A Note on Vulnerability

Creative Commons Photo by Elisabetta Foco
Creative Commons Photo by Elisabetta Foco

“The Bathroom is Downstairs”

Last night Ben and I used a gift certificate to a fancy restaurant around the corner.  It’s BYOB, and though I haven’t been drinking this month, I figured the glorious food was worth pairing with wine.  So to say the least, after 4 solid gulps of Chardonnay, I was having a time.  Not drinking for two weeks sure does make you a cheap date.  Either way, I kept it together and eased back on the wine until desert time.  By the time Ben got up to go to the bathroom, I was in a silly place.  For some unknown reason, I blurted out, “It’s right downstairs.”  And instantly collapsed into giggles as he walked away.  Why?  Because this is a tiny Montclair restaurant built in the corner of a small brick apartment building.  The dining room itself is a stones throw from one wall to the next, and so there is literally one option of where the bathrooms could be, without walking into the kitchen.  There were no steps.  Anywhere.  I am hilarious.  Why did I do this?  I do not know, I was feeling crafty, and I blame the glass of wine.

Either way, as soon as Ben turned to the corner to look at the real bathrooms, looking for the steps, he had a moment of, “I must have missed something,”  to which he turned to see my giggling with a, “Very nice, honey,” look on his face.  Marriage, everyone!

The point of this story is that it ties into our earlier conversation about vulnerability on stage.  In that one moment when he was desperately looking for those mysterious stairs, he looked so genuinely lost, that I wanted to leap out and help him.  At the expense of my poor husband, who married a crazy lady, I found what everyone is trying to replicate on stage.

A little earlier, around sip 2 of said wine, Ben and I got chatting about an actress-friend that we deeply respect.  “We could see she had great vulnerability on stage, even years ago when she was just starting out,” Ben noticed.

This word, vulnerability, has been finding a way to consistently revisit me recently.  In my acting classes last month, my teacher kept pinpointing this as my issue.  In a scene where I was supposed to playing the “beta” character, he would say, “I can see you’re trying to be vulnerable, but it’s clear behind your eyes that you still want to punch her in the face.”  Man was this an eye-opener for me.  Ever since I made that transition from child actor to big person actor (When did that happen?  Has that happened?), I’ve struggled to find the ease that comes with performing on stage as a kid.  I didn’t think about it, I just went into imagination land, and bam! I was wrapped up in it.  Clearly from the huge dip in being cast when I moved to NYC, this was something crucial that I’d lost.  Hearing this in class was such a breath of fresh air.  I needed something that felt tangible enough to work on, and perhaps this was it.  But how the heck, and why heck, would you want to get that back?

Vulnerable at the Donut Shop

To sing my husband’s praises a bit, since I threw him under the bus last night, vulnerability is something I have observed in him with customer service workers throughout our whole relationship.  If you’ve spent any amount of time with him, you know he has the ability to make friends with anyone.  I will turn around after picking out a bottle of wine, and he’s already making plans to watch football with the guys who own the store.  As an awkward introvert, this is not my forte.  So what does he do differently?  He lets his guard down and lets go of customer expectation.

Whether we notice it or not, most of our daily interactions, other than our social ones with friends and family, are based around a construct of “I am doing this for you or you are doing this for me.”  It happens at work, at the grocery store, or even with other people on the road.  We don’t know each other, but we’re trying to coexist, so let’s make this work.  And because of this natural reaction, a wall goes up, and that wall gets thicker and thicker as you get older.

The issue as an artist, or someone who simply wants to connect with people, is that it can become harder to drop this wall when we need to be vulnerable enough to connect on stage or create a piece of writing or visual art that moves your audience.  If you aren’t feeling a little uncomfortable while putting your thoughts on the line, neither will the other person, and therefore a change is less likely.

As I talked about in a post a few months back, acting is one of those tricky art forms to practice in your living room.  Without a specific project to develop, and an audience to give you feedback, you are simply acting to your cats. This is not for nothing, but as someone who only had that option for a few years, I did not exactly sense a great deal of personal or career growth.

This welcoming of vulnerability in public is a new practice that I am going to challenge myself to take, not only for my acting, but also for my connections with those I see every day.  People at my job are already fantastic at this.  I noticed from day one that this was a school where people are encouraged to speak about their personal endeavors as much as get things done.  But outside its walls, since Montclair is a particularly wealthy town, you see a lot of personal fortresses where people can hide to guard themselves from one another.  Sometimes these walls are built up by Botox, other times simply by living within a community of great wealth disparity.  The people who own small businesses and work around this town are quite the opposite, which is one reason we moved here.  But the soccer mom you bump into at the artisan doughnut shop on Sunday morning is a few degrees below freezing.  Smile at her and she panics.

It is the chance to show vulnerability to these types of walled-in people that I find most fascinating.  And on the other side of things, the customer service people that have to deal with Mr. Frozen Wealthy Man, can also benefit from a smile, some awkwardness and human conversation.

It may feel strange, but vulnerability opens the door to kindness and risk.  When you feel like you are extending a branch of friendliness to someone you don’t know, you receive way more from your day, and so do they.  It allows you to take risks, to get off the couch, and to accept that every moment in your day is not meant to be guarded and planned.

So though I do not recommend tricking your loved ones into where the bathrooms are (…or aren’t.  “It’s right next to the fountain, you can’t miss it!), I do recommend trying out vulnerability for a day.  Try not to be so sure where the day will take you, who you will connect with, or how they will respond.  And know if letting your guard down welcomes negativity, then it’s clearly the other person’s wall slowly, and uncomfortably, getting knocked down.  And who knows, maybe that stuffy guarded person will head out and be a little less snippy to the Whole Foods employees.

Have a great weekend, everyone!


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