Acting, Depression and Work

I was reading Joyce Carol Oates’ novel, Blonde, about the life of Marilyn Monroe, and was stopped by a line spoken by the character known as the “The Survivor.” Norma, he said, was a natural actor because she didn’t know who she was and so was driven to try to become the character completely. That was acting, the reaching into the fictional being, to become that person totally – to fill an emptiness where most people had a strong sense of self. I’m adding my words here – but getting that thought suddenly helped me understand my own experience with acting as a depressed twenty-something. And that got me thinking about other work I’ve done because every job requires that I play a role. What drove me to acting in the first place was the inner conviction that I was wrong the way I was. I needed a self I would be proud to show the world. Stepping into a scripted role and winning the applause of a live audience made me feel that I had a reason to be alive. What drove me away from acting was an inner refusal to construct myself out of assumed identities and to depend on the highs offered by approving audiences – highs that could turn quickly to lows of rejection. Of course, I can see that in hindsight, but at the time I took the applause at face value, yearned to have it and fled in terror if I lost it. The approval meant I was worth something, the rejection meant I was nothing.

Audiences want a lot from an actor. They want to hear you speak that script as if the words were naturally yours and forced out of your own feelings and life, and they want to see you walk that character’s walk with perfect balance. Each person in that crowd wants you to help them forget the clumsy machinery of a theater, a stage, creaky seats, coughing neighbors, rattling thoughts. Pull us out of ourselves, shut up our chatter, knock out our critical minds so we can be feeling what you’re going through in the workings of that play. Make us laugh, cry, forget ourselves for a time, and we’ll love you. But stumble around, speak a false or stilted word, hide that character from us, and you might as well turn on the lights because we’re leaving and won’t forget or forgive your failure to carry us away.

And there I was trying to do just that for myself – lose who I was and live in a role for a few hours, capped, I so hoped, by the enthusiasm of an applauding crowd. I won some and I lost some, but I was just too desperately searching to be “real” in every part on every stage. When I tried one special role, I hit a minefield of my own past. The panic that led to stopped my life completely for several weeks. Eventually I gave up acting altogether, and for a long time I thought that choice amounted to running from the need to get to the bottom of who I was – defeat, flight, cowardice. But that was the way my depressed mind characterized everything I did. It took years to see the more positive side of what I was doing.

For it was in some ways the choice of a stronger self than I imagined I was. That self was saying no to the desperate need to disappear into someone else, saying no to the yearning, literally, for the applause of a vast audience, saying no to the need to be known as that gifted actor who walked about most of the time inconspicuously, who didn’t need to live a full life off the stage because his true existence and value emerged only in the darkened space of a theater. It was saying no to the strange idea of life I had then, as something that could be lived silently, like the figure of the bartender in the great Manet painting of the Folies Bergeres – the woman who stares, whom you can’t take your eyes off, but who is herself only a created image – a great one, to be sure – and not a person at all.

I can see it now as a choice that said yes to trying to put together a life of my creating, of my battling, of my acceptance of myself, not the constant retreat into the fictional characters that I might imitate for the high of those sparking moments when I felt the audience was mine. It was saying yes not to the fear, the inner conviction of worthlessness, but rather to the struggle of living through that fear and battling it every day, living that famous one day at time, trying to take each moment for itself, never imagining I had gotten over depression or fully recovered from it – because that never happened for me. It was saying yes to an ongoing struggle to get everything expressed that I am – that’s what this life is.

Since then I’ve done many types of work, and each one demanded that I play a role before an audience of some kind. A teacher facing students, a manager reporting to a board of directors, a consultant providing services to clients, an entrepreneur persuading investors, a mediator working with a group, a writer listening to readers. Some of those roles I’ve pushed myself into for the same reasons I tried acting, to find a way to fill the emptiness inside, to make up for a core of human worth my depressed mind imagined was missing. That never worked. Others fit me well because I knew first who I was and used those roles to express something I had to offer – though it has never been easy to be comfortable in my own skin. I am always having to fight the temptation to take the approval or rejection of the audience I’m facing as a sign of what I am worth as a human being.

What is the balance you find in the midst of depression between the role you play and your sense of who you are? Can you stand on your own apart from that work role, or do you need to be immersed in the work to feel like a valuable human being? That’s still a hard one for me.

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4 Responses to “Acting, Depression and Work”

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  1. Ovidia says:

    I am humbled and touched, John. Will save your comments for those days when the goblins have me in their grip! Thank you!

  2. I can certainly relate to what you’re saying – I spent so many years convinced that I was only as good (in the sense of inner value as a person) as the role I was playing and that I depended on winning someone else’s love to feel like I could hold my head up in the world. But I was able to get past that inner belief that I wasn’t worth anything as just unadorned, unaccompanied, unemployed me. (Well, I don’t want to overstate that – let’s say I really know better and struggle most days to keep reminding myself that I’m not a worthless jerk.) But I also know that pc (psychologically correct) thinking doesn’t make up for loneliness.

    You mention the contrast between people’s reactions to your voice and your physical presence. OK – that hurts. But their first reaction needs to be looked at too. A voice, after all, comes from deep within and carries a lot about who you are into people almost unconsciously. They’re picking up on something big – and it’s all from inside you. It comes through in your writing voice too. Those are the sounds of a rich and perceptive inner being, not the sounds of emptiness. So sure, these people don’t really know you, but maybe they know more than you think.


  3. Ovidia says:

    Hey John … interesting post.

    I did my first play when I was five … when I was eight, I played Rhoda in “The Bad Seed” (heh heh heh) … did school, college and community theater until my last show in ’93 (wasn’t supposed to be that way but I can’t figure out a way to make my work schedule and single parenthood accomodate rehearsal anymore).

    In the meantime, I’ve spent almost 30 years on the air as a radio and/or television announcer.

    Doing theater and then television was a way to bond with my dad, my high school’s speech and theater guru. Even television was a way to win his approval (although I have always been close with my father and still am) because he started the instructional television/live home room news show at my high school, too, and I anchored that program for a couple of years, too.

    When I was 19, I had already been working on the air in radio for two years, and then was reporting for a local television station, anchoring the news on the weekends, and even filling in for the main anchors when they were gone. Needless to say, I figured I was a pretty big fish, and didn’t care HOW small the pond was! But when the man I loved walked out on me (and there went our dream of working for WCCO – him in radio and me in television), in addition to my first episode of major depression, I learned something invaluable for someone in my line of work: the call letters won’t save you.

    And of all the mental and emotional problems I’ve had since then, I have never again allowed myself to think that I was somehow “special” because of what I do for a living.

    Another case in point: a lovely, talented man I worked with and had a relationship with over twenty years ago: he got up in the morning, had a cigarette and a beer in the shower and never stopped drinking beer all day long, except for the four hours he was on the air. The only thing he had in his life that worked was his two dogs. He’d burned through one or two wives, lost touch with his daughter, and he would sit and drink at night, unable to reconcile how he could be such a huge big deal on the air, and to listeners, and yet be so desperately sad and lonely. He remarried before I left that town, but his drinking torpedoed his marriage and his career and the last anyone I know heard of him, he was working as a bartender in Iowa. Again: the call letters … or the fan letters … won’t save you.

    I love what I do. I’m uniquely well-suited to what I do and doing it makes me happy. But it hurts to feel, as I so often do, that without my job I am nothing. As far as “the world” is concerned, it’s all I have to offer.

    At those rare times in my lfe when I wasn’t working in broadcasting, I absolutely missed having those letters to hide behind. I can stick out my hand and introduce myself by my station, and I have an instant costume/shield where other people are concerned. How would I handle meeting people in situations where I COULDN’T be identified as so and so at K—? Why would I even try?!

    Oh, and let’s not forget — I had gastic bypass surgery almost five years ago and lost 140 pounds. Want a real ego boost? It’s kind of a standing joke that the DJ never looks like their voice anyway, but until you’ve watched a person’s face fall when they see what you look like in person, all 268 pounds of you, you don’t know what true humiliation is …

    It was a love/hate thing with the job this last year after S. walked out. On the one hand, I took a perverse pride in being able to stop weeping convulsively … take a swig of coffee … paste on a smile and crack the mic and do my job … then turn the mic off and put my face in my hands and fall apart again. I had people listening who knew how bad I was and yet who couldn’t tell … and no one who DIDN’T know even suspected. And yet, the Spanish Inquisition was missing the boat on torture methods if they didn’t lock someone who’d just had their heart broken in a room for four hours and make them play music — what’s not either a love song or a heartbreak song?!

    At the same time I was proud of what I could do … I was seething with … anger? hatred? that NO ONE could TELL — that everyone was so easy to fool when I was dying …

    Even at my support group, what I do for a living has come into play. Small town, and the group leaders like my show. My anonymity has gone out the window and even though it’s usually been in the context of offering me compliments … I am STILL wondering: what do I really have to offer? The people in group seem to think that if staying alive for my daughter and my folks isn’t enough … being there for the people who like my show certainly should be.

    But those people don’t KNOW me … the only people in my life who have really, really known me, except for my parents, have all walked out on me. So while it’s certainly nicer than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick … how can the good opinion of strangers who like my voice or the songs I play possibly help?

    Other than as a life support system for my daughter and my parents … or to entertain the people who like my show … do I exist? Do I have anything to offer at all?

    So in answer to your question about balance … on the one hand, I do work I’m uniquely suited to do and that I love … and yet, it DOES allow me to hide. I have a healthy attitude toward what my job is and isn’t, in some respects; but in other areas, I’m what my father would call “an emotional cripple.” I suppose the bottom line is that, as lovely as it is to be thought good at what you do … it’s infinitely more valuable to be thought good at what you are. And if no one can come up with anything good about you except your ability to read the weather forecast … you’re hurtin’.

  4. stephany says:

    The older I get, the comfort in my own skin seems to arrive on it’s own without warning, yet we prepare for it our entire lives by rehearsing.