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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