Last week, I signed up to water our school garden. The science department has a super impressive situation out back, with cherry tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, and about five planters of herbs. I don’t know a whole lot about gardening, the extent of my knowledge comes from helping my mom drop seeds into our backyard when I was 5 and asking if I could sit there and watch them grow. I also know how to get rid of slugs with beer. That’s about it.
Ben and I have just started our own small backyard garden, so we could use all the help we could get.
Signing up was one of the best choices I’ve made since starting here. Each morning, I got to go visit my little basil plants, chat with my lettuce, and prune my cherry tomatoes. The fact that they hadn’t all died over night was a huge accomplishment.
Luckily I had some helpers. One afternoon, a colleague of mine swung by with some scissors saying, “We need to eat all the lettuce tonight, the stems are going woody!” I stared at her and, for a moment, pretended I knew what she meant. “Not woody stems!…why don’t we want woody stems…”
Here’s the deal (and remember, I am still no expert), apparently leafy plants, as they get older, begin to harden off their stems, and when they do so, stop producing the edible leaves we harvest. Basil will turn into a beautiful large bush eventually, but you can only eat the young leaves. So to keep it from turning into a bush during the season, you pluck off its flowers and trim it down. Certain types of lettuce get super woody stems as they get older, and if you chop them down to the dirt, they will rise again – producing more delicious salad greens.
I got to thinking, as I do, and talked to Ben one night over a bottle of wine about the metaphor in lettuce and basil bushes. After this sentence, instead of calling me a lunatic, he said “Sounds like a blog post!” And that is why we’re married.
Woody Artist Stem
It takes a great deal of stamina to work past the late-twenties artist slump. I can only speak for this transition because that is what I am in right now, but I’m sure it applies to other ages. I have a lot of friends in this position, including myself, and the struggle comes down to much more than if you’ve had a “successful” career thus far. At least for me, the focus of my stressful expectations have shifted from “I’m supposed to be doing theatre all the time!” to “I thought I would have done so much more by now.” My present-tense panic has become a past-tense panic. And this one feels much more damaging.
The past-tense panic includes regret and self-pity, two things that easily lead to throwing in the towel, especially if financial realities of being an older adult (no longer able to live on Ramen) leaves you in a job that has nothing to do with your art. After spending a good deal of cuddling time with my friends Regret and Self-Pity, I discovered they ironically come from a place of pride. There is a lot of hemming and hawing in my mind – including “But I’ve studied acting for years”, “But I did shows one after another when I was a kid,” “But I’M PRETTY!” …and other BS entitlements.
It was hard to admit this was my major problem, because even if I was the most down-to-earth, trained, talented person on the planet, there’s a chance that I still wouldn’t be working consistently. There are so many factors out of our control in this business that blaming yourself is not progressive either. But since I can only change what is under my control, I decided to focus on this.
Back to Making Veggies
When we moved to Montclair, I cut back my stem a lot. Not only do I have more time away from the hustle and bustle of auditioning and temping, but I have also had some space to reassess what actually makes me happy as an actor. Writing to every Playbill and Backstage post that I would possibly be right for by some stretch of the imagination, even if I wasn’t that passionate about the project, was not helping. Taking classes to meet a Casting Director I felt I “needed” to prove myself to, was not helping. I spent so many years trying to prove how great I was that I didn’t leave time or money to train or grow. I also barely had a community.
So I went back to the drawing board. I took a class that did not require an audition and has no competitive energy. I emailed every local theatre company I could find and asked to help with ANYTHING, even if it was to hand out programs. I cut myself back a lot.
Suddenly, it’s like the floodgates of acting have opened. My class instantly brought me back into my old skin. It also brought me back to before the days I started ticking down my “biological acting clock”. Since I’ve begun focusing on my community and my personal growth, instead of my career, things have been making sense again.
I don’t believe that someone needs to move to the suburbs and start from scratch every time they get burned out. But I do foresee this concept helping me at different stages of my career. Even if things are going wonderfully, the moment these entitlements take over again, the moment that energy will show up on stage and in my auditions. And then I’m right back to frustration-land.
Kate Mulgrew did a talk a few years ago at the SAG Foundation, and I never forgot what she said toward the end. To paraphrase, she said “It’s all about loving the work. Do the work and the rest of the shit with fade away.” Since I’ve stopped chasing my next job, a lot of the shit has indeed faded away.
You Are Not a Pointless Basil Bush
So here is where my metaphor could turn sour. There is nothing wrong with a beautiful bush that used to produce Basil. If you choose to take a different path in life, you are not a pointless bush. Nor do I condone putting yourself down to become a better artist, some acting teachers definitely latch onto that idea. What I do feel is that the rigid nature of our habits and expectations hold us back as artists. THAT is what will keep us from creating.
So whether things are rolling a long for you right now or not (and I hope they are), it’s comforting to know there is somewhere to go back to when if you hit a similar wall. A rigid plant does not mean a dead plant, it just needs some pruning.
Special thanks to Karen Braga, our Alexander Technique class at ESPA, for inspiring this post and teaching me where my feet are.