On sluts, storytelling, and the dirty, dirty truth

the smell of the crowd, the roar of the greasepaint

Several things struck me as interesting about my brief turn on stage this past weekend.

First, I'd forgotten how much I love hanging out with actors, as an actor. For the past few years, I've been spending more and more time around actors in other capacities, graphic designer, bartender, butt-in-the-seat support. Most actors are fun and this particular crew is especially fun, since they run to the smart and funny without taking themselves too seriously. They're a generous bunch; while they may grapple individually with the usual neuroses that dog the profession, they are also wonderfully supportive, unlike the dig-me types that cluster at rocket-launching pads like Second City and Groundlings. (And don't get me started on the twisted awfulness that plagues stand-up comedy; five years of trailing The Chief Atheist on the circuit cured me of wanting more comics in my life.)

Second, I was reminded of how much work acting is, at least, the worthwhile kind. Like most things, one's acting generally improves in direct proportion to the amount of time one spends doing it. Sure, some start out better than others; I believe there is a gift for acting just like there is a gift for thinking mathematically or running long distances or just about any skill you can name. But even the great get greater by doing more of it. I was not one of the greats. When I was acting regularly, taking classes, doing four plays a year, I always had to work twice as hard as anyone else on stage to be half as good. It was fine; I accepted it. But after my Crohn's onset, I had to seriously rejigger my energy expenditures column. After running the numbers, it became clear that my ROI on acting couldn't touch my payoff on writing, designing, and other types of creative output.

This is not to say that this weekend's show was a failure; to the contrary, it was a rousing success and a good time was had by all, myself included. But playing an adenoidal tart in platform heels and a wig for five minutes on stage once a week is about all I'm up for anymore. That, and commercials. Both THE STRIP and the :30 spot require short bursts of focus for discrete periods of time.

Also, both are fun. Jesus, when I look back on it, so much of acting was the opposite of fun. It was just work, and difficult work, and not fun work. I hated most of my classes. I hated rehearsing. Most of all, I hate hate hated having to go to the dark, tender spots where the scary things are stored, the places great actors go to naturally. I understood why it was necessary, and wasn't willing to be the kind of actor who skipped this excavation of truth, however painful it was to unearth it. But I wasn't one of the ones who loved it or lived for it.

They do exist, you know. It's a lollapalooza, that realization. When I heard L.A. Jan talk about sitting around her apartment, doing acting exercises for fun, I had a revelation similar to one I'd had at age eight during a particular Sunday mass at Holy Name Cathedral: these other people actually believe in this!

Me? I still believe in telling the truth. I'm fairly sure that's what getting into acting was all about: a means for me to connect to my truth in a way I'd been unable to before. I've been writing since I could hold a pen, but the stories always lacked something: truth, mostly, but also ease. Some of the ease comes with that doing-more-of-it thing, but the larger part, for me, anyway, comes from being grounded in truth.

Now that I've learned what living in the truth feels like, it's getting easier to let go of some of the things that got me here. My insane drive, for example, has ebbed considerably. Ditto my need for praise, love from strangers, and a constant need to be surrounded by drama and action. While I still rail against the time I must, it seems, spend being ill, I've come to enjoy the quiet spaces at least as much as the noisy, active ones. And I recognize that a large part of tiger taming is just tiger aging: we mellow, most of us, with time, trading the gift of urgency for the gift of perspective. Sweet, sweet perspective. Take a look at your high school diary if you don't believe me.

I still love performing (sometimes, and in short bursts). Reading Jonathan Rauch's essay on introversion was a breakthrough moment for me much like that day in church or that moment with L.A. Jan: of course I like getting up in front of large groups of people and holding them in thrall with my words; it's just that I need a really long nap in a quiet place with no people afterwards.

So my future as a truth-teller will likely hold some combination of performance and writing, reflection and spouting off. But it will also, I hope, include brief stretches of me playing a cartoon whore four feet from beer-swilling patrons. THE STRIP may not be about connecting people with their higher truth, but nothing beats it for connecting them with their inner good times. And who couldn't use more fun in their lives?

I mean, hell, even earnest artists have to let their fake hair down every once in awhile...