PSYCH OUT: Jessica Waldman
Psych Out is an ongoing series on the topic of fear & creativity.
In response to many of our readers expressing that fear often blocked their creative flow, Seymour asked a variety of entrepreneurs and artists to share their experience in their own words. Discover how they get over anxiety and self-doubt and find the strength to move forward with their projects.
JESSICA WALDMAN is a recent graduate of Stanford University, where she majored in Theatre and French and minored in Creative Writing. She is currently pursuing an acting career in San Francisco, California, where she recently made her debut in a production of Ondine at the Cutting Ball Theatre.
Thank You for Sharing Your Talents With Us
by Jessica Waldman
I moved to San Francisco for a bright and shiny leading role. We had three and a half weeks of rehearsal. We married our bodies to an unconventional stage, we climbed up ladders and slid down slopes, we said the haunting words over and over again until they flowed out of us like waterfalls.
I read for Ondine before moving, when I was still living in Los Angeles with my parents in a post-graduation haze. The play was a new adaptation of the Ondine myth, the story of a water spirit who falls in love with a human. It was modern, poetic, dreamlike. Beautiful and strange. I read the script and knew it was for me. I booked my flights and came up to the city for one day only, just enough time to do my audition and then come straight home. On the plane up, I asked the stranger next to me to be on book while I recited the lines I was asked to prepare. I’d spent weeks memorizing and performing short excerpts for my dog, who always woofed in approval. I curled my hair and did my makeup in the handicap airport bathroom. I changed into a brand-new blue dress at the shopping mall right by the theatre.
A week after the audition, an email came, and it said Yes.
Auditioning, they say, is the actor’s real job. Performing is the grand prize, it’s what you get to do when you’re lucky, it’s the crème de la crème, and it may not happen often.
I am sitting in the grass in a park in Berkeley, an uneaten salad and my backpack beside me. It’s Sunday, a quiet day. Homeless people sleep on benches, stuffed trash bags stowed beneath them. Empty liquor bottles and cigarette butts are strewn about from the previous night’s festivities, or maybe the place doesn’t get cleaned very often. I sit for a long time, trying to enjoy the rays of sun on my shoulders after the 30 minute BART ride underground from San Francisco to Berkeley. I stare at my salad. I am not hungry, but I should eat. I have an audition in an hour.
I am holding it together, but there is a voracious pit of self-doubt gnawing through my core. I have had about six auditions this week: quick ins-and-outs in bland white rooms, bored faces peering over yellow legal pads. Waiting rooms full of people muttering monologues under their breath, filling out audition forms, clutching their headshots in sweaty hands. I size up every single one of them. I judge them on their hairstyles, what they’re wearing, how old they are. I decide whether or not they might be better than I am.
This is the seventh time this week that I have curled my hair and applied fake eyelashes. The seventh time I’ve stapled my headshot to my resume and slipped my black character shoes into my backpack. The seventh time I’ve slipped on a pair of lucky underwear (black lace, for whatever reason, feels lucky) and a carefully selected audition dress. Before I leave my apartment, I always light a candle and make a wish: Please cast me.
It’s not getting old. I am not “over it,” not ready to call it quits.
I will do this for the rest of my life.
But I feel sick from rejection.
Nobody said this would be easy. But I had been so sure that I’d find work. So convinced of my exceptionalism. The voices of proud professors still ringing in my ears: You are going to do wonderful things.
I pull out a compact and powder my face again, in case my ride on BART has left me with oil blotches.
My phone rings. It’s Mom. I hesitate before answering.
“Hey hon, you ready for your audition today?”
“I guess,” I say, picking blades of grass from their roots and pressing them between my fingers.
“You sound kind of down,” she observes. “Is everything ok?”
“Yeah,” I gulp. I should have tried harder to sound happy. “Totally fine.”
I realize I’m on speakerphone when my Dad chimes in, “You gotta be positive, boobear. They can smell the negativity on you. You walk into that room sounding like you do now, you won’t have a shot in hell.”
“Yeah,” Mom chimes in. “You can’t walk into that room sounding like this.”
Christ. I won’t sound like this when I walk into the room. I’m an actor. I will be bright and smiley, exuding youthful energy, my curls bouncing up and down like slinkies. “Hello,” I will say, grinning confidently. “My name is Jessica Waldman and my piece today is Cordelia from King Lear.”
“You don’t have to do this, you know,” Mom says. “There are about a million other things you are capable of doing. So many other ways for you to live your life!”
We have this conversation often. She’s as terrified of the disappointment as I am, if not more. She views this time of my life as a trial period, at the end of which I will realize that I’m not cut out to be an actor, to live an actor’s life. She thinks that in a year or so, I’ll decide that I’ve had quite enough, and do something practical like go to law school or get my teaching credentials.
It’s been almost eight months since I graduated with my undergraduate degree in Theatre. Hundreds of auditions later, I am scared and anxious that the rest of my life will be spent opening rejection emails.
“You’re so emotionally fragile,” Mom says. “Maybe you’re just not cut out for this kind of life.”
I hang up the phone because I can’t have this conversation, not now, not right before reading for a part, in the middle of a park in Berkeley. I get up and walk to the audition. I take off my boots and put on my character shoes. A sip of water. I enter the room, introduce myself, perform my piece.
Three days later, an email: Thank you for sharing your talents with us. Though we aren’t calling you back this time around, we very much enjoyed seeing your work, and wish you all the best with your future projects.
My life as an actor is defined by fear, by uncertainty, by anxiety. The feeling of incompetence. Of never being enough, or right. But when I am onstage — when I am acting — there is no fear at all. I am enough, and I am right.
Of course, the preparation for a performance involves fear. We pray that the show will be finished in time, that the reviewers will say positive things, that the houses will be filled with patrons. We worry about fumbling a line or forgetting a prop or stubbing a toe or sneezing during an important moment. In the moments before the house opens, we stand on a blue island amidst rows of empty black chairs and stretch and hum and grunt, running up and down the slopes, chanting tongue twisters and sitting in yoga poses and wiggling our toes and making funny faces. We feel the tiny butterflies. We tell each other “break a leg.”
But then the blue lights shine down on us and the watery music begins to play and we feel the opposite of fear. We feel like we can do anything. We take off like a bullet train; nothing can stop us, it is too late to do anything now; the show is starting and we are invincible.
Published: April 14th, 2016