DRAMA-QUEEN - How I Bombed As a Theater Major, Yet Acquired a Key to Great Acting
“And what do you want to be when you grow up?”
Adults love asking kids that question. I find myself parroting it to children I meet. Some kids shrug and squirm. I never did. I was one of those kids who knew from my youngest years exactly what I wanted to be: an actress.
Movie star, TV star, or Broadway babe—didn’t matter. I would have taken any of those. I only knew that I wanted to be onstage (or screen or both) and I wanted to tell sweeping stories while I did it. I wanted to make people sigh and cry, to make them swoon and moon and gnash their teeth. I wanted them to cheer for my she-roes and growl at my villains.
If my experiences as a budding actress/singer/dancer through elementary and high school were any indication, I possessed the gift. Even my classmates, many of whom couldn’t stand me, believed in my talents so much that they voted me Most Likely To Succeed.
Now I sit here in my living-room-turned-dance/writing-studio, on disability with multiple brain traumas and a host of other injuries, watching the number of people who notice my dance videos creep to the double-digits—WOOT! You have no idea what a bangin’ day it is when a video reaches 100 views! It makes me chuckle about my high school title.
Without Dain Bramage, would I be “a success” by now? And how exactly is success measured?
Multiple people say that I’m an extraordinary friend. Some people also apply that adjective to my dancing and writing. Others are astounded at my weed-like tenacity and my ability to find silver linings in just about everything, and I would have to agree with them.
Those who mark success by my red-numbered bank account, the number of thumbs-up on my dance videos, the number of readers on my blog, and how many people I am able to touch and affect with the inordinate amount of gifts I was born with? Yeah, I guess I would have to agree with them, too. On that front, I’m a gargantuan failure.
I’m okay with either version of my history. Both perspectives are accurate. I quite like who I’ve become, no matter the nasty labels and the nasty rumors and the fact that one of the most commonly heard songs around here is the chirping of crickets.
I quite like crickets, too. They're cute and bouncy. Their song calms me all summer, along with the cicadas. If they’re chirping, it means I’m in a quiet, rural place. Or it means another one has gotten into my house. They sneak in during the spring in droves. I hear that’s a sign of good luck. Or maybe it’s just an old place with lots of cracks in the foundation. Kinda like me. Either way, I still like crickets.
After high school, Miss Most Likely To Succeed hightailed it to college on her full-ride scholarship and declared a Theater Major with an emphasis in Acting. My minor was a double: Dance and History, two of my favorite things in the world. I shared an on-campus dorm room with a sweet, studious girl, quickly made friends with some of the other freshmen in the Theater Department, and determined to leave my horrid nerd-slut-loser rep behind in my hometown of Hell.
I was as happy as a crappie in a mayfly hatch.
At my first audition in my freshman year I was cast as an understudy for "Christine" and a "Reject Dancer" in the fall musical, A Chorus Line. That spring, I was cast as a Polynesian dancer in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
Wait, wut?! Polynesian—?
We’ve discussed this in detail.
In that post, we also discussed my mysterious, abrupt, and mind-boggling descent into depression, drinking, volatility, and night terrors. It sucker-punched me somewhere between March and April of 1992 and reached an all-time low the next fall.
Well, joyous of joys, after I broke my parents’ bathroom mirror by trying to hurl a hairbrush into my own hated face just before the school year started, my mom sent me to her psychologist, who determined that I had “the same chemical imbalance as she had”. By the time I got in with him at the start of October, I had been dumped, had chopped off all my hair, and I was suicidal. He put me on Prozac.
Do you know much about Prozac? I’ve actually heard my generation--Gen X--referred to as “Prozac Nation.” Not surprising.
As if by magic wand, for those first few weeks of taking it, colors seemed brighter. So did my mood. My boogyman night terrors, my desire to drink myself into stupors, and my inexplicable paranoia over leaving my apartment dwindled to a trickle. The drug did its job as a short term triage. I no longer mooned over thoughts of jumping off the Bong Bridge into Lake Superior.
That didn’t last. Because my problem wasn't some chemical imbalance I had simply been born with that needed to be "fixed." I had multiple layers of PTSD and repressed memories from my youngest years, and from what had happened in my freshman year--from what I had just escaped by being dumped. Well...sort of. Conscienceless predators don't ever really like to let you escape.
Would you call it coincidence that, when I decided to go off Prozac after taking it for four years, those buried freshman year memories slammed back into my brain in under two weeks?
Because make no mistake. That little green-and-white capsule "fixed" me, all right.
I didn’t have any of the listed side-effects. Instead, I wound up with emotional flat-lining. True, I didn’t have the debilitating lows anymore, but after I’d been on Prozac for more than a year, I also didn’t get much in the way of soaring joy, deep tranquility, or ecstasy. It’s not that I had the lack of sex drive or inability to reach orgasm that was a common side-effect. Not at all. In fact, for my twenty-first birthday, my friends even got me a magenta sweatshirt with the words, “I’m Multi-Ogasmic" on the front of it. It had other words on the back.
But as for genuine ecstasy, wonder, inspiration, bliss? These were all stretched thin like a piece of taffy that coated my vision in dreamyland, rosy hues. Here and there, jarring jolts of reality would punch through, allowing me to glimpse a rotating hamster wheel of issues I could never seem to wrap my brains around. The drug kept telling my brain that everything was grand. I had grand dreams. I made grand art. I fell in love again, quite grandly, actually. But I felt separated from the world by that taffy veil and the wads of cotton candy muffling my ears.
On the other hand, I was separated from myself by warped, groaning, steel bulkheads that occasionally burst their seams and started spraying water until I could get them patch-welded (enough).
I'd pretty much stopped going down into the gradually flooding lower levels.
Unfortunately, that psychiatrist tossed me onto Prozac and then never checked back in with me again, so I had no way of comprehending what was truly wrong with me.
At the start, he had sent me to a therapist. For months, I spoke at length with her about all the years of bullying, but we never could get to the root of why I had started dreaming about death, numbing myself out with drinking, why alcohol released a snot-and-tear-gushing, street-wandering little monster nobody wanted to know, or why I woke up in the middle of the night, screaming, “He’s gonna kill me!”
At least, I hear I did that. Apparently I scared the bejeezus out of my roommates in the on-campus apartment I shared with three other theater majors, but I never remembered it in the morning.
Eventually, I stopped seeing my therapist because nobody could tell me why these weekly talks and the Prozac didn’t seem to work for me any more than I had ever seen it work for my mom. Prolly ‘cause she hadn't been born with some oddball chemical imbalance, and she wasn’t a “hysterical female” any more than I was. She had her own trauma and undiagnosed Chrons disease; I had cPTSD and a bunch of repressed memories. But…well, we had vaginas and no-see-‘em health concerns in the early 90s in Northern Minnesota so…what’re ya gonna do?
My mom went deeper into religion. Me? I abandoned it. In the previous posts, we've covered my attempts to find a different church from my Catholic upbringing, followed by my explorations in other religions, philosophies, and spiritual practices. Over the decades, it's resulted in a cherry-picked practice designed specifically for and by me. The Divine and I are like two peas purring in a pod now.
But as a traumatized, lost, angsty college student just starting my sophomore year, every failed attempt I made at finding what I needed spiritually left me floundering. I'd grown distant from my family, had lost my best friend, and I had just been dumped by the "love of my life." All I could do was cling to my leaky, rudderless ship of the soul in my ever-darkening night.
Then I had to abandon the ship.
Be ye warned, matey. These episode took place amidst the descent. I had just a little bit of a bad attitude and nothing good to say about anybody, least of all myself. If you're sensitive to the inner turbulence of a traumatized mind slowly coming unhinged, you might also wish to abandon this ship. Yarrrr.
Late September, 1992
19 years old
Film & Video class is not nearly as fun as I thought it would be. Most of the classes in my major aren’t. I mean, it all started out great last year, but...I don't know what it is. I've just started to hate it. I hate my classes. I hate this university. I'm even starting to hate being at home with my roommates. Do I even want to do this anymore? Any of it?
Voice & Movement class was the worst. What a nightmare. All these weird exercises--I felt so stupid. Give me a pen, I'll write lines. Give me a script, I'll memorize it and act it. But this improv stuff... So many of my classmates throw themselves right in. They just eat it up. Of course, they pretty much roam the halls in a similar state to everything we did in that class. It feels so fake to me. They remind me of the kids from that artsy school who always won at One-Act Play Contest--well, except when we beat them. They were so melodramatic and overblown, even off the stage. Talk about drama.
When they lost to us that year, one of the guys literally threw himself in the snowbank over it. “I am so distraught!” he cried, and all his friends sank down to fan his face and console him.
Why, in order to be in theater, are we expected to be drama-queens even off the stage?
Today I have to hold this stupid can of beans at just the right angle in just the right spot--not remotely a natural position, but yet I'm supposed to act like it's the most natural thing I do all day, while speaking to a cyclopian hunk of plastic and metal like it’s my best friend in order to convince it that these beans are the bestest thing ever, mmm-mmm-goooood.
But that’s what you do in commercials, and if you want to be an actress you have to start in advertising. So I do it. I hold the can up, making sure the label is faced outward with nary a finger blocking it. I then recite the script with my most convincing smile.
All I can picture is the grayish-green hue that beans always turn the moment you cram them into a can. Sure, I'll eat them at Thanksgiving and Christmas, but the bestest thing ever?
Not bloody likely.
Do people actually fall for this shit and buy stuff on account of someone telling them they should? I don't. I hate commercials more than I hate this class, and this is exactly why. It's so phony. Everything is just phony-phony-fake.
But I make my eyes wider, brighter, happier. I make my mouth turn up at the corners like I’ve been doing all my fucking life, and I raise my voice into that “I’m happy” tone. I’m just so hap-hap-happy about these green beans that--
The door clicks open. The volume of the voices out in the hallway raises. Denise’s eyes go huge when she sees me perched on the stool with the interrogation lights blinding me.
"Cut!" Professor Fulton heaves out an annoyed sigh.
Denise glances at him, glances at the sign on the door she has just barged through: “Do Not Enter--Filming In Progress.”
“Oh, my God,” she gushes. “I’m so sorry! I didn’t even…”
We all laugh and shrug it off.
She cringes and backs out the door, finishing the rest of her apologetic words in a whisper, as if that could suddenly make up for obliterating my bean-take.
The door shuts. The volume returns to a muffled hallway hum.
“Okay,” Professor Fulton grumbles with a chuckling eye-roll. He pushes a button on the camera. The little red dot comes back on. “Let’s try this again from the top.”
I really don’t want to. I hate these beans. I hate this class. I haven’t liked this instructor since the beginning of the year when I realized how susceptible he is to the sucking up that goes on around here. I have always sucked at sucking up. All the way back to the science room where the cruelest of the cool kids used to congregate to shoot the shit with Mr. Z.
College is even worse about that crap. Aren't we supposed to be more mature, not less? I wonder how bad the whole casting couch thing is in Hollywood. Now that's something that I would completely suck at. I also wonder if my sucking at suckitude has anything to do with why I wasn't cast in the musical this year, not even as a dancer.
Not that I complained much when Fulton posted his cast list. They're doing Oklahoma! It’s never been my favorite but now everybody is singing those songs and rehearsing those scenes everywhere. I just cannot stand all those Good Ole Country Boys & Girls in their overalls and pigtail braids. Fucking country bullshit. All I can hear is Martin’s gui-tar and his crooner’s ballads droppin’ ev’ry G. All I can see are his shee-it-kickers and that slick, "aw-shucks" smile.
Fuck his "good li'l country girls."
Fuck Curly McLain, fuck Jud Fry, fuck sangin’ “cain’t” instead of “can’t” and fuck these beans. What in blazing, reeking Hell am I doing here? Everything seems like a waste of my time. I seem like a waste of everybody’s time. All my instructors are annoyed with me.
I’m annoyed with them.
Come to think of it, there isn’t much that I’m not annoyed with, especially myself, but I have to sell these beans to that unblinking cyclops over there with the staring red laser fixated on me. So I hoist my damn can, I paint on the Stepford Wife Smile, and I start again. Mmm-mmm-good.
Two days later
Joyous of joys, we get to watch the footage of our Bean Antics today. When mine comes up for review, I reflexively cringe at the sight of myself. Oh, my God, that hair! I have got to get it permed again. It just hangs there, limp and dull.
The ends are still that hideous dark brown from that nightmare of a dye-job for Twelfth Night last year. Stupid Professor Linnell used permanent black when I was the only dancer who insisted on semi-permanent. What does she care? She got what she wanted out of me, and now I'm the one who has to live with it.
I think I didn't get it cut short enough last week. Maybe I should whack it off into the bob I had in eleventh grade so I'll be back down to my natural color. At least I know that haircut looks good on me. But dammit, I'd been so happy to have it long for the first time in my life. I don’t want to cut it all off again. I just want my old hair back. And someone else’s eyes.
I hate my eyes. Squinty, narrow little slits. And that posture? All I can feel are Mom’s thumbnails gouging into my shoulder blades as she jerks my shoulders back, but she's right. It is truly hideous as I sit on that stool wishing everybody would stop staring at me.
The moment I hear myself speak the bean-script, I want to race from the classroom. I have always despised the sound of my voice. It’s too low. Too harsh. What are you, a boy? Lesbo. Dyke!
Oh, just shut up! All of you! And that monstrosity on the screen. Somebody put a cork in that mouth, GAWD! My spine shudders at every saccharine word that oozes from her mouth. I want to slap her.
You’re so stupid.
Are you a reeee-tard?
You gonna cry now?
Just shut the fuck up!
I can’t even hear myself reciting the bean-script over the echoes of The Pack circling around me, snarling, ravening, on the verge of leaping to rip my throat out. I kinda wish somebody would. It would stop me from fucking speaking on that screen.
As it is, Denise does that when she opens the door and--
And it all crashes down like that mirror in the bathroom. Shards of myself. Breaking on the porcelain sink.
What I watch on that screen is…
There I am, touting my beans like a good little actress-in-the-making. Then that door opens and there's no more bean-lover. All that’s left on that stool is…
When Denise accidentally barged in, Professor Fulton and his TA laughed it off. So did the people out in the hallway who saw it happen. I laughed, too.
No. Laughing noises issued from my throat as invisible coat hangers lifted the corners of my mouth upward. But my eyes?
That smile didn’t make it anywhere near them. They were just…dead.
Like that day last spring when I stared at my reflection in the mirror of my dorm room closet. Is that what everybody sees all the time? That thing with the skeletal cheekbones and the sallow skin that I glimpsed that day? I had thought it was just the shadows of the fading daylight making me look so gaunt and spectral.
Well, in Film & Video class the other day, I sat on that stool under the blaze of two lights with full makeup on. There were no shadows on my face. Nope, all the shadows came from inside me, and I do not have the foggiest idea what to do about that.
Dancing with Shadow & Light
Me and Stephan 1992
Later that night
Stephan sits across from me, elbows on knees, eyebrows furrowed as he listens to me explain my dilemma.
“It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen!” I spew, although it’s not. Okay, so maybe I do have enough drama-queen in me to be a proper theater major. “We watched our commercial takes from Film & Video today. I had to advertise a can of beans.” I demonstrate the classic position, pretending to hold up my most-fabulous-est-can-ever near my ear while painting the syrupy smile onto my face.
He’s a senior so he knows, and nods, grinning.
But then I try to explain to him what happened when Denise walked in. I try to describe that brittle doll-mask and the way it fractured and fell, shattering across the classroom floor. I try to describe what I saw in the glassy, empty skull-eyes that remained. No wonder Martin dumped me. I've always been ugly but that was just...
“It’s branded into my mind,” I say over the tops of my knees. I have them drawn up to my chin as I hunch on my bed. “It’s this hideous image, and it was me.”
Stephan doesn’t reply, just gives a little tic of his brows.
My head shakes in bafflement. “Well, after Denise left and we started up again, when we did the retake, all I could see anymore was the mask. All I could hear was this fake falsetto. I don’t even know whose voice that is! I used to be this grand actress. They cast me in the lead for everything I did, except my last show, and the directors both apologized that they couldn’t do so again because all the parents threw a conniption since I was technically from another school.” I sigh in annoyance as my hand swats away any more details than that. Unnecessary. “With me in the lead, we always placed in One-Act, just behind Marshall--who ever beats Marshall? Well, we did. And then when I came here, I totally got cast in everything I auditioned for last year. My classes started out great, but now... I just don’t understand it. I have become a horrible actress!”
Stephan pats one of my knees. “I’m sure it wasn’t as bad as you think. We all hate seeing ourselves on camera at first.”
“No, it’s not just that. I’ve seen myself dance and cheer and sing and I’ve seen the videos of my plays for years. I've heard recordings of my voice. I know what you’re talking about, and yes, we all hate it. But this was something else. I don’t even know who that was up there. Everything I did…every word, every gesture, every smile…it was all just…” My face screws up as the memory sours my guts again. “Fake. I don’t get it. All I do, all day long, every fucking day is act!” Donning the vacuous head-tilt, I position my hands around my face as though it's a can of beans, label faced out. I pump the doll-eyes, along with the syrupy voice. “I put on whichever face is appropriate for whichever situation I’m in, each one hand-picked and unique to its audience. I’ve got quite the versatile range I’m required to portray. Which one would you prefer today?" My snarl slices off the crap. "So why the hell can’t I do this anymore?”
My bull-snort of a sigh finally clams up my monologue long enough so I can heave in a few full breaths. Long enough for Stephan to consider my words and formulate his own. Only in my silence do I realize how desperately I need him to answer that question in earnest. Because if I can't do this anymore, if I can't act...
What will I do? Where will I go? Who will I be? This is all I've ever wanted to do for as long as I have memory.
Stephan's fingers lace together between his knees and he leans even closer to speak words that are destined to become branded into my mind more deeply than the image of my cracking, crumbling bean-facade.
“Acting isn’t about putting on a mask,” he explains. “It’s about reaching down into yourself for the real emotion. It’s about revealing the truth of the person you are inside. You feel down into the way that you--YOU--would feel in that moment.”
I gulp hard at how deeply his gaze penetrates into mine. I long to look away.
But I don’t.
My chest lets off a little tremor at the sensation of letting him look in there. Letting him see me. Just me and how I feel in this moment. Lost. Hopeless. Enraged and terrified of everything and I can't figure out why.
He goes on. “As you're memorizing the lines, you ask yourself--if you had lived that character’s life, if you had been born with that character’s traits and then you were put into that situation of your scene--how would you genuinely react in each moment? What would cause you to make the decision that person makes? What would you authentically feel and think in that moment? How would you express that through this person’s scripted words if they were yours?”
My lips clamp tightly over my teeth. My eyes are huge.
“Acting isn’t about pretending," he says. "Acting isn’t anything remotely fake. Acting--good acting…powerful acting…the kind of acting that truly touches people..."
My ribcage caves in a little.
The kind of acting that made me want to be an actress.
"It’s about revealing your most intimate and vulnerable self right there on that stage for everyone to see.”
And here it comes.
The long whistle...
The shuddering BOOM of the bomb.
The soul-shaking, world-rupturing shock waves...
I force my breathing to remain sedate and steady. A thousand renditions of “Nu-UH!” race and roar inside me. They'd really like to race up and wipe away that blast crater he's just blown into my nice, neat bullshit of why acting isn't working for me anymore.
But I can't negate him. My guts resonate with everything he’s saying. I know he’s right.
And that means I am completely and thoroughly fucked, because the last thing I am willing to dredge up is my “most intimate and vulnerable self” for the world to see. The last thing I’m willing to express, even through somebody else’s words, is how I authentically think and feel.
Nobody wants to hear that shit. Nobody wants to get any of that on them. Nobody likes what I have to say when I speak my most authentic mind, and nobody likes it when I reveal who I truly am.
That gets me ousted. It gets my desk dragged up to the front of the room and it gets my stuff hauled up to the front of the bus away from everybody else. It gets me slammed into a wooden post with a hand crushing my throat. It’s what earned me my one and only punishment of getting sent out into the hall--because I spoke my truth and refused to give in. It's why Martin dumped me for a sweeter, nicer "good girl" who doesn't roar and rage and swear and have sex with him before marriage. It's what gets me yelled at and grounded and it gets my tailbone kicked when I so much as dare to let it show in my eyes.
Don’t you look at me that way!
Sluts have to sit at the front of the bus.
You don’t deserve my love when you’re like this.
You’re a fucking bitch!
In Voice & Movement class, it was never the movement that was the problem. It was always the voice. Way back in second grade, I clamped that lock onto the door of my throat for my own damn good. Now the padlock has been replaced by an intricate, 12-system locking mechanism, and it’s not going anywhere.
My arms wrap more tightly around my knees. My chin plops down upon them and I have no doubt my bottom lip would rival any drama-queen’s. I am distraught. I require a snowbank in which to throw myself as my gaze burns holes into the skin of Stephan's left knee that shows through the frayed slash in his jeans. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that smoke is billowing out my ears because I am going to have to drop my theater major, and I have no idea what I will do with my life instead.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE --UP NEXT: FINDING FAITH - In A Box of Old, Important Things --OR: If you missed what happened next in the chronological order, I've already detailed how my discovery of belly dance a few weeks later pulled me out of this funk and changed the trajectory of my entire life. --OR: if you missed my pre-collegiate days on the stage, why I was convinced that I was ugly, and why I put a lock on my self-expression at such a young age, you can find all that on THE ISLAND OF MISFIT TOYS.
--OR: how I started using movement instead of words to EXPRESS MYSELF.
--THE NAVIGATION TABLE OF CONTENTS
SOME RESOURCES IF YOU'RE DROWNING LIKE I WAS
--National Suicide Prevention Lifeline - I've had to call these people. They were great with me and hunted down trauma resources I never could have found on my own.
--The Body Keeps the Score - an amazing book that explains why antidepressants and talk therapy have done diddly squat for me, and sometimes even compounded the damage.
--EMDR - the trauma therapy that does work for me
--The difference between PTSD and Complex-PTDS
--A rabbit hole about surviving toxic relationships--this one is specifically about Narcissism, but the information works for a host of conscienceless predatory types.