- OnStage New York Columnist
Dreams are an indispensable part of human life. From the time we are very young, we are encouraged to concoct these ambitious flights of fancy, to nurture them, to invest in them, and if they stir our souls enough, to follow them and work hard to attempt to make them a reality.
I’m not talking practical stuff like having a sensible job that pays the bills or buying a house in the suburbs either. “DREAM BIG”, they tell us. “You can be anything you want to be.” they say. They spew such cliches as, “Follow your heart’s desire”, “You can do anything you set your mind to” and any other number of Disney-tested platitudes with the hopes of encouraging us into shaping the future we would most like to be a part of.
For some of us, it’s Broadway. For others, it’s law school. Some people want to walk on the moon while others are training for the Olympic trials. But whether your dream is to take Beyonce’s crown as pop Queen or to dance the lead in Swan Lake, at some point or another, this goal was implanted by a stirring in your soul, an instinct that led you down this path of turning your aspirations into fully-formed realities.
The idea that somewhere there is a perfect job, man, time, place, etc. for each of us keeps us in forward motion, promising a sense of completion that hangs before our eager faces like the proverbial hot dog on a string. What they don’t tell us, however, is that the work doesn’t end once the dream finally does come to fruition. That once we’ve achieved, or have begun to achieve, whatever goal it was that set us in motion in the first place, that is when the work really begins.
I first happened upon this particular truth when cast in my first lead role in a professional show. When I got the call that I would, indeed, be joining the cast of this particular show, my initial instinct was elation. After years of audition after audition, dedicated practice, and the familiar refrain of the truisms regarding dream fufillment I had been fed all my life reverberating in my head, I had achieved at least a portion of my dream of working professionally in the theatre. The excitement was too much. Yet after some overjoyed phone calls to friends and family, regaling them with the news of my success, reality started to sink in and my once solid euphoria began to melt as I examined the script and began to metabolize the work that still lie ahead.
I have always been first and foremost a singer, and years of performing in shows in minor roles or in the ensemble had afforded me the opportunity to participate in theatre in ways that made sense to me. A reaction here, a laugh line there, I had always been comfortable in my theatrical function and though I auditioned for many, the idea of leading a show and having to create a fully-formed character that would take the audience on a journey had never seemed like a real option. Once the realization that I would truly be “acting” in this outing set in, I was overcome by a sense of all-consuming terror that only proved to materialize further as I got in the rehearsal room with people whom I considered to be, “real actors.”
As it tends to do when a person begins to achieve their potential, impostor syndrome set in, and in my first several days of rehearsal, watching trained professionals seamlessly embody the other characters in our show as I stumbled my way through characterization and physicality made the idea that I did not belong here seem more reality than unfounded fear.
The anxiety also managed to seep its way into the things that seemed to come naturally to me. In attempting to find a voice for a character that was truly a stretch from my everyday self, and learning a score I would be singing a great deal of, combined with the stress of the experience as a whole, I inadvertently gave myself the beginning stages of vocal cord nodules. So, now my voice, the tool I could previously whip out at a moment’s notice to embolden my reason for being cast, was now in peril. Fear began to overtake every element of the process, even once reducing me to a pile of tears on my kitchen floor, weeping, and hugging my dog the night before we began dance rehearsals, sure that the choreographer would be horrified at the leading lady’s lack of natural dance ability.
It was a shitty time, to say the least. The experience so far had been nothing like what I’d imagined all those years of idealized dreaming. But I had a job to do. We were well into the rehearsal process and I was not about to give up this opportunity I had waited so long for. That is when the real work began.
Vocal healing was the first order of business. I did away with the vocal cord shredding character voice I had adopted, and replaced it with something more sensible. My diet also changed drastically, as I 86’ed caffeine, alcohol, smoke and anything else that might do further damage. I went back to routine, beginner vocal exercises and warm-ups to fortify my instrument and began sleeping with a humidifier turned up so high that there was condensation forming on the walls of my bedroom.
Lack of dance ability be damned, I began filming rehearsals and assigning myself the homework of continuing my dance training at home. I consulted with the better dancers in the show to improve my form and ability and worked those numbers until my limbs knew what to do without me even telling them. I also began to train, hard. I committed myself to at least two hours in the gym several times a week, running six miles at a clip at my best.
In terms of acting, though I have never felt fully comfortable with it before or since, I began to see my fellow company members not as barometers against which to hold myself, but teachers to be observed and learned from. I took note of how they seemed to so fully embody the characters they portrayed and the ease with which they presented themselves onstage and tried my best to emulate them.
As the weeks wore on, I grew increasingly more comfortable in my role and as three weeks of sold-out performances in the East Village came and went, I felt so pleased with what I had accomplished, that I found myself inexplicably crying in amazement as the curtain came down for the last time.
The fact that I am sitting in a coffee shop at 2 PM on a Wednesday writing this, instead of auditioning or coming up on a break at rehearsal, should make it obvious that I have not continued on as an actor. But that is not to say the work hasn’t ended.
I have recently found confidence and satisfaction in a new career path, something that has always come totally naturally to me, writing. Recently, I have been afforded opportunities to reach a wider audience writing this very column and working full-time for a one of the largest theatrical news organizations currently in operation. But, of course, as with all dreams, and writing has been one of mine since I began idolizing Jo March in my childhood, once the elation wore off, reality set in and it became clear that the job does not come without its share of headaches.
The impetus to produce content is no longer a periodic impulse, but a weekly necessity. Ideas have to be there even when they aren’t and all my energy outside of my editorial duties is put into materializing those ideas from thin air. It is also incumbent upon me that I continue to develop my craft. Reading quality writing, daily practice, and a return to writing classes are all in order to ensure my future in this business.
So, I guess the real goal of this column is to encourage that we stop romanticizing our dreams in a way that leads us to believe that once you reach the imaginary mountain top, you will be automatically absolved of any continued effort. To educate those in the throes of the climb that while your current intentions can lead you to the heights you’ve always dreamed of reaching, the journey doesn’t end when you reach the summit. To inject a dose of reality into the notion that achieving your desired outcome isn’t the finish line, but the first leg of a race that will present greater obstacles the further you run.
So, by all means, buy into the platitudes. Reach for the stars. Follow your heart and work hard. Dreams do come true, every day, but it is up to us to ensure that they remain a reality.
Photo: Phillipa Soo in 'Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812'; Photo by Chad Batka