For the final 30 days of my twenties, I am writing one personal narrative a day that has impacted my life until now. To read more about my challenge, feel free to check out the first post.
Also, this 30 Day challenge is also to support a wonderful charity, Zara Aina. Please check out my fundraiser here and if you’re able, please consider throwing a few dollars toward this amazing cause. It would mean the world!
I can’t speak for every actress, but for me, there was a specific moment when my worries about women in theatre hit me like a brick wall. I was very lucky in one large respect as a child–I had theatre, and the roles written for young female actresses–to provide me with the belief that women had something to say in the theatrical literature. I played Helen Keller, Anne Frank, understudied Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Perhaps most memorable in my own personal experience, was a character named Girl in a beautiful play for young audience’s called Mother Hicks. Girl–who has never been given a name–is an orphan in a small mid-western town during the Great Depression who spends the play searching for a true home. Like Helen and Anne, she is on her own hero’s journey–not one that trails along beside a male character.
Yet as I got older, even when I got to college, it was obvious that these rich character arcs were getting left in the dust as I entered the ingenue stage of my life. In college, though I was very grateful for the roles and great people I worked with, I played psychologically damaged women, or the tough older character that guided the crumbling, delicate ingenue. The strong, dynamic characters being written for women, were often deranged or in the process of having divorce-induced nervous breakdown. Luckily, in educational theatre, it is acceptable to act outside your type and age, and so my full disappointment for women’s roles was delayed until I graduated and moved to NYC.
Because then the roles essentially stopped. After many years of padding my ego as a community theatre child–big fish syndrome–I found myself floundering to make sense of the Juliets and the Ninas, and it was clear in my auditions. The roles I have been cast in are those rare gems like The Laramie Project, where a woman is not playing the role of a women, she is playing an activist, a writer, at one point and bigoted old lady that I had to somehow connect with. I’ve played devious 17-century wives that are trying to ruin their husbands, I’ve played men! But more often than not, the roles I am not cast in leave me feeling like I’m missing something. I connected with the women on the stage as a child, and yet in these audition rooms, I feel like an unkempt, masculine woman who just can’t bring herself to wear heels as the rest of the room is popping on their 3-inch stilettos.
It took me some time to stop resenting women who could be vulnerable enough on stage to play these beautiful roles–these characters are not to be diminished. I did play Juliet, but I never felt like I figured her out, almost to the point of embarrassment. Either way, the women I’ve come to know who can rock these roles with confidence, are often tough, fiery ladies, not the docile, introspective characters-in-love they portray. So I am stuck between the dilemma of longing to have this strength and waiting until the characters I connected with as a child return as I get older.
But where am I going with this? I’m supposed to be telling a story. I came to terms with this shift during that time I mentioned in the flash-mob post, when I was applying for every job that was remotely related to performance. During my background actor days, I submitted daily through Casting Networks–a site for BG work–for a casting call for “Model Types.” I assumed that it just meant tall, thin-ish women with high cheek bones.
The thing about growing up in theatre as girl is that once you hit your teen years, everyone loves to comment on your appearance. “Oh she’s an actress?” a well-meaning friend would say to my parents, “I can see it, so pretty, she should be a model!” I know this is meant as a compliment, but for years I couldn’t figure out why it bothered me. Maybe it’s because as a kid, I did not fall into the typical confines of overly groomed beauty. My hair went past my waist until the 7th grade, and until I was about 10, I barely brushed it. It was like a mane to be pulled out of my face so I could get on with the day. I was told that longer hair would get me cast more, so I was terrified of cutting it. To this day, it is why I have never dyed my hair either.
Anyway, when I hit puberty, I wouldn’t say I instantly blossomed into some sort of flower. My eyebrows met in the middle, I struggled letting go of my Bartman t-shirt, and I cut my hair out of fear that public school would be harsher on me than my former bubble of Catholic School. I can’t say I enjoyed any of this change though, and I was startled by the increase in physical comments the second I started following along with the expected standards of girlish upkeep. Why comment on my looks when I say I’m an actress? You haven’t seen me act, who cares about my hair?
By my early twenties, I learned to play the part of “lady” and gritted my teeth in silence when the comments from friends turned into catcalls from men on the streets or checkout guys at the supermarket. When I began to explore background work as a means of an acting-related side job, it was even more clear that there were a few boxes for women–model types, polished business type (must had upscale matching suit), hippie type, edgy women (tattoos and colored hair encouraged), hipster girl, high school student, prostitute. The one category I seemed to fit into was high school student, which is why I paced back and forth between my fake locker on The Carrie Diaries for way too many months. I also had good luck with period pieces, but that’s mainly because my thick eyebrows and un-dyed hair qualifies me for 1920’s secretary.
“Model-type” however, was a surprise. I got called the day before for an audition. I was asked to wear heels, 3-inches or higher. We would be asked to “walk.” Now remember, this was less than a year after hiking the Camino. I knew how to walk, I just didn’t know how to walk up tall in a straight line with sticks hooked to my feet. With the little money I had, I bought hideous, three-inch black leather heels from Payless that latched on to my toes like a Medieval torture device, and clonked across my tiny Astoria apartment throughout the evening. I watched bits of Top Model and other tutorials on model walking/what the hell I was supposed to do with my face. The thing I hadn’t even thought about for some reason, was my body type. I was 120 pounds from the age of 16 until about 25, I didn’t worry about my weight at that point. Anywho, I pack up my stuff and headed to midtown the next day.
As I exited the elevator, a line of striking, made-up women lined the hallway, all towering over me as I passed to pick up my sign-in card. The casting office, through one of the doors, was only for casting personnel, the hallway was as far as we were allowed. The requirements of the day were clear, “Walk toward the casting table as if it is a runway, wait for the director to tell you to stick around or not.” A quick, “No, thank you,” or “Please wait over there” was heard after each girl.
I sat in the corner of the hallway to slip on my heels, and smiled at a few women around me. It was clear from the very beginning that I was out of my element–that this was a whole other world of female performers that I was unfairly infiltrating. They sat, focused on their pocket mirrors, adjusting their makeup, fixing imperfections in their hair, and most notably, ripping their body images apart to one another. Now, before I go on with this, please know that I respect these women and was only taken aback that this particular groups was a creating negative hell of self-deprecation. I cannot assume that this represented the modeling world–for I have never returned to find out.
“I’ve been working on getting rid of this.” She tugged grotesquely at a inconsequential amount of fat on the back of her thigh. “Ugh, I know, I’m disgusting today,” answered the pristinely assembled women behind her, “I hope they just told look at my shoulders today.”
I started to think about what I would say if I joined in on the conversation. “I HAVE MAN ANKLES!” I daydreamed proudly screaming. I loved my muscly legs, my disproportioned thighs, my blotchy red skin from five weeks in the sun. As the conversations went on, I began to let of my hopes for the day. What was I trying to do here? If the audition is stressing me out, why would I want to spend a week being viewed with these expectations.
I hobbled along the line in my wobbly heels and watched the skilled, strong-as-steel women strut down the slippery linoleum hallway. I knew my walking looked nothing like that, and I knew that many of my body’s small curves would be considered a disqualifying factor. So about three women to go, I just thought, “Well, screw it,” and began to laugh at each panicked, self-conscious inkling that tried to work itself into my mind. I also started to desperately crave donuts. It must have been all the anti-food talk reverberating through the halls.
When it came time for me to walk, I distinctly remember the casting director glancing at me for a moment, and then looking back down at his notes to talk to his assistant about the person before me. No one was even going to watch me try. So, with a donut dream in my heart, I hobbled with pride and comedy down that loud hallway as two grown men shuffled papers and looked the other way. I had never been so proud to be ignored. I stood obediently for a moment, ahead of the table, waiting for my verdict. The guy looked up, “Oh! Yeah, you’re free to go. Thanks.”
As I leaned against the back of the elevator, it dawned on me that I had started to buy into the idea of women in NY theatre and film. If this was all there was, then I didn’t want to be a part of it. But come on, there’s no way this was it. I knew that, but I needed to reach this point of rock-bottom frustration with what I was not to start figuring out what roles I longed to play again. Why are the child female characters in plays written as such vehicles of bravery and wisdom? And why do you have to wait until your 30s to get a glimpse of that again?
As I sat at Andy’s deli on 7th, eating a glorious cheeseburger, I contemplated my great respect for the model women who had the strength to project such presence. I did not, nor did I long for, this skill. I longed for the Helen Keller roles, the Annes, the Girls. To all my playwright friends–please keep writing women who have their own Hero’s Journey, and not just one that makes her decide between her cushy-yet-suffocating domestic life and a life with another man (I’ve started seeing this trend in theatre). We can do more than look pretty and care for families. Here’s hoping my 30s are more enlightening than my ten years of failed attempts at playing the ingenue.