Follow The Fellow Who Follows A Dream
My eldest son had a theater performance last night. Their classes all did a kind of lip sync’d but originally choreographed take on Broadway musical numbers from Annie to Hairspray. He did well, had a great time, and came home riding on air.
As I was getting him in bed he told me, “That’s the best feeling in the world, being on stage. I just feel so amazing.” And then he paused, his face hidden and shadowed in the dark room. He asked shyly as if he was discovering something of tremendous import, “Does it feel that way for you when you are onstage?”
Yes. Yes it does.
Being onstage, rehearsing, producing (and to some extent writing) feels like nothing else. No where else do I feel quite so competent as in a collective space working on receiving and transmitting emotions in text and movement and then offering that to an audience. There is a very particular skill set that allows for that kind of space creation and holding it just long enough for a show to happen and it’s powerful and feels, well, spiritual in nature-energetic, a force coming from someplace (maybe it’s all just chemical but it feels transformative at its best).
I felt this sharp tug at my heart when he asked, as much for his question as for my own struggles with having this need to perform. I felt almost a kind of sadness that he felt that feeling because I know it means a life of sacrifices, struggles, and really weird hard choices if he’s called by the dream-like power of Art and Theater, not by Business or some other more valued lucrative force.
I know a lot of artists. Nearly all of them have a day job and then their own gig. Austin is filled with people working and then WORKING on what counts for them the most, what calls them and makes them get up and create. Most of them are not paid well, if at all, for that creative work. Musicians, painters, actors, singers. Most have to support themselves with a 40 hour gig, live lean and forego middle class luxuries.
There are a few who have figured out how to live on art. Some of those few have family money, or have made exceptionally wise money choices, or have supportive spouses. Some don’t have any of that but have pretty much lived on the brink of homelessness to just work in the arts because they can’t do anything else, and by “can’t” I don’t mean skill, I mean that’s the thing life gave them to do. That’s it for them. Art.
I also know a few folks who have actual careers in law, engineering, business, higher ed. They don’t seem to have a side gig, but feel really satisfied by their career. I’m not sure what they do at night or on weekends but it doesn’t seem to be additional production work, or writing. Maybe they invest? Build things on their homes? Go out? (I jest a little, but I know people who do not go overboard with the extra projects, either art or activism like my friends and I do and it confounds me.)
Many of those people make a really good solid living in their career. Their avocations are just that; hobbies that please them outside of career. But what of all the artists whose actual vocation is the thing that doesn’t pay (but which is often viewed as a hobby by employers)? Reminds me of this article in the Onion recently.
All those thoughts cartwheeled through my mind as I tried to get to sleep last night.
“Does it feel like that for you when you are onstage?”
God, yes. The best feeling in the world to be in a show. Or to facilitate a group of people through a creative process. Or to brainstorm and come up with ideas. Or to listen to someone who needs coaching. or to get all the pieces together for an event. The interchange of energies, transmitting and receiving is the dream, the sweet spot where I have something to offer.
I’m lucky that my career and weekly work is such that I can (and do) use those skills-event planning and production, speaking and outreach, facilitation and consulting, because those are the only damn things I’m good at. And I’m lucky that I have been able to integrate the arts and activism into my life throughout my life. Heck, I try to integrate my arts and activism into each other so I can get more done! I’m extremely privileged to live in a town like Austin where you can craft out a side gig pretty easily and it’s something that keeps the town “weird.”
But I wonder and ponder for my son. How to explain to him that even if he could be a full time actor? The performance is still only a small percentage of that career. From auditions, to money management, to agents, to rehearsing, to classes, to promotion and marketing, to just paying bills and maintaining a home, getting onstage is still rare.
And if he’s like the thousands of artists that do their thing on evenings and weekends, how to prepare him in ways I was not prepared, and ways I most certainly ignored out of a romantic idealism about art and purity and my own pathological issues with money?
I don’t want that feeling to be something he chases like an addiction, getting it where he can, if he can, because he has to live a life that isn’t his just to get by. Nor do I want him to treat it like a musical theater-like dream and not take it seriously or give it up altogether. The arts are tremendously undervalued in terms of monetary reward (unless you are famous and then it’s extremely overvalued) and that means people either give them up or try to work the system ruthlessly. It can’t be idealized and it shouldn’t be cynical, but it seems to me those are the choices lately.
What kind of stories do I tell him in order to help him value earning potential but also his innate skills? What do I do to help him build his own mythos, his own path, rather than crush him with the one I was raised with, the daughter of a well known talented composer whose legacy…well, was crushing in many ways and left me focused on the right things but the wrong ways?
I don’t have a lot of answers to those questions. I’m only now, at 45, beginning to really look in the mirror and ask them of myself. Which, I can tell you, is a painful thing right now. I can look back over the last 15 years and think, damn. I’ve really bungled a lot of opportunities and I’ve truly missed the boat by dividing myself. Personal work is the hardest work.
Which is why I think that shy question, in the dark, was so powerful. It was a moment of consciousness from a young boy taking the very first steps into adulthood. Him recognizing, perhaps for the first time, that his parent had a connection to him in a way that felt real and visceral. An awareness of something he may not ever have suspected about himself, and that his mother had also traveled that same way.
It was a stunning moment, at least for me. And I am still boggled as to how to move myself through it, but surely there is no better reason than to make things a little easier for him.