it seemed like a real plus. Piano, department store, cafe. I could live there.

When I was in eighth grade, my mother and I saw a local high school’s production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It wasn’t the first time I’d ever seen a show (or even that one — we were big theatre goers when I was younger), but for some reason that particular production really spoke to me. The lead, who was a high school drama prodigy (and is now a Broadway star/national touring co. Elder Price in “The Book of Mormon”), also choreographed the show, and they had the dance team in the ensemble, and … it was spectacular. (It wasn’t really, but it felt like it.) We left church early one Sunday to catch the matinee, which meant we saw all six performances that week, along with purchasing a video recording of it. We liked it that much. And something happened. I’m not sure if it was because I was an Asian kid trying to live the dream, realizing there aren’t a lot of Asian roles in musical theatre, or if it was the music (I mean, haters gonna hate, but that music is just catchy, and don’t even get me started on the megamix), but I knew the role of Narrator would be mine someday.

If Diana DeGarmo could do it, then darnit so could I.

If Diana DeGarmo could do it, then darnit so could I.

So I quit piano lessons. I began voice lessons, took Drama in high school, threw myself into the theatre world the best I could, and even signed up for some dance classes. I was going to be on Broadway, and I was going to be the Narrator, and it was going to be the best life I could imagine.

But, you know, stuff happens, and plans change, and I found myself entrenched in the choir department for the remainder of high school and the first half of college before switching majors to American Studies, which really means “eternal secretary with big dreams and a side of disenchantment.”

That’s the backstory.

When I got married, I became really blessed. I mean, that’s kind of an obvious statement because unless you’re in a loveless, destined for divorce type marriage, you’re blessed, and that’s just the way it is. But I was blessed with a remarkably understanding spouse who knew I wasn’t happy filing and collating all day long, and one day he came home from work and told me I could quit my job and pursue my love of acting for as long as I wanted. That’s the short version, anyhow. And I did. I quit my job, and I auditioned for shows, and I got cast in some of them, and I built up my resume and continued voice lessons and threw myself back into the world of theatre and got new headshots every time I changed my hair, and it was really exciting. Rejection happened, it hurt, but I moved on, and I knew things would turn out okay in the end.

But then my makeup artistry job started to not really pan out, and no one would hire me, and I stopped getting cast in shows (or even called back in a lot of instances), and I found myself sitting at home with the animals for several hours till Husband came home so we could play video games and talk and eat junk food (till I put us on a diet) and just be a family. Part of me was heartbroken, but part of me really loved it. I didn’t have rehearsals in the way of my relationship, I didn’t spend hours and hours and hours with people who weren’t my loved ones, I didn’t have to wear stage makeup or wigs or musty costumes that had been worn by dozens of other people.

Little Shop of Horrors, The Grand Theatre, Salt Lake City, Utah

Little Shop of Horrors, The Grand Theatre, Salt Lake City, Utah

And a little part of me started to die — the part that thought my happiness was intrinsically connected to performing. It felt like a good thing, like progress, and I looked at that death as a moving on, a growing up, a becoming closer to my husband and never wanting to turn back.

But it was just a little part, and that didn’t stop me from continuing to audition for shows — I just did so with less gusto and pizzazz. If I got cast, that would have been great, but if I didn’t … it wasn’t really the end of the world.

Of course there was a low point, there always is, and it hit with such incredible force that I kind of had to pick up my pieces and put myself back together, except I couldn’t find all the pieces in the rubble, and I’m still looking for them, half-heartedly, under a cloud of *sighs* clinical depression: I lost the role of Narrator. Twice.

My husband and a friend/former director once jokingly accused me that all the dreams for which I audition are dream roles, and I’m going to set the record straight right now that that is just not true. I have four dream roles, one of which I’ve already been blessed to perform, and the rest are just the icing on the cake, the cherry on top, any colloquialism you can think of that implies added bonus of delicious success. They are: Narrator (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat), Eponine (Les Miserables), Lucy (You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown), and Wednesday Addams (The Addams Family). I could be cast as Ursula in The Little Mermaid, Cathy in The Last Five Years, or The Witch in Into the Woods and be really over the moon, but landing one of those roles wouldn’t make my life complete, either, so they’re, you know, further colloquialisms I suppose.

Because Joseph changed my life so drastically, changing my career path from pianist in Nordstrom to Broadway star, and then from choir director/voice teacher to secretary to regional, decently-known actress, I always felt like I could land the role of Narrator and play it for the rest of my life without feeling too upset about it. It’s like when people ask you what one food you would eat for the rest of your life if given the choice; I’d eat up that Narrator role for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and I’d probably even snack on it in between meals. (And since your curiosity was probably piqued, the actual food answer is Thai.)

Thai-Food-Wallpaper-3To lose it once was upsetting. It involved a lot of crying, some therapeutic binge eating, the usual stuff that gets me through a sad time, but I knew there was another audition coming up for the exact same show and role because my state goes through these ridiculous phases of doing the same shows as everyone else all the time, so I prepped an audition piece and waited, impatiently, for the audition to come.

And I did a pretty good job. Good enough to be called back.

I did not do a good enough job to be cast.

The night of discovery was a kind of dark one. I mean that literally and figuratively — despite having a great morning and afternoon, the evening was immediately sullied, and on top of it, things were overcast. (There’s your regular dosage of sarcasm for this post.) And that’s when the part of me that had begun to die earlier — the part that wanted to perform onstage for the rest of my life, to dance under hot stage lights and go to Denny’s at midnight and have permanent mic tape residue on the back of my neck — completely gave up the ghost. At first, I thought it was mere acceptance, a sort of fast-acting hopefulness that told me it just meant another role was supposed to be mine in another show at another theatre, but by the next evening, I realized that wasn’t the case at all. I just couldn’t do it any longer.

Not getting something you want is just a part of life with which we all have to deal. But there’s something painfully personal about not getting cast in a show — you’re not just slipping into a cupcakery five minutes before closing to discover the chocolate raspberry cupcake is completely sold out or bidding on an item on eBay — you’re giving who you are as a person and a performer to a panel of judges. It’s not just your voice and your acting ability and how well you move (for the record, I’m a non-dancer who moves relatively well), it’s your entire self. You’re telling them that for the next several months you’re willing to be theirs, that you’re willing to give every ounce of what moves you, drives you, challenges you to have a handful of most likely unpaid performances on a stage to complete strangers because you love it that much. Rejection isn’t just saying you’re not a right fit like a job, it’s saying all the sweat and tears you put into getting where you are wasn’t enough for them. Forget talent for a second and focus on the other stuff — that you didn’t look right, sound right, or move right. Talent becomes secondary. You just aren’t who they want, but you’ve chosen a career path that craves being wanted. It’s desperate, it’s vulnerable, it’s often embarrassing.

Can we go somewhere else?

Can we go somewhere else?

The second and final death didn’t feel like progress at all. And I find myself itching to discover what it is that I need to live joyfully, to express myself because that’s what keeps me sane. I wake up wondering if the spark of performing has come back. It still has not.

I recently joked with my best friend that the real problem here is that I’m really only good at belting, so what on earth will I do with that if I’m not singing in musical theatre. And this might be the point at which friends and family rally around me and try to point out other things that I’m good at, but I’m truly great at belting because it’s what I love to do. So I don’t say that with arrogance as much as I believe, rather firmly, that you’re especially good at what you love. I have the ability to sing in a very specific way, and I don’t have anywhere to put it, and I’m at a loss as to what I should do next. I cannot belt sing in a box, I cannot belt sing with a fox.

And that’s the end. For now, at least. Fellow actors continue to ask me if I’ll be auditioning for upcoming shows, and I waffle around for their benefit, but deep down, the answer is a resounding no. I recently saw a show with a dear friend, and it was fun, but I didn’t love it like I used to love seeing shows because it really hurt. She told me afterward, when we slipped backstage to congratulate a friend of mine, that being backstage made her want to be in a show so badly, and my response was just a noise because I couldn’t agree. Being backstage made me want to jump into bed and not wake up till I felt less depressed (but being in bed is depressing).

I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being. – Oscar Wilde

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3 thoughts on “On Dying, an Actor’s Obituary

  1. Joseph was amazing. Somehow I missed that he was in the book of Mormon musical. That’s funny. Its interesting to me that I related to this….it reminded me of those years I was trying to get pregnant with Michael. Each month was torture. Of course its not the same, but what you wrote resonated with how I felt at the time.

    • One of my closest friends told me that anyone who’d faced loss or rejection of some sort would get it, even without being an actor. It’s a dumb thing we all have to deal with.

  2. Yeah, minus the whole piano player thing and this is my life lately. After losing Fiona for the second time in 12 months and the Narrator to someone with NO VOICE (for reals. She auditioned with no voice) I’ve decided I’m done with theatre for a while. It’s gone from being something I LOVE to do to just one more thing I HAVE to do.

    It’s ok to walk away for a bit and do your own thing. The cool thing about Theatre is it will still be there when you’re ready to come back-this is Utah after all.

    Just enjoy the knowledge that your summer is your own to do whatever the frack you want to or you may get a phone call and get an even BETTER opportunity that PAYS with people you LOVE being around that you wouldn’t have been able to do had you been cast as Fiona or the Narrator…

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