An Actor’s Dilemma
Bobby Steggert, Broadway, film, and TV actor
I ask myself why in the world I choose live performance as a career on, perhaps, a daily basis. It depends on when, as to the vote for or against such a peculiar vocation. And I often hear sound bites fly out of my mouth, previously formed, and only rarely the whole truth, proving that I can’t even trust my own damn cultivated, prepackaged answers:
“Well, I may worry about money and insurance constantly, but I’m never bored!”
I’ll be fully forthcoming for once -- yes. Yes, I am bored. Often. And there are several kinds of boredom. There’s the boredom of sitting on your ass when all you have planned on your productivity list for the week is an audition in three days and to walk the dog -- when free time stretches out in a frightening wasteland of laziness and inability to stop streaming a Netflix original series. And there’s the equal boredom of having to do a Wednesday matinee of a show you’ve been running for months, only to enter the stage and encounter an entire front row of sleeping geriatrics wheezing their death rattles at deafening frequencies. The truth is, there are a million ways to be bored in anything we do, and anyone with a few self-help books on his shelf will quickly direct me to my own fucking attitude. I know.
I’ll be honest about something else. Money and insurance and stability and regularity and a consistent sense of purpose are very powerful, important elements of a happy life. I’d love to take away the thick slice of the worry-pie that is consumed with whether or not next month’s rent will be covered, or the slice that when, looking for a job, very inconveniently forgets the dozens of professional jobs I’ve been successful in before, which should be a fairly positive sign that another will come. The archetypical artist is, yes, a little crazy, and, frankly, you might be too if you didn't have that direct deposit every Thursday, assuring you with its soft, compassionate voice, “Yes, you CAN pay your phone bill and ALSO eat dinner tonight.”
It also amazes me when an actor says, in all earnestness, “You know, a teacher/mentor/friend once told me.....if you can imagine doing anything else in life, then do it.” First of all, the cliche of it all is so ingrained into our conversations about being an artist that I mildly judge you for spouting it off as if it even approaches an original idea, and secondly, artists are some of the most aware, alive, intelligent, and brave people I know -- they can definitely do something else in life. Many things. And often, they do, in order to continue being an artist.
I come up against a very powerful wall of fear every time I approach the end of an artistic process, and I'm encountering a particularly daunting one right now. It’s because the end of an experience marks such a peculiar confluence of endings -- the money, regularity, responsibility, personal and external validation, and sense of purpose all wrapped up into one confusing ball of human angst.
Again, sound bites escape the mouth, and they justify an ending with relief at gaining a little more free time, and at giving my sore body and tired voice a rest, but how much pleasure in these mild inconveniences have I been hiding behind the larger fear that I won't be needed to contribute the part of me that feels most alive, until I’m one day, hopefully, invited back into the ring?
But when thinking back historically, the job ends, life laps up on you, and other responsibilities eventually do fill the fearful void. And when thinking outside the box of my own little world, I can see that life presents a myriad of insecurities to us all. I recently polled a group of friends on Facebook about their personal feelings about their job circumstances, and many people expressed a fear of complacency and repetition in their salaried positions that I imagine rival my own of instability and inconsistency.
When I do open up to people closest to me, as I do now to you complete strangers (and hopefully with as few simplified sound bites as possible), I often get the same well-meaning suggestions -- find other empowering purposes, get a side job, write! (well there is that), relish in time off and relax. They all have meaning and significance, but, admittedly, only for a time, and only with partial success.
So, ultimately, I am left with the burning, persistent question, still, as to WHY? Why is being an active contributor to the live theater so desperately important to me? The selfish, insecure, validation -- needing parts of me are all accounted for, sure, but what is that deeper part that knows I'll never leave despite all the complaints and worries?
This is the most truthful answer I can give:
It is the silence of a room filled with hundreds of people, all intent on the same human interaction, all subconsciously committed to the social contract of live storytelling. It is the rare moment when a theater becomes a vacuum, when coughs and sniffles magically cease, when all eyes hold on the same point of focus, and when we are in the presence of something impossible to measure beyond the indelible experience of cohesion.
Funnily, this doesn’t happen regularly. It might not even happen once on a particularly scattered evening when the alchemy if off and the stars just don't align. But when it does, and it can be during the most unexpected instance of theatrical tension, you suddenly feel it, and you know you’re alive.
The other opportunity that theater provides -- one that movies and television and music simply cannot -- is to watch, in real time, human beings take the ultimate risk -- that of looking into each others eyes, braving vulnerability, and asking each of us to conquer the discomfort out there in the real world too.
I leave the theater every night having stared deeply into the eyes of my colleagues, often having traded spit and tears and sweat in the most intimate of ways, and though objectively insane a daily task, it is also one that helps me to be just a little bit braver out in the light.
These realizations lead me to believe that live theater certainly isn't the only place to experience these revelations -- I’ve felt it at Christmas dinner, during a sports event, during sex, at church (never sex at church), and even on a subway platform when an surprisingly amazing singer manages to blow away a disparate group of jaded commuters. What all these experiences have in common, though, is the somewhat impossible reality that a large, completely unconnected body of people have the inherent ability of plugging into one another and experiencing something as one. And argue all you want, but a movie has never once pulled me out of my private experience and landed me together with the people eating popcorn behind me.
This is the entirely healthy drug fix that I simply can’t give up, even at the risk of losing my insurance and binge watching three seasons of House of Cards in a stoned blur. I’m not a sports fan, I left the Catholic church the day after I was confirmed, and I’m not particularly into yoga.
Until another portal into the religion of human connectivity presents itself as an equally viable calling, I’ll keep at it with the knowledge of what I’m missing, and with the small but indestructible comfort that we are here to connect...and not much else.