I recently had a friend describe my recent run of successes in terms of acting and singing as “blowing up”, which, to say the least, was very encouraging, but also gave me quite a bit of perspective on how I’ve been feeling lately.
Last Friday, on a whim, I decided to put my name on standby to audition for The Second City Training Center’s Conservatory program. Like quite a few people in my current Improvisation for Actors class, I had forgotten to sign up for a spot when registration opened, although I also hadn’t been chomping at the bit to get into the Conservatory like a lot of them had expressed as a desire at the outset of our time in this Improvisation for Actors class. By some form of providence (there she is again), I managed to get a slot with the first group going in (in fact, I ended up taking the spot of the very first person in that group); I consider this providence because 1) I might not have had a chance to audition at all from being on standby and 2) I had set a personal deadline of 4 PM because I had a show to go perform in that night, and did not want to make myself late for the show that is paying me for the sake of an audition that, even at its best outcome, would cost me something financially. I went in and felt alright about what I had demonstrated, not terribly overwhelmed, but just alright.
Word came down Monday that I had not made the cut (in the interesting form of “The audition did not allow us to admit you at this time.”). I wasn’t very disappointed, considering that, on Wednesday of the week before, auditioning hadn’t even crossed my mind. However, I knew going into class this week that I would be working and interacting with folks who had gotten into the program, and I wondered how much that would affect me in class.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t that particular aspect that affected me in class; in fact, it didn’t affect me at all. I found myself very happy for the people who had made it, because I knew they were quite deserving of it by what I had seen them do week in and week out in our class. What ended up affecting me most in class was the presence of a substitute instructor, who really challenged the class throughout the session. I have no personal beef with this person for how it all went, but I had what was, at least for the first time in a while, an almost cathartic experience from it all.
The instructor was getting after us for establishing information in the first 30 seconds of the scene, especially to make our objectives as characters as specific and apparent as possible. Each time I went up to do a scene, I found myself getting more and more frustrated about the process because I knew, intellectually, exactly what he was talking about but, no matter what I tried, I could not communicate much of it in my scenes. I reached a point where, after performing a three person scene with two of my classmates, the instructor called scene and asked how it went, and the first words out of my mouth were, “I have no idea what I’m doing.” Instead of doing what I find myself doing frequently (and sometimes successfully) by trying to talk myself out of a situation, I decided to own up to exactly what I felt at that moment. The instructor then responded quite curtly about how he didn’t appreciate improvisers judging the scene they just did, especially so negatively. I tried to verbalize to him that I was not expressing frustration or judgment about the scene, but about the fact that I felt I didn’t have a solitary idea in the world what I was doing in the scene at all. All he got from it was that I was judging the scene, which was the last thing on earth I was doing. In judging the scene, I would have been assigning blame to my partners or to the premise or to the whole exercise for my frustration. What I was doing was expressing my frustration about my seeming inability to take what he had been expressing to us and to apply it in some way. I felt so strongly about my frustration that I could actually feel the tears welling up in my eyes; here I was, a grown man, about to burst into tears in front of a group of people I barely knew. THAT was how frustrated I was.
The instructor could tell that we were all taking this pretty hard; maybe not as hard as I almost did, but mostly everyone expressed some form of discouragement when he asked about how people felt things went. It wasn’t until I sat down and had a chance to settle myself that I began to realize what was going on: dammit, I was learning. The frustration I was feeling (along with everyone else) was a plateau in progress that, in its primary form, looked like unwavering discouragement but, at its core, was really where the growth happens. As I have been told multiple times in my life, nobody learns anything when they’re succeeding; it’s the moment they fail, that they fall flat on their face, that forces them to go, “Wait, what the hell was that, and why did it happen?”
So, why the anecdotes about “blowing up”, not getting a Conservatory spot and almost crying in a class?
Because it’s all about perspective: I may not have gotten a spot in the Conservatory, but that’s because I have progress to make. In the meantime, I have more than enough to keep me on my toes: involved in a production currently, working on another, and recently being hired as a tenor section leader/cantor at a parish in Highland Park, IL. And I can either choose to let that frustration boil over and become a mess of a person, or I can relish in the process of getting to the point where I’m not going to turn into a pile of mush and know that, dammit, I’m learning, and I’m going to make it count.