FOOLS AND CRAZY PEOPLE.
Notes on an adventurous life. (January, 2015, Eastern Illinois University.)
“Only Fools and Crazy People could live here,” That was my brother-in-law snarling at me as he drove me back into NYC. I said, “Well, Allen, I guess I am both.”
It was the mid 1970’s, New York City was near bankruptcy, and crime was rampant. The NY Daily News had a full page with a picture of President Ford, and the headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead” Finally, I was a full-time resident, the commitment made when I sold my car. after a summer of singing two shows a night on a ferry on Lake Champlain in Plattsburgh, NY. To be fair to Allen, he was navigating his boxy RV down the pot-holed West Side Highway, in fast traffic with horns blaring around him, as my sister, their kids, and I were being tossed in the air on beds in the back. But I had fallen in love with the city, and was determined to make my way there, not knowing what that would be. I’d already worked in Atlanta after college, and gotten all my union memberships.
But the City was a different animal. I was poor, working odd jobs. With a few successful cabaret gigs under my belt, I’d bought a used baby grand piano with a loan from Actors Federal Credit Union and played it in the bare bones, illegal loft I shared with two guys, two cats, and a Saturday acting class for $125/month. Now, 40 years after that bumpy ride into NYC, I’d like to speak up for all the fools and crazy people who make a home of the theatre. One friend of mine speaks of Knowledge as two-fold; That which can be taught and that, learned only through experience.
In my experience, these are a few aspects of being an artist I have learned: Be a team player. Find your discipline. Live simply. Make a life outside of work. Manage distractions.
And know that change is inevitable. Embrace that. Sometimes, enormous changes come, and you have to adapt quickly. How to prepare? What do you require to live an artist’s life? Each person has her own path, of course. First, examine the tools you already have. Are you suited for it? Here are a few that helped me:
Basketball-I played on teams for 7 years, my last being my first year in college when an ankle injury and bad coaching led me away from that and into the theatre. I played street ball in NYC into my 50s, (when injuries could be permanent.) Performing arts are a collaborative venture, so play well with others.
Church-My dad was a Methodist preacher, and as such we moved every few years. That peripatetic life prepared me in many ways for theatre. Adapting to new locations may be why I’m standing here now. And we gathered as a community, to grasp the sacred nature of spirit and to learn compassion. And there was my father, speaking each week in front of a crowd of people. Only later did I realize how tough that must have been, speaking at times he wasn’t sure he was up for it, encountering circumstances that challenged his faith. Without knowing it, he demonstrated the life of an actor.
And then there was my own nature. When I was a kid I dreamt of traveling the world singing. That was the first goal I can remember. If I told anyone, generally I was told ‘nobody did that, and what was I doing, singing out in the field like that, was I crazy?’
I looked up “crazy’ and found the definition “appearing absurdly out of place, or in an unlikely position.” Perfect. I wasn’t going to work on a farm or in a factory, I didn’t date much, and college was supposed to train me for a job could support me after graduation. There were no arts of any kind in my high school. My high school coach said, “Wait ‘til you get to college, Marnie. You’ll find people you can talk to.”
At college, I started writing. At 17, I felt too old to become an actor, with no training, and in college with seasoned actors. But the ankle injury landed me in the theatre department, a drama/speech major, because I had a Teacher scholarship/loan, something I could “fall back on.”
Then, as a junior, I went to UNC-Chapel Hill and saw a production of “Escurial” by Michel de Ghelderode; an absurdist play, I was not drawn to that style. At the time, I loved musicals.
the performances were so compelling, I left the theatre feeling disoriented, the rest of the world felt absurdly out of place. I was changed. The next day, in my advisor’s office, “I can’t be a teacher. I have to be an actor.” She arranged an audition for the Performing Arts Scholarship that had been vacated. Her support, and the confidence of winning it and leading roles, sustained me.
It was an explosive time. Vietnam was raging, Kent State happened my freshman year, when college students were shot for gathering in protest, high school friends were drafted and died. Leaders I admired most had been assassinated.
The Drama department was a little crazy. I was in my element, breaking out of expected norms to look for who I really was, in the era whose mantra of “Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll.” Even in the midst of excess, I knew I needed discipline to get what I wanted. I added the pursuit a Music degree, as I finished my Drama BA, and did a number of shows at once, landing in the clinic for over-exhaustion.
The first tool I realized I needed to work as an actor was discipline, even if I didn’t understand moderation. I realized that as an actor, singer, director, and later, teacher, I must continue to train, just as much as a dancer works every day at the dance barre.
Stephen Sondheim said: Three things are needed to be a good artist: Inspiration, Observation, and Experience. So, how are you inspired? And what has that got to do with Discipline?
(The writer Elizabeth Gilbert shared this definition in a TED talk.) In ancient civilizations, Genius was defined as a divine attendant spirit, who arrived from some mysterious place, to aid the artist, for some unknowable reason. So if the artist’s work was great, some of the credit went to this magic spirit. If the work bombed, well, your genius was just lame that day. This protected the artist from narcissism.
When the individual became paramount during the Renaissance, Creativity was then said to come from that individual. We still refer to some as “geniuses.” But for any person to believe he or she is the essence of creativity puts an awful weight on our fragile human psyches. It warps the ego, which then forms the illusion that a person controls creative energy. But the inspiration for creative energy is not constant. It may not show up when you want it, and it may be with you for only a brief time, before it moves on.
My job, any artist’s job, is to keep showing up. Sometimes, often really, I show up, and that energy, magic spirit, isn’t available. I feel low. Exercising helps. But even getting that started feels impossible some days. Then there’s the research, learning lines, or getting up in front of people when I feel shy or sad or hurt. But I keep showing up; then, if I can’t find the energy to start, I’ll sing, or play the piano, or do a little dance to cheer myself up. For when that spirit does come, and enters the process of my creative action, I don’t control It. Who would want to? Instead, it is on loan to me, for a time. And when it comes, it feels like a bright flow of light, passing through me, and through my actions, to others. Knowing my work this way took a long time to learn. I still practice to maintain discipline. I still fail. So it helps not to take yourself too seriously, while at the same time, to pursue your passion very seriously. Keep your humor.
Actors are self-proprietors. There is no 9 to 5 schedule at a desk. There is no day-to-day support. But we don’t work For people. We work With people.
And since the point is to work with people, I try to keep my mouth shut about other people. Theatre people work in close quarters with highly charged emotional responses. Gossiping about others is a killer of creativity. It is very hard to stay open if you have to keep looking for a knife at your back.
It is wise to be kind. You never know when the receptionist at a casting office, or the union deputy at an audition call. might be producing a project you audition for a year later. It is a business, your business. As such, you have to organize.
My husband, Jeff Jacobson, began as an ACLU lawyer, discovered his passion for the camera at 30, made his living as a photojournalist, then published several art books of his work, and now he also teaches. He keeps a TTD (things to do) list in a reporter’s notebook, and makes a new list every week. I try to do that, but am better at keeping a journal. We have to promote ourselves, follow reasonable opportunities , and use our intuitions about what is reasonable. Sometimes it is about pay, sometimes, it’s for inspiration. I do a lot of cold readings of new plays for free.
In a way, theatre is good training for any business. At the very least, it requires project management. Because no matter what obstacles occur, the play still has to be ready on Opening Night. A lot of people have to collaborate to make that happen. An actor must speak loudly enough to be heard and know he as the right to speak. It’s an ability valued in every workplace looking for leaders.
Another tool I’ve found is to live simply. When we bought our house in the Catskills of NY a dozen years ago, we dropped TV. (Well, we still have an ancient TV, with a Roku box for Netflix. It sits behind a drape most of the time.) We rarely watch now. Just doing that freed up huge chunks of time and saved a lot of money. To keep up with shows that might be casting, I catch whatever I can at friends’ TVs.
Which leads me to another aspect of my life that helps, having a life outside of work. I use the pronoun We often. Had I not married and had a child, who knows if I could have committed to making my way in this inconstant art? Those relationships forced me to challenge myself to make my income from my work or find another way to support my family. When our son was a toddler, and Jeff saw all my odd jobs were only covering the babysitting needed to do those jobs. He said, “This is ridiculous. Just do your work.” He risked supporting me, and I began acting again within six months.
It is a joy to have made a career in the work of my passion; to have worked with George Clooney and found, to my delight, that he is a really good guy, to have taught Samuel L. Jackson, Jr. voice lessons early on, then be invited to his 50th birthday party years later, to have introduced Adrien Brody to his first agent. And for Lynn Redgrave to call me “her Topanga Portia” as I studied Shakespeare with her was high compliment.
But my closest friends are 4 women I met in the theatre department at UNC-Greensboro, 46 years ago. We talk frequently from different parts of the country, and try to get together once a year. Even if their pursuits are no longer in Acting, they are still artists, and Human Beings, whose council I value. It is incredible to see that pension from Screen Actors Guild land in my bank account each month, after so many years of work, and to know that other unions will contribute when I am ready to take them. But I’d be lying if I told you my life as an artist has been easy, always a success. Rejection is an integral part of acting. Even Michael Jordan said, (Yeah, yeah, again with the basketball!), he said, “To learn to succeed, you must first learn to fail.” I’ve been told many times “This audition will change your life,” only to realize that the only change I got from that audition was that statement, a little encouragement. This is the biggest reason I speak for having a life outside of work. Those relationships you build, whether in your business or through friendships, will sustain you when work fails. Ask for help when you don’t know where to turn. Give service to others when you get low. When I volunteer as a Master Gardener, the friendships of fellow gardeners are more important than most of the stars with whom I have worked.
I am a Sagittarius, not that I put a whole lot of credence in astrology. But it is natural for me to Aim my arrows at something. So, when I have taught, my students journal, and dream, about what they think they will be doing, how they would like to live in five, ten, thirty years. You may not get what you dream, or you may not get it in ways you expect. But if you don’t dream, what will give you the inspiration to do the work?
For instance, I have traveled the world, when I have wanted to go. And I have sung a lot, both alone and in public, not just out in the field. It hasn’t happened the way I dreamt it as a kid, but it’s been great fun. Putting wishes out to the universe can create complications. It can conflict with other goals, like living simply. Be careful what you wish for, you might get it. We bought that house between a mountain and a river, and for the first time, I felt I had found where I could finally live for the rest of my life.
But, on a whim in 2004, I put my name on a waiting list, that opens up from time to time, for Performing Arts subsidized housing in Manhattan. Last year, I was flying home from Ohio (and another clinical trial for Jeff’s cancer) when I got a call at the airport to come right away to the building, an apartment had emptied. I made the detour, saw it, and moved in a month later. The apartment is gorgeous, tucked away in the corner of the courtyard, on the 6th Floor overlooking trees, with a bedroom window that looks out at the Empire State Building. I’m back in the city. My city.
But also, back to that peripatetic life. Still, after last year’s snowstorms, where I had to wade through thigh-high snow to angle the snow rake enough to pull the two feet of snow off the roof, I have to wonder if my genie has come again, with a solution for growing old. It may be I won’t be able, physically, maintain our home in upstate NY. But for now, I can walk two blocks from home in the Catskills, get on a bus, ride to the city, get off in Port Authority and walk two blocks home to Manhattan Plaza. When I can’t drive anymore, I might still have access to the worlds I love.
And it is, once again, a complicated, and adventurous, life. Jeff teaches a photo workshop called “Where do you stand?” The title has a double meaning. Where do you stand physically to press the Shutter. But also, where do you take a stand? Stand for something you believe. Advertising, even for stars now, can be an actors’ subsidy. But I let my agents know there are products I will not advertise. For me, the environment is our most pressing issue, and my primary activism. Now that I have reached the Pharmaceutical age of auditions, I call my scientist/friends to find out about the safety of a product before I agree to advertise it.
And speaking of Age, I must speak of aging as an artist, even though it is not yet something most of you can fathom. I mentioned managing distractions, which of course you have to start doing at the beginning of a career. Don’t go out with your buddies the night before a big audition. What, are you Crazy? But at my age, distraction becomes even more of an issue. It took forever to figure out how to write this speech. I thought I had the thread, then I would lose it, and then throw out whole sections. There is so much I want to say, and so much to own, to be honest here.
You have your own set of challenges. Violence is more rampant than ever. Students don’t have to be in college to be killed. They can be 6 years old in the wrong classroom at the wrong time, as my friends’ son Benjamin Wheeler was in Sandy Hook. I watched the burning towers from my neighborhood in 2001, those who watched TV had to watch over and over. The world is crazier than I have ever known. And with the violence my industry perpetuates as entertainment, I am now unwilling to buy tickets for much of what Hollywood produces.
I have encountered violence in the world first hand. The theatre is still my place to work on explosive emotions: Rage, bullying and being bullied, murderous motives as well as silly ones, joy, redemption, song and dance, out loud, in front of people. I still feel that is where I most often find compassion and forgiveness for being human.
Lately, I have been working Jacques, the Fool in “As you like it.” Who says: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women Merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages…” I am in one of those later ages in my career and my life. In the decade since Jeff’s diagnosis and first round of treatment for cancer, and the cancer trials that have dominated the last five years, much of the time not working has been spent with him, as caregiver and friend. The trial of this last year has given him another respite of Time, with the energy again to do his work, and for me to do mine. In an interview on the Daily Show, Julianne Moore said “You learn how much you love to live in the face of loss.”
This last decade has been the closest of our marriage. Now, each time I do a play, I wonder if it will be my last. My feet are terrible, my thumbs are off their seats, and my eyesight is beginning to go. I am slated to act again after “The Mousetrap,” but Memory being as elusive as my genie, I have to memorize it now, before rehearsals begin.
“The Sixth Age shifts into the lean and slippered pantaloon, With spectacle on nose and pouch on side; his youthful hose, well-saved, a world too wide for his shrunk shank.” A writing mentor once taught me, in order to write the ending, start the beginning of the next story. So, after inheriting my father’s sermons,
I may yet write the novel I started years ago, before: The last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” Here’s to the Fools. Thank you.