Monday, October 3, 2016

Hiatus

I talk to my mom for about the same amount of time (and frequency) that I would like to be going to the gym every week. This is because I love the shit out of my mom and I've become rather complacent about lifting weights for the sake of looking sexy for strangers. Since moving out on my own, our relationship has moved beyond the Norman Rockwell ceramic plate titled "Mother & Son" and graduated into an actual friendship where we can be there for each other, talk about our insecurities, our evolution, our nightmares and that heavenly 3 ingredient peanut butter fudge recipe which validates my mother's recent obsession with minimal ingredient recipes.

A few weeks ago, while I was in rehearsal for Shakespeare in the Ruff's Romeo + Juliet I took my dinner break to sit at Timothy's in the Danforth, draw, eat a carrot muffin and talk with her.
                                


Earlier that day, I'd experienced an overwhelming surge of not wanting to act anymore after my contract ended. I know this feeling had nothing to do with the production, as it was truly one of the best theatrical experiences I've ever had, but being part of that show forced me to look more critically at my position in life; who I am and what the motivations are behind my choices. Suddenly the passion I once had to act drained from me like blood from George C. Scott's face in A Christmas Carol when he sees Frank Finlay. Suddenly, I questioned: What am I trying to achieve? Who am I doing all of this for? 
***

My last post, over a year ago, had me declaring that I was "GOING PRO" which, as a reader had keenly pointed out, is a term from Steven Pressfield's incredibly motivating book The War of Art. A good friend had recommended this little gem to me during an All-You-Can-Eat sushi session. At which, of course, I ordered more than I could actually eat and ended up rolling my ill-chosen plate of mushroom rolls into a ball and, with enough stealth to give Evelyn Salt a run for her money, flushed them down the toilet.

Later that day, my friend sent me the PDF version of the book, which I zipped through at the rate of a 9-year-old brushing their teeth, and decided to follow Steven's advice by taking control of my destiny, which at the time translated to: DO AS MANY THINGS AS POSSIBLE. I began asking everyone, friends, strangers and the occasional pedestrian, to collaborate. I was submitting myself for anything I could get my hands on in an attempt to prove that I was not going to remain stagnant, I was determined to, at least on paper, look busy and productive and not rest on my laurels (i.e. Olympus).

If my life was an episode of Sesame Street, the word of the those delusional few months would've been: A-C-C-U-M-U-L-A-T-I-O-N.

In hindsight, which was very obvious to everyone but me at the time, the issue with accumulating for accumulation's sake is that instead of adding meaning to one's life, it simply adds stress. Unaware of how detrimental this would actual be to all of the projects I had so ambitiously taken on, I white-knuckled my way through in the hopes that something would pay off and make it all worth while. 

Looking back, I think, deep down, I just wanted the title on my resume, the Facebook post, the Instagram photo, not the actual experience, which is ironic considering that I'd articulated in my previous post that no one cares about what's on one's resume or social media feeds (unless you're a celebrity or a politician, but even they still beg the question), yet here I was, taking on more than I needed to in an attempt to impress them


After countless emotional breaks during this period, which I like to call The Insanity Months, (I also like to picture this phrase in the same SpongeBob meme as above) the final and biggest break, the largest needle associated with a camels back, if you will, happened during the opening performance of my solo show, LIONESS

Rewind: One day, when I was coming back from the gym, I ran into someone I deeply respect as both a creator and peer, we spoke about how each other were keeping up and they asked me, "Whatever happened to LIONESS?". I confessed that I'd continued to write material for the character since performing the show at the Solo-icious Festival in 2013 but hadn't really thought about doing anything else with it. They suggested I should because they loved it. 

I felt like Sally Field at the 1984 Academy Awards. 

Fast forward: After speaking with my Mom and a few friends, who equally loved the show (they'd seen it in Halifax 3 years earlier), I planned a 4-date tour in early 2016 for LIONESS: The Extended Version. Part of me taking this on was to prove to myself that I could write and perform an hour long solo piece, this idea scared the crap out of me, so obviously I had no choice but to do it. I also thought, "What a great way to showcase my progress to the communities that supported me as a young performer." 

Vain, vapid, and curiously motivated. 

So, amid all the chaos that my life had become; rehearsing for my first theatre gig in Toronto, finishing a leadership program, writing a short film, producing two short films, dramaturging a feature, acting in a feature, all while working my 3 Joe-jobs, I decided I was going to spend the remaining few hours of each day writing my first full-length solo show. 

Obviously overwhelmed, I completely neglected working on it until about a month and half before I was scheduled to open (ie. When terror kicked in). My life at this point became a sports movie montage, racing against the clock. I cried, I screamed, I rarely ate, I was in a constant state of dehydration, I yelled at my cats for sleeping, I consulted anyone who would listen, and took many late night walks along the boardwalk where I spoke to myself like I was featured on an episode of Toddlers and Tiaras. All I was missing was Eye of the Tiger consistently playing in the background; I had become a writer. I wanted this show to be my Viola Davis' snot scene in Doubt and I was determined to make it happen. 

About a week before I left for Nova Scotia, I was at a birthday dinner for a little girl I occasionally babysit and spoke with a performer I admire who was also in attendance. They asked me how things were going and I jabbered on about my upcoming solo show, which I had so diligently been writing. They responded with an anecdote about their first solo show where they walked off stage because their nerves got the best of them and their director had to come back stage and drag them out, kicking and screaming, to finish the show. I listened, looking like that smirking emoji, arrogantly thinking, "That would never happen to me." 

Oh, how wrong I was. 

LIONESS opened at the Marigold Cultural Centre in Truro, Nova Scotia, on January 15th, 2016. I had flown in 5 days prior, thinking that this would be an adequate amount of time to get on my feet and block the piece. Now, this would have been more than enough time if I knew the lines and had a director, both of which I didn't, because in my new found role as a writer I had completely forgotten that I had to perform the damn thing.

Maria

So, for the first 3 days I sat in an empty theatre trying to drill the lines and create new blocking for myself derived from my initial 15-minute version. To put it mildly, it didn't go very well. I left the theatre that day praying for a miracle. That miracle came, in the form of recent friend of mine, to whom I am eternally grateful, who was coincidentally in Halifax at the time. They offered to drive up and provide an outside eye for me in the 48 hours I had leading up to opening. 

The next two days were like the water pump scene from The Miracle Worker, my friend, Anne Bancroft and I, Patty Duke.

Jump to: 15 minutes to curtain I started to have a panic attack. I suddenly realized how much I'd taken on and unlike the aforementioned mushroom rolls; I couldn't just flush this moment down the toilet. Despite my friends' reassurance, I became manic and asked for my mom to be retrieved. She came in and I immediately started crying. My mom, the mom she is, preceded to talk me down from a ledge, reminding me that this was not Wayne's show. This was Maria's, and I needed to get out of the way and let her tell the story that she'd been waiting to tell for the last 3 years.

We walked the perimeter of the stage, both wearing leopard print, holding hands, making space for Maria to enter the room. After a few laps, I got myself under control and went back stage, my mother began guiding people in, and suddenly I had a surge of energy, similar to that of my cats after they’ve been sleeping all day, and was ready to jump in. 

The music started, the lights went up, and it began...

Everything was going seamlessly, I manipulated my nerves into the frantic energy I needed to start the show and after that first burst of laughter, I let the orgasmic feeling of ease wash over me. 

They were here with me. 

Then about 10 minutes in, I dried. I lost my line. I couldn't remember what came next. I stood there in the silence, my mind suddenly a giant Rolodex that I was riffling through at light speed, with an eternity passing before my eyes. 

I looked to my friend who was in the wings; they were trying to mouth the next line to me. I couldn't see them. They began to generously write it on a piece of paper but the lights continued to obscure my view. The room was dead silent, waiting for me to speak. 

I just sat there, deep in the shit. No escape, my terror building by each lethargic second. I looked down at my mom, who was in the front row, mouthing the words, “Breathe” to me. I looked back up. The lights shining in my face, their warmth, once a comfort, became my tomb. This was, without a doubt, the closest to death I'd ever experienced.  

My emotions finally boiling over, I looked back down at my mother, tears welling, and uttered a pitiful, "Mom..." 

She stood up quickly and pointed me offstage. 

I hurriedly exited the desk, once thought to be my coffin, and ran back stage, doing what I had arrogantly told myself I wouldn’t do. As soon as I broke the curtains I collapsed on the ground and began to sob, flanked by my friend, who at this point I was sure regretted their decision to help me, and my coach of a mom. 

I left my body, like a cartoon character squashed by an anvil, and seeing myself there on the ground remembered the viral video of Tyra Banks yelling at Tiffany, one of the Cycle 4 contestants on America's Next Top Model.

Upon first viewing, I admittedly paid more attention to the reactions of the other girls in the video than what Tyra was actually saying, the entertainment value rivalling that of a terrible car crash. Not far off from what was currently happening in my life.

You see, I'd recently re-watched the video while researching for LIONESS, but in this moment, looking down at myself, I finally made sense of what Tyra was saying. 


As an actor, I'd been Tiffany for quite a while now; I'd become disillusioned by my achievements and felt when it came to performance, I had the cat in the bag. Over the years I'd started to rely on the concept that everything would come together when the lights went up and ultimately stopped putting the work in where it was needed. I realized that I'd been coasting on my abilities to "turn it on" in the moment, but that was becoming more and more unreliable, especially now.

As I re-entered my emotion-ridden body, my mother knelt next to me and told me that I'd come too far to give up; Maria had a story to tell, and I was being selfish by robbing her of that chance. She told me to get over myself and whatever ego driven blockade was stopping me from going out there and finishing the show like a pro. She also reminded me that the whole point of coming home to perform was that these people were here to support me, no matter what I did. She then wiped my mascara with a smile and headed back out across the stage to her seat, accompanied with uproarious applause. 

My friend, privy to all this, graciously offered to be on book for the rest of the show. I obliged and with my ideal performance now demolished, Maria was able to take centre stage. She walked out and confidently sat at the desk. Looking out at the audience she thanked them for their patience, apologized for the muck up (classy as ever) and informed them that things would be a little rough as this was the first time she was telling this story. She felt it was more important for them to hear, rather then it be perfect and polished.

Met with applause, her show began.

Maria fought to keep her words alive and each time she had to call line her energy surged. It was the most cathartic work I’ve ever done, raw, and real and openly honest. I've never cried so hard as I did at the end of that performance. Walking out into the lobby as Wayne and meeting each an every person who generously paid to watch me work, to watch me take responsibility for myself, humbled me.

Flying out of Nova Scotia, having finished my rather rocky tour, I remembered this quote of Tom Hardy's: "Surviving is one thing. You can get through, you can white-knuckle. You can do the bare minimum. But there comes a time where life stops rewarding potential. If you want to participate at a certain level in anything, you cannot just turn up and be respected." A few days ago, I had done just that; white knuckled and survived, but I swore to myself that it would never happen again. 

Upon returning to Toronto, I was met with an overwhelming surge of regret from those who wished they could have seen LIONESS. I appreciated the support, but felt some major PTSD surrounding the idea of mounting it again. I decided that it was best to put the show away for a few months.

Then, while decompressing with my friend who had helped me in Nova Scotia, they acknowledged that as scary as it was, there’d be a major benefit to performing the show under better conditions and suggested I mount another performance, here in Toronto. After much humming and haaa-ing I decided I would give it another go, as a one-night-only workshop presentation, and brought them on as the director.


There was one day in rehearsal where I found myself unable to focus. I had become so preoccupied with the challenge that I’d given myself; the ultimate fourth wall (speaking to 2 invisible characters for the duration of the piece, unable to interact with the audience), and kept plying my director with the question “Why did I do this to myself?” To which they answered, “I don’t know, but you did.”

A few days later we invited one of our mutual friends, a fellow creator and incredible writer, to come watch a rehearsal run and provide some structural feedback. It was great to have them there, and afterwards I asked, “Did you like it?” to which they responded, “Yeah, it’s great, but it doesn’t really matter if I like it. Do you like it?” This answer bothered me because the idea of creating for oneself, at the time, seemed so self-serving. I argued that the whole reason I was doing the show was for the audience, because people loved Maria and I wanted to give them something they enjoyed.

The day of the show, I woke up with a Christmas morning level of excitement. I walked the very same boardwalk where 6 months earlier I cried and pep talked myself into finishing the script that I could now confidently run the lines of. I felt the effects of being able to give each aspect of this performance its time and was stoked for the incredible night that lay ahead. My director picked me up that afternoon and amid the traffic we sang along to One Dance by Drake and concluded that this excitement, this anticipation, was surely the reason why we do what we do.

That night, we played to an oversold house, quite a feat in the middle of the Toronto Fringe Festival. Despite a few minor hiccups, as well as it being both an opening and closing night performance, I don’t think it could've gone better. I was Maria that night, and I'll never forget it. 

While out for congratulatory drinks with friends, amid my Mill Street Organic and a basket of Dirty Chips, this strange calmness came over me; things felt complete, but the moment of revelation was missing. It felt similar to when I had sex for the first time, it was fun and cool and I felt like I was doing something so grown up, but afterwards, the next day, I felt exactly the same, as if it never happened. A friend of mine asked what was next for the piece, and almost immediately I said, "I don't know. I kind of want to do something completely different." 

I looked over the list of those who'd come and to my surprise most of them had never seen me perform, or heard anything I'd written (in some cases both). This meant that everyone that was there was because of me and my relationship with them, they weren't there because of the content, they were there because they wanted to support me doing something I loved. Despite my intentions of making it for them, the show actually ended up being for me. I had done exactly what set out to do; create a positive experience surrounding the creation and performance of my first solo show. Showcase it to my friends and peers, challenge people's views of me as a creator and performer, and earned the respect of some of those peers whom I admire. 

What more was there to do? 

***

So there I was, talking with my mom, my coloured pencils strewn about, my muffin wrapper crumpled, my right ear warm from my phone, and it dawned on me: I've continued to perform because people tell me I'm good at it, because they like my work. They tell me they do, through their laughter, their tears, their attentive silences. I admit; it feels good to be good at something and have people tell you so.

But after LIONESS this feeling had gotten to a place similar to that of when an older family member tells you your handsome or pretty. It’s a compliment, sure, but it’s not the same as when you see those attributes in yourself.

Then it hit me deeper, I've continued to perform because it provided an immediate connection with my mother; the woman who taught me how to be creative; how to listen, how to draw, how to dream, how to imitate, how to work hard for what I want. I realized that I’ve continued to pursue this life, created specific work, as a way to be closer to her; to take everything she showed me and share it with others.

I told her this and she replied, "Wayne, I don't give a shit what you do. I'm proud of you no matter what. As long as you are happy and healthy, I'm happy." She then confessed to me that she felt the same way about my grandfather when he was alive; she had spent so long trying to make him proud, even though he already was. She didn’t want that for me. I’d heard my mom say this to me my entire life but in this moment, it released me. I felt like I’d just shaved my head and everything was suddenly lighter.


We then took account for all the achievements I’d accumulated in the last few years and acknowledged that I’ve been given more opportunities than most people will in a lifetime. I realized, I didn’t have to prove myself to anyone anymore, I had my mom’s approval and that’s all I ever really needed. 

She then suggested that perhaps my not wanting to act might be my body telling me it was ready to explore something else and I should take the time to find out what that is. I knew that I didn’t want to leave performance forever, but I agreed in that I felt a strong pull to step away from the industry. I wanted to find the most personally authentic place to hustle from.

As my contract with Shakespeare in the Ruff ended I decided that I was going to take until Christmas to explore myself creatively for a concentrated period of time. I’ve since established, what I’m calling, a personal residency for myself. The goal of this residency is to identify my personal values as a creator, as a performer and as a person. This is a time of exploration and recalibration. I’m exhausted with having to define myself by my current projects and how if they aren’t in line with what I took a student loan out for then I’m somehow failing. Right now, I’m interested in learning what makes my heart sing, how I want to optimally express myself and how that correlates to the rest of the world because that's actually what people wanna see, my truth. 

So if you are curious about what I'm up to, I’m entering the unknown and I’ve never been more excited.

My mother sent me this video a few months ago and I cannot think of a better way to end this post. 

She's also decided to start charging me consulting fees.




W.


4 comments:

Thom Burkett said...

Oh this is grand! I'm so happy to hear from you! "Right now, I’m interested in learning what makes my heart sing, how I want to optimally express myself and how that correlates to the rest of the world because that's actually what people wanna see, my truth. "

Maria Samper said...

Wayne -

I've been following your blog since I was 14, when I thought I wanted to pursue acting and found you through the National Theatre School of Canada's website. That was three years ago. Now, I am applying to universities in Canada with hopes of becoming a screenwriter and/or film director. All these prospects and new challenges have been looming over me for the past few weeks, and I must tell you how fortunate I feel to have stumbled back here to read this post. What you discuss here - self-inflicted pressure, the toxic creative drive, wanting to please - are all states I have become unfortunately familiar with recently, and I cannot thank you enough for writing about them. This post has opened my eyes, has shown me I'm not alone in the struggles I have faced in regards to my art. I'm not so afraid anymore. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

You are a wonderful writer, too. I am so pleased to be able to read your work in that area. Should I find myself in Toronto sometime soon, rest assured I will keep my eyes peeled for any of your projects around there.

Best wishes,

(a total stranger named) Maria Samper :)

Wayne Burns said...

Hey Maria,

Thank you so much for reading! I do these posts for myself in the attempt to cobble my thoughts together and mark shifts in my life, but nothing warms my heart more than having a reader benefit from my musings. I hope you will continue to read and keep discovering your authentic voice.

If you ever need anything, let me know.

W.

Thom Burkett said...

Just re-read this - thanks for allowing us to walk and experience the journey with you. :* T