Ever since I was seven, I’d dreamt of being an actress. Now, here I was, 22 years old, assisting at my first legit reading for a teleplay. To top that, my favorite acting professor had gathered all of us players at the home of Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman! The script was written as a vehicle for Ms. Woodward, but as I looked around the room, I recognized other famous faces and tried to keep my cool. At a break I stood with Joanne Woodward and Laura Linney and Ms. Woodward admitted “When I first debuted in Picnic on Broadway I felt so awkward. I had no idea what to do with my hands.” I laughed on cue and stuck my own hands deep inside virtual pockets. I had no idea what to do with my entire self in that rarefied space, let alone my hands.
As we took a break, I approached Bradley Whitford of West Wing fame (though this event took place several year before the series began.) Whitford had attended Wesleyan University as I had. He was infamous as both a student and as an acting instructor. Still, I could not resist asking him for advice. After all we’d attended the same school. Maybe my timing was bad, maybe he was in a bad mood, or maybe he really meant it. He looked at me closely and at my bright shining face. “Don’t be an actress,” he told me. “They only cast the mom or the babe — and you are neither.”
Shocked, I retreated to the bathroom where Mr. Newman had framed a happy letter from a fan of his spaghetti sauce. Why did Whitford say that? Am I that unattractive? Why didn’t I talk back to him? Where did my voice go? Does an alma mater mean so very little? My mind kept spinning with questions, trying to process his dismissal.
I returned to the room where I delighted in reading stage directions and a few bit parts. I was still in heaven, though the edges of my skirt were tinged with my brush with hellfire. We finished reading. There was a subsequent reading for the same project a few weeks later. Mr. Whitford was not invited to the other reading, so I never got the chance to challenge him about his comment. I tried to focus on what was most important: it was an honor to participate and to have met Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman. I still consider that event one of the most magical and elevated moments of my life.
My mind, however, had hooked onto that awful pronouncement. “Don’t be an actress.” I continued to roll it over in my mind while I attended acting class, while I starred in a short play off-Broadway, while I worked with an acting coach who told me I wasn’t pretty. I kept thinking about this awful message. I couldn’t shake it until one day a friend of a friend of mine told me there was an opening at the Samuel Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row and asked if I knew of anyone who would want to rent it out?
This sparked me. I moved into high gear, gathering pieces I had worked on at P.S. 122 and at the Dia Center for the Arts. I cobbled together an evening of work. I had it recorded by a client of mine that often shot for the PBS channel. In essence I created my first one-woman show in 1995, despite not having a clear plan or totally knowing what I was doing, and I was not a babe, and not yet a mother!
We can use the worst things people say to us as fuel. It’s not just the good things that inspire, but the challenges we face that can actually create a fire in our bellies to launch us into our bigger selves. Artistically, I don’t know if I would have been quite as desperate and as dissatisfied as I needed to be to take the leap of creating my first one-woman show had it not been for Bradley Whitford and what he said. I am now grateful for his comment (though still perplexed). Sometimes when people tell us no, but there is a stronger yes inside us, it does not matter who they are. Our undeniable yes overrides the background noise and becomes the most sacred roadmap to follow.