What's in a name?
The importance of being artists.
Photo by Barrie Kreinik: Toronto, Canada.
“I am not someone who wants to be an actress, I am one.” - Fiona Shaw
In 2017, I had an identity crisis.
It wasn’t about gender (I’ve always been clear about that) or sexuality (I’d gotten clear about that a dozen years earlier). It was about art. And business. And the business of art.
The question I kept asking myself was twofold:
If I’m not currently acting, am I still an actor? And if I’m not an actor…who am I?
Just after the New Year, I’d closed a show that had lived a brief but charmed life on the Off-Broadway boards, complete with a starry cast and a celebrity-studded audience. After years of dues-paying, I thought I’d finally made it into the room where it happened: the coveted space inhabited by actors who seem to float from one job to the next on a wave of success. I’d made connections. I’d made an impression. I had arrived.
But my experience of being an actor had long felt like a journey down an endless hallway lined with locked doors. Periodically, one of those doors would open and I’d get to live in a new room for a while, but when the curtain came down, I always found myself back where I’d started. So perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that in January 2017, far from being spirited straight into the next room as I’d hoped I would be, I found myself right back in that dreary hallway again. And for month upon month, the doors stayed firmly locked.
In short: I couldn’t get an acting job. All. Year. Long.
I’d had fallow periods before, of course. I’d gone a few months at a time without booking. But for the most part, my ten-year career trajectory had been fairly linear: from non-union jobs to Equity showcases to an MFA program to Off-Off-Broadway to regional theatre to three Off-Broadway plays in a row. I was, slowly but surely, making it.
Until I wasn’t.
It took ten months of cycling in and out of depression before I finally realized that my sense of self-worth should not be shackled to my ability to book a show. I was singing, writing, coaching, and watching my narration career begin to crescendo. But I’d spent ten years viewing those other pursuits as extracurricular: I was an actor, and the rest was gravy. Except now I was swimming in gravy, with nothing to chew on. Was I starving? Or could I begin to find nourishment in other ways?
The solution came in the form of a simple noun. I knocked the word actor off its pedestal and stood it on the ground beside singer, writer, narrator, and coach. Then I wrapped them all up in a single identity: artist.
And everything changed.
I began to feel a sense of abundance instead of dearth. Opportunities I’d never envisioned started pouring in: chances to produce, to create, to make choices instead of waiting around to be chosen. The cloud of depression lifted; the path in front of me cleared. I still couldn’t see around the next bend, but at least I was moving forward.
Since that revelation, I’ve performed in many staged readings, several cabaret shows, a handful of concerts, and a whole lot of audiobooks—but it’s been five and a half years since I last stepped onto a stage in a full-fledged professional production. A complex combination of chance and choice has led me down a totally different path from the one I envisioned for myself at age eight, when I decided that my dream was to be an actress, or at age twenty-two, when I began making that dream a reality. I’m not working on Broadway or in television. I’m not sailing from one regional stage to another. I’ve gone from pavement pounding, hustling, networking, and striving to connecting, imagining, storytelling, and inventing. Audiobooks are now my full-time job. Writing has become my main creative outlet. I’m singing new types of music, connecting with new playwrights and composers. My life looks nothing like I imagined it would five or fifteen or thirty years ago.
But then…why should it?
In January 2022, when my theatrical agent told me he was leaving the business, I decided to take a few months off before seeking new representation. When those months had passed, I chose not to look for a new rep after all. Finally, a few months ago, I made the decision to stop actively pursuing acting work altogether.
I’m still performing when people ask me to, and I suspect one day I’ll return to it in a more proactive way. But it will be a different way. A healthier, more sustainable way. My own way.
I believe in the power of theatre to generate connection, empathy, and revelation. I love the experience of performing onstage more than virtually anything else. But loving something, I’ve learned, doesn’t mean it’s the thing one must do. Not when it comes—as it so often does in the brutal industry of entertainment—at a very high cost. The rejection, the neglect, the waiting, the striving, the suffering of fools, the placating of egos, the getting knocked down and hauling back up again over and over and over…well. There was a time I thought I could conquer all of that. I believed it was worth it if it meant I had the chance to stand under those bright lights making magic happen night after night. But unless you’re extraordinarily lucky, that magic is but a small slice of the overall experience of being a performer. The rest of it, for the most part, is heartache. And life's too short for that.
…Hmm. This wasn’t the blog post I set out to write.
I was going to talk about the words we use for our identities. Not the big bad labels like gay and straight or liberal and conservative, but the names we call ourselves that define us by what we do. It’s a source of curiosity for me: when does an action become an identity? When does the presence of a verb necessitate the use of a noun? A med student becomes a doctor when she completes her education; a law student becomes an attorney when he passes the bar. But when does an artist get to call themself an artist?
Professional artists are a very particular breed of person. Our jobs are not merely jobs: they’re often described as passions, crafts, or callings. As Jesse Green wrote in a recent Times article, “The idea that theater is a calling, not a job” is “ingrained in the industry’s ethos—not to mention its business model.” Our artistry is an integral part of our identity: in the words of Harriet Walter, “Acting is what I do with who I am.” Yet, the “divine dissatisfaction” so aptly identified by Martha Graham can make us hesitate to claim our own artistry. We fear that until we achieve a certain level of success or notoriety, we’re not the real deal.
This issue has come up in more than one conversation recently.
“I’m a writer,” one person told me, “though that’s kind of a weird—I mean—I’m not published yet, so…”
“Can I call myself a writer,” asked another, “if I go months without having any time to write?”
“I have a blog,” I told someone I’d just met, “because I’m a writer and I’ve been working on creative nonfiction and I wanted to—well, whatever…”
I trailed off because I was instantly dogged by a sense of inadequacy, a fear that this person would ask what else I’d written and I wouldn’t have an impressive answer. That didn’t happen—in fact, they were interested in what I said about my blog—but I recognized in the moment that on some level I didn’t feel I had the right to identify as a writer.
Why on earth not?
I’m still an actor even when I’m not on stage. I’m still a singer even if I only sing in front of an audience twice a year. Surely I can call myself a writer even if my plays have only been workshopped, not produced; even if haven’t yet published a book; even if all I ever write is this drop-in-the-bucket blog. As I first asserted five years ago, I’m an artist. That identity is part of me. I get to call it whatever I want.
The world needs more art—more beauty, more compassion, more joy. If we are bringing those things into being, we are already enough. When our paths change direction, when our careers take unexpected forms, when we discover we’re better suited to one art form than another, and even when we choose life over art and make decisions based on our personal needs rather than our professional ambitions—at every moment along the way, we are artists. Our creativity belongs to us. And we have every right to call it by its name.