I studied acting in New York with a formidable black woman named Susan Batson. Her voice, raspy and brash, was tinged with a Boston accent, which made her extra tough. She sorta reminded me of Al Pacino in Heat, if he were neatly stuffed into the body of a petite black woman. Shrouded in a mane of hair that was like a massive fur coat that rich women wear about their shoulders, she’d come walking into her Manhattan studio in these 4-inch heels like a drill sergeant and everyone knew it was time to straighten up and fly right. When I studied with her, she’d been working with Nicole Kidman on Cold Mountain; Nicole won the Oscar for The Hours and thanked Susan in an awards acceptance speech.
The method we studied was intense; at least it was for me. We were required to dig deep into our shit. You’d have to go to your pain to pull out the golden nuggets that you would then hand over to your character as a gift. Mining is hard frick-fracking work, man. And it had to be done. Otherwise, what the hell were you there for each week for hours and hours at hundreds of dollars a month?
We’d be in a small room, lights down. You’d get a monologue, go off to the corners of the studio to prep the monologue and come back to present your work. Acting isn’t as cut n’ dried as a math problem (at which I was never good), but in class, there are some A’s + B’s that equal C’s to learn and know. You have to find your way to the answer. You can’t take short cuts, you can’t hide, you can’t disrespect the work. For those who don’t act, even you will know this to be true because you see when an actor sucks. Acting is the hardest work I’ve ever done besides being a triple-jumper at Marquette where you cannot suck. Oh, and being a dancer for thousands at Chicago Bulls games. And singing in front of Czech-speaking audiences. And…Oh God. (So much set up for sucking!)
I hate math, but I love the problem-solving of acting. It also scares the shit out of me because you have to solve, you have to deliver. There is a right and wrong and you are 100% responsible for that outcome. My hands would tremble, the white paper which held my work to respect would shake as I sat cross-legged along the wall with my classmates before it was my turn in the hot seat. I knew I could do the work; I knew I could be a woman who’s been left for dead who’s just walked miles in a snowstorm to get back to her only child to find that child frozen to death. I could do that. Sometimes.
I’d sit in the chair, darkness punctured by a soft light, as though in an interrogation chair. I’d begin. I’d know if I was “on” or not immediately. I could feel it. And then it would come.
I’d look up from my sheet. I was sucking.
“You are fucking brilliant when you just do the fucking work!!”, Susan would yell. “DO THE FUCKING WORK!!”
Susan yelled. I don’t mind yelling. I’m athlete-trained. Sometimes you have to be yelled at. What I hated was being a disappointment.
And you see, that’s the problem.
You can’t be thinking about being disappointing when you’re doing work. You’re supposed be thinking about relevant stuff like, what is my emotional life, how does this character walk, what does this character need? NOT what does Susan Batson want to see?!
I’m in a place once again where I need to do the work. I was knocked down pretty hard this year and when you get your bell rung, sometimes some other things get shook up also and all of a sudden you’re standing there bewildered with a messy load of shit oozing in your hands. At least in acting class, you can do something with it!
While I can sit here and think, “I’m fine”…I’m really not. Like, deep down. I have the same demons that were floating around during my NY acting, MU jumping, Chicago dancing and Prague singing days. Nothing has changed except that I’ve gotten older. And now I’ve added grief.
Recently, via phone, my friend put me in the hot seat. She was like, “Yooo, you need to take a full year of YOU! You need to do nothing else but work on you.”
At a minimum, I need to do the work of self-care. This is a hot-topic, buzzy word lately. But, it’s the truth, Ruth. Self-care is stuff like being verbally and emotionally kind to yourself, meditating with Circle+Bloom, doing one thing at a time and being proud of yourself, taking a break from social media so’s you stop comparing yourself to others, forgiving yourself and the big one: allowing joy. When you care for yourself, you don’t get sick. You don’t let in viruses (doubt) and infectious diseases (crappy people/situations). Examples; just sayin’.
Like most of us, I have a habit of after being knocked down, just popping back up, slapping that smile on my face and singing, “I’m okay!”…meanwhile, blood is running down the side of my face, my tooth is chipped and my arm is broken in three places…on the inside. Yet, I think a smile is enough to fix the broken bone. Healing takes work. Healing takes time. Healing requires devoted attention. Yes, you have to get up each morning and go to work or feed your kids or walk your dog. You can’t completely check out. (We don’t want to go to this extreme even if we feel it.) But, we can’t ignore that we are hurting and that this hurt must be addressed. Because if we don’t, we will suck. We’ll keep hiding, we’ll keep taking short cuts to feel better, we’ll keep disrespecting the work of who we can become. We’ll suck at life and that will truly suck because we all have gifts to give. We all have winning to do, even if it is just getting out of bed on time and combing our hair.
When Susan felt the work, she would cry. She couldn’t help it. She’d genuinely feel the emotion of the character, and she would cry. She would also give out a votive candle, the small kind encased in silver. It was a big deal if Susan handed out a candle. There was this one time where I did the work. I sat in my chair, spent. I told the story. I was alive. I didn’t think. I just did. With tears, Susan handed me my candle. I cried. She sat down in her chair, from where she watched the work. She threw me a Sharpie. I looked up at her.
“Write on it,” she said.
“Write: To be lit when I win my Oscar.”
I still have that candle. I believe I will get to light it at the time designated. Maybe it will happen for acting. Maybe it will happen for something else. But, I have to believe that it will happen, somehow someway. The only way that will happen is if I do the work to get there…and that doesn’t mean get new head shots or take a voice-over class. It means I gotta I deal with my shit that keeps me from my Oscar.
I implore you to handle your shit. To do the work, so that you can win your Oscar, too. Consider these words your candle. Let’s check in again this time next year; it is award’s season after all.