I can remember wanting to be an actor since I was at most nine. That's when I began taking acting classes at the local (surprisingly equity) theatre in my hometown in suburban Chicago. When I was thirteen, I started assisting with the summer arts camp, helping younger kids with their writing, acting, dance, and singing. (There was straight-up art, too, but that was never my strong suit.) A year later, in addition to classes and summer camp, I started ushering for the main stage performances. Illinois Theatre Center (now closed) became my home away from home.
In high school, rather than auditioning for productions in our mediocre drama club, I spent my afternoons (and evenings, and weekends) in rehearsals at ITC, running props, or operating the light board, or organizing the play library. I grew up in that theatre, learning about all aspects of production instead of just acting. I did that too, as the lead in three successive teen drama productions and as an ensemble member in three summers of musicals. (I was the second-most-Jewish person in our production of Fiddler on the Roof.)
At fourteen, my aunt took me to RENT, my first broadway show, and I decided then and there I would audition for NYU and live in New York. I visited the "campus" for the first time at fifteen, and it was the only school I considered or applied to. I took eight AP classes in high school to make sure I had the right academics for such a prestigious school, and I was on the executive board of the student council, captain of the matheletes (SURPRISE!), captain of the scholastic bowl team, and a member of both the National and Spanish National Honor Societies. I was not messing around. I was going to NYU. I was focused. I got straight A's my entire life. At some point it occurred to me that high school could be really really easy if I just took regular classes and coasted through without trying, but that was never my style. What can I say, I'm a workaholic (with a healthy sprinkling of OCD, to boot).
When I auditioned for NYU (the day my senior research paper was due for my AP English class, thanks) I had to indicate my preferences for studio training. The decision is ultimately up to the administration, based on your audition and application, but they do take your request into account. I chose the studio known for its holistic training approach, in which first year students, in addition to acting, movement, and voice and speech classes, are also trained in directing, design, and stage management. I just figured it would make me a better actor, to continue to know more about how other aspects of theatre worked. (Ironically, I said my second choice was the Adler studio, which I think now would have been a terrible fit for me.)
At the end of my first year, when we put on our final presentations, my scene from directing class was chosen (by our group of fifteen students) to be one of the five presented. I also performed a monologue I had written first semester, because I wasn't acting in any of the other scenes that had been selected. At the end of our presentations, I went into my final review with all of my teachers sitting intimidatingly before me, behind a table, while I sat in a solitary chair facing them, sweaty hands in my lap. The only thing I really remember of my fifteen or so minutes in that room was one of my teachers saying, "So, you want to be a directing student, right?" I was horrified. No! I wanted to be an actor! I was just trying to be well-rounded! My monologue hadn't gone all that great because I'd thrown all my effort into my directing scene, but that was because I wanted to be sure my fellow students performing it looked good, and I put them before myself. But I spent the summer panicking. Was I a bad actor? Was I doomed to a life behind the scenes, which, to me at the time, amounted to a failure?
I came back to my second year, and chose to continue directing, to keep my options open, even though I still wanted to be an actor. That year in the program, we were required to stage manage an older student's production, and assist two student designers on designs for others' productions. I ended up assisting one lighting designer, but then lighting a project myself and sound-designing one as well, in addition to the show I was stage managing. (In addition to 30 hours of studio a week plus academic classes plus rehearsals for class and design meetings and tech and load ins and oh, right, homework, or something.) The big project of the first half of second year, at that time, was The Book. The Book was a semester-long project for our design class, which was more or less a history of design from about 1800 to the present, and over the course of those months we took notes and had to compile our own textbook, of sorts, with interesting facts, quotes, pictures related to the period. Halfway through, we had meetings with our teacher to go over The Book thus far and check on our progress. And I remember two things about that meeting - one, that I had a date after, and as soon as he found that out he cut our meeting very short, but two, that his main feedback on my book was that the picture he got from it was "A very neat girl, but interested in a lot of things," and he suggested my book needed more focus. The thing is, I always have been and probably always will be a very neat girl interested in a lot of things. My brain is organized chaos.
By the second semester of my second year, I was torn between "project track" and "performance track." I stubbornly wanted to do it all. I ended up choosing "project track," mostly because I wasn't the biggest fan of our acting teacher that year, but I still had acting once a week, still took voice and speech (that was the stubborn bit) and was taking first year movement for a second time, because I just loved African dance too much. So I remained divided. Still acting, directing, and designing up a storm. And, that semester, stage managing twice, because I'm a masochist, I guess.
Ironically, even though my directing teacher was not a fan of my directing style, I ended up as a directing student my third year. I figured it was rare to have production resources just handed to you, with guaranteed rehearsal and performance space, and so I seized upon that opportunity. I directed two shows, lit several more (never tell people you're a lighting designer unless you want to be asked to light literally everything, especially in school), and somehow squeezed in acting in one production. I think I averaged six shows a semester that year, in one capacity or another. I refused to narrow my focus, no matter how much the program wanted me to. (I kept taking voice and speech, too - the only directing student to do so.)
Top row: my first directing project, I Rise in Flame, Cried the Phoenix, an early Tennessee Williams play; bottom row: my second directing project, A Fable, by Jean-Claude van Itallie (click to enlarge)
My last year started with a semester abroad in Madrid, essentially taking a liberal arts selection of classes, my only connection to theatre being a course on Federico García Lorca, the Spanish poet and playwright. When I returned to my final semester at Playwrights, I was supposed to be in the fourth year acting company. But I got a call, a week before the semester started. There weren't enough students for the track. The head of the studio said something along the lines of "I know you directed before, would you like to direct something else? Or I know you took playwriting, do you want to create a playwriting project?" And I said that no, the whole point was that I wanted to actually be in the acting track for my last semester, after spending so much time as a "project kid." Long story short, after a mess of scheduling conflicts that also meant I couldn't do the third year acting practicum show (the track I hadn't done my third year), my schedule became a hodge-podge of performance and project classes: I took acting with the third years, a dance class I had never had with second years, and repeated a voice and speech class I'd already taken (because you can never. have. too much voice and speech training), but I also took producing, a class only offered to fourth year project students (and me).
The beautiful thing about being the only student in that producing class who was not, in fact, in the process of producing a fourth year show, was that I had to make one up, for the sake of the homework. Fresh from my semester abroad, I decided to make up a play about Cold War-era Berlin, as seen through the eyes of two contemporary college students. That idea, for which I generated a budget and grant proposals and press releases and posters, developed into the early stages of a real play by the end of the semester. My senior year producing class, in which I was the lone weirdo not producing anything, became the birth place of the play I've been developing for almost four years now, Scars Over Berlin.
So here I sit, in 2016, an actor and a playwright who sometimes designs lights, and hasn't entirely ruled out directing again someday. There are certainly downsides to my wide range of experience - my acting resume is certainly shorter than most NYU drama grads, as I didn't throw all of my energy into auditioning for and performing in shows, distracted as I was by directing projects and almost blowing up a theatre I lit my junior year (I did blow all the circuits on the floor). I don't have the same level of audition experience or confidence as my roommate who also went to Tisch, but in a different studio.
But here's what I know about myself. I'm not interested in being in a play simply for the sake of having something to act in. Maybe I don't love acting enough. But I want to devote my time and energy to projects I care about. That's why I'd rather spend four years writing a play I love (and sometimes hate). I went through a phase about a year ago where I wasn't sure if I did still want to be an actor, or if I just felt obligated to be one because I went to an expensive theatre school. My quarter-life crisis, if you will, really threw me for a loop - if I didn't want to be an actor, the one thing I had wanted to be since I was nine, the thing I had gotten a quarter-million-dollar (YEAH) education to be, what did I want? I didn't seem to want anything else either, unless you count being a rockstar. I guess you could say all the points I get for passion I lack for practicality. But one day I woke up to a message offering me a role in a student film; one of my stage combat teachers had recommended me. And when I was handed an acting opportunity, without the mess of "the business" in the way - headshots and monologues and auditions and callbacks et cetera - I was so excited at the prospect. And though I ended up not working on the project, I was given the gift of certainty. I was certain I still wanted to be an actor, still wanted to work in theatre. And that's way better than being in some random NYU student film.
So here's what I know about myself. I'm a very neat girl, who's interested in a lot of things. And while that may have been said to me at first not as an insult but at least as a critique, I'll take the bad with the good. I love acting, and lighting, and fighting, and writing, and also reading tarot and collecting vinyl, listening to David Bowie and reading Harry Potter, and my bed is always made, and I know a thing or two about whiskey and I'm a pretty good cook. I've got no complaints about any of that.