This is letter six.
This letter is about the moment I became a professional actress.
Allow me to set the stage…
(See what I did there??? PUN FULLY INTENDED. And I remain steadfastly unapologetic.)
Although I attended large suburban schools, my educational environment felt more akin to a smaller private school for two specific reasons.
The first reason is that my neighborhood’s elementary school, junior high, and high school were all located on the same block. Quite unusual. Every so often, we elementary students would file over on foot to the other campus to attend events in those auditoriums or on those fields. By the time we advanced to the higher grades, we already had a familiarity with the surroundings.
The second reason my educational environment was… cozy… was because I was part of the “gifted and talented” program. (G.A.T.E. for those of you who collect early-80’s acronyms.) This program identified fifty or so students who were separated out from the pack and placed into “advanced” classes. So, from like fifth grade onward, I had the majority of my classes with the same group of kids.
Which is fun – IF you are part of the “in” group within the group, which I most certainly was not.
Most of my friends were popular, but it did not go unnoticed (by me) that they preferred to hang out with me one-on-one rather than include me in their other types of socializing.
As we all entered junior high, my semi-unpopularity (fringe popularity?) had reached its full flourish.
By ninth grade, I was hanging on by the thinnest of social threads.
(By the way, I am completely aware that, so far, this story provokes a bit of an eye roll – especially now when many kids are slowly burning their eyeballs to a crisp doing Zoom School via their phones with barely any contact with their friends. Many of them would probably give a years-worth of allowance just for the opportunity to, once again, roam free in the outdoors with their peers – even if said peers were pummeling their esteem by picking them last for the team in gym class. Did I ever tell you about the 101 times I was picked last for a team in gym class…)
But, I digress.
So, there I was, the embodiment of 9th grade uncoolness, when one of my actual dreams actually came true.
I was cast in a community theatre production of the play, Life With Father. (It was a period piece and I had braces, which can only mean that my talent was so spectacularly undeniable that they couldn’t resist.)
Because my hometown is a city in the L.A. area, our “community theatre” was actually a beautiful, fully-decked-out professional theatre and the productions were cast with top-notch talent. I had seen so many shows there and I was FINALLY getting to be in one myself – I had died and gone to 14-year-old Actress Heaven.
And then I discovered that the annual 9th grade Advanced Science trip to Yosemite… the exciting adventure that my friends and I had been anticipating for several years… the trip that would yield inside jokes and lasting memories and fun photos and other such Adolescent Bonding Experiences… THAT trip fell right near the end of the rehearsal schedule for the play.
Long story shorter: My parents refused to ask the show’s director for mercy on my behalf (their vibe was was very much: “You’re in the play, you call him”). Soooooo, in a squeaky, shaky voice I asked if I could miss the rehearsals for the trip, and he said no.
At that point in my life, I did not yet have “negotiation skills” or “gumption” or an “ask for forgiveness not permission” savviness, which left me with a choice to make. (Translated into teenage terms: this was a choice between Destroying My Career and Ruining My Social Life.)
I chose the play.
I cried my eyes out – but only because having to make the choice was painful, not because the choice itself was difficult.
Somewhere, my young mind had already heard (and taken to heart) ye olde adage that “art requires sacrifice,” thus my young mind concluded that this was the first of the sacrifices my art would ask of me. And I was already dedicated to my art, so I already knew the play was the thing.
This was me becoming a professional actress.
I know that if you ask a room full of people how they would define someone who is “a professional,” the majority of them will say it’s about getting paid for what you do. (I know this because I’ve asked several rooms full of people that very question.)
I have a different definition, though.
My definition of a professional is: “Someone who is orienting all aspects of their life towards enabling the pursuit of their vision.”
I wasn’t getting paid for this play.
I hadn’t mastered my craft.
I wasn’t in the union.
But my 14-year-old self was making choices that deliberately and incrementally aligned her life with her dreams.
My point is not about which definition of professional is “correct.”
My point is about acknowledging that you get to define that concept for yourself.
To me, adulthood (a.k.a. “personal agency”) has less to do with age and much, much more to do with the willingness to give yourself permission. Permission to say no (or yes). Permission to not justify or explain your decisions to folks that are not directly involved. Permission to determine your priorities. Permission to define concepts such as “successful,” “loyal,” “moral,” in ways that empower rather than disempower you.
Permission to set your own bar of excellence – not your parents’ bar, not societies’ bar, not Pinterest’s bar, nor your religion’s / partner’s / boss’s / guru’s bar.
Some folks are wary of claiming their personal agency and setting their own bar… what if they set it too low and don’t fully realize their potential? Or what if they set it too high and can’t clear it? Much of what coaches like me do is help our clients set their bar at a healthy spot, clear it, celebrate it, and then raise it a notch or two.
And sometimes I’m helping folks make difficult decisions… and sometimes I’m just supporting them as they follow through on a decision that, while clear, feels painful. And I can shepherd people through this territory only because I know it so well myself.
Fun fact: Not going on the trip meant I had to spend every science class of that week sitting silently in a room with the one other kid who also didn’t go (due to the fact that his grades and behavior were deemed less than desirable) while we each wrote a report about Yosemite. Nothing quite like having to spend five whole hours writing about all the cool stuff you knew your friends were experiencing at that very moment.
Next week I’m going to share a little secret I learned during my years as a professional organizer.