Sometimes the allure of something that should be great can obfuscate the damage being done under the surface. This was one of the hardest things I’ve had to learn in my life, both as a professional and as a person. Opportunities are exciting, seductive, and sometimes that can make you lose sight of what’s important and the damage that opportunity may be doing.
When I was in college, I was accepted into a prestigious Theatre program for a semester-long program. I was the first undergraduate ever accepted. And the first woman. On the surface, that looks (and certainly felt) like a huge achievement. But looking back, it should have been my first warning sign. This wasn’t a program designed for someone at my experience level and was run by people who have NEVER encountered a female applicant who they were willing to accept before. Perhaps I was truly exceptional, but even so, the cards were stacked against me going in if these people were so unwilling to consider women until then.
I quickly learned that this program was not a healthy or supportive place for me. I had no friends, as there were only 2 people in the directing program and the other director was 5-10 years older than me and very competitive. A nice guy, sure, but not the solace one needs when you only have one friend. My room was separate from the acting students, further separating me from the camaraderie and friendships they developed. The program itself was also very different from anything I’d ever done before. I received no instruction or assistance but was graded solely on my final product of assignments I didn’t have the skills to complete.
I had until then been a directing and dramaturgy student, working with actors directly, assisting other directors, delving into textual meanings and significance on an academic level. All stuff I loved. In this program, during the first week, I was given 2 days to take a historical play assigned to me, rework it into 15 minutes, cast, stage and outfit (costumes/props/set) for a final production. Something I had never done before, let alone in that timeframe, and received no guidance or instruction on how to accomplish. I failed spectacularly. Leaving my professor disgusted and the actors unsure if they ever wanted to work with me again.
I failed, but I was set up to fail.
At this point, I now see that I should have withdrawn from the program. I should have stepped away, acknowledged how miserable I was, and taken extra course work to make up the credits. But I not only didn’t know how to do that, I didn’t know how to recognize that the situation I was in was untenable.
So I set out to survive.
And I did. I kept my head down. I drove and hour and a half to visit my now husband for the one night I had off a week (yes, we had about 18 hours of unscheduled time A WEEK. Class and rehearsal was from 8AM-11PM every day). If I couldn’t get to him, he’d come to me. I called my mother almost every night in tears. I tried to make friends but came across as too aggressive or too needy or too awkward no matter what I did. I cried myself to sleep every night. I stopped eating because eating meant sitting in the main dining room with everyone else. I would say looking back that this was my first real mental breakdown. But failure wasn’t an option. I’d never known failure. And so I powered through.
In the end, I received a C+ for a semester of hell and the only note I received from the man supposed to be mentoring the 2 directing students was, “I think maybe you could actually be good at this someday.”
Since then, there have been a number of other times when I should have walked away from a toxic situation or relationship, regardless of the potential rewards, because the cost was just too great. Sometimes, it’s hard to walk away because of the amount of effort and self I’ve put into something, only to walk away without what I worked so hard for. Leaving a part of your work behind for others to sometimes actively take credit for, is very very hard, and quite painful to watch, lips slammed shut. Many times I didn’t put myself, my self-worth, my value, at the top of the priority list, as I got older, though, this has become easier.
As I look at my body of work and what I’ve accomplished with my friends and amazing family, there have been no times when I look back and think I should have just stuck with it or I should have suffered more for this. Instead, I look and focus on the things I’ve learned, the sense of self I’ve grown, and the pride I take in seeing projects succeed without pain or self-damage.
So for now, I dedicate my time to my art, to collaborations which push each member higher and support success. I give openly and freely, in the belief that karmically, giving will make the art added to the world bigger and better. This is the philosophy I bring to the Anthologies I curate under Fighting Monkey Press. UnCommon Bodies was a huge success both with readers and from the point of view that art does not need to equate suffering and we CAN support each other without taking advantage.
Next week UnCommon Origins will release for $2.99 (available for pre-order now) and I’m proud to say that this collection is as good, if not better, than UCB. The contributors have added their passion and talents and time to not only the writing but the promotion of the project. It was work, but nothing I look back on as being more damage than good. Instead, it fills me with joy to know that we have together created something so amazing.
Knowing when to walk away from something that fills you with pain and turn your energy toward something that reinvigorates your passion is something that has taken me a long time to learn. I’m not perfect, but I’m getting there, and my life is so much fuller for it now.