My earliest acting memory is from the third grade. My class was putting on Really Rosie, a lovely musical with book by Maurice Sendak of Where The Wild Things Are fame and music by powerhouse singer/songwriter Carole King. The show is a series of character sketches of a bunch of crazy kids who live in a neighborhood in Brooklyn and hang out with each other on their stoops. I had the great privilege of being selected to play Pierre, a no-goodnik kind of kid who proclaims, "I don't care," in response to anything anybody ever says to him. I went to a tiny Charter school at the time. There were about 11 kids in my grade level, so it wasn't exactly so prestigious to be chosen for the role. Prestige be damned; it was a concept unimportant to third-grade Jenni. I was thrilled because I thought Pierre was the best character in the whole play. A villain! What a meaty role! Good little girl that I was, I was excited to play my polar opposite.
When rehearsals began, the mom directing the show met with each of us individually to go over our songs. The first lines of Pierre's song say, "There once was a boy named Pierre / Who only would say, 'I don't care.' / Read his story, my friends, for you'll find in the end / That a suitable moral lies there!" As we were going over the song, the director made a suggestion. Since I was a little girl, maybe it would make more sense to change Pierre to Claire. She sang, "There once was a girl named Claire / Who only would say 'I don't care.'"
Immediately I wasn't a fan of the change. Even as a third grader, I could tell that "Claire" just didn't fit the music like "Pierre" did! I protested, and insisted that I wanted to play Pierre, not Claire. It didn't matter that I was a girl; we were just acting, anyway, and that's what Maurice Sendak wrote! Pierre sounded better and would be more fun! The mom/director was fine with that (I think she was more concerned that I might've been offended for being cast in a boy's role). I went on to play Pierre with gusto, and I fell in love with performing in the process. I regularly pretended to be characters I dreamed up in my head in the company of friends, but this was the first time that I discovered the magic of pretending in front of other people. It felt fundamentally correct and it hooked me.
I continued participating in my little Charter school's productions throughout the rest of elementary and middle school, but when the time came to transition to my community's large public high school I was very nervous. The grade levels had around 500 students apiece, which felt like a massive seismic shift from my little Charter cocoon. Luckily, my freshman English teacher was also the head of my high school's Drama department. Early on in the school year, Mr. Craig gave an assignment to memorize a monologue from a Shakespearean text. Eager student that I was, I was excited at the prospect of getting an A for an assignment that I felt sure I would excel in. What I got was even better than high marks: When I performed my monologue for Mr. Craig, he was impressed with my acting ability and encouraged me to audition for the upcoming school play! I was over the moon. For the first time, I was getting praise for this thing that I loved from an authority figure other than my parents or my tiny insular community. The affirmation felt incredible, and I went on to act in a bunch of productions that Mr. Craig directed. His recognition of my talent was deeply impactful (and I still think back on it to this day when I'm feeling insecure).
The first taste of rejection in the context of acting was bitter, of course. In my junior year, my high school was set to put on Guys and Dolls, one of my favorite musicals of all time. I grew up on the 1955 film version, crushing hard on Marlon Brando as my sister and I would watch our VHS tape copy over and over again.
The best female role in Guys and Dolls is Miss Adelaide, Frank Sinatra's love interest in the movie, played by bombshell Vivian Blaine. She is the hilarious and sexy ring leader of the Hot Box Girls, a showgirl nightclub act with some fantastic numbers throughout the play. I wanted to be Miss Adelaide so bad. I was anything but the bombshell type; I was a little chubby, a little awkward, but completely certain that I could embody the role. Unlike my Pierre days, though, the drama department was not casting against type. The musical was being directed by one of the mothers of another junior girl who was active in the drama department, and she cast a tiny, beautiful senior girl in the role of Miss Adelaide. To add insult to injury, that particular senior girl was the object of affection of the boy I had a crush on at the time; he would constantly gush about her hotness, to my deep dismay. I didn't even get the other main female role, Sarah, the prude and dowdy missionary; that role went to the director's daughter. No, I was cast as a nameless member of the missionary marching band. Outrage! The indignity! How very dare they! Taking deep offense to this slight, I decided not to participate in the show at all. Academic achievement had taken center stage in my world anyway, so I gave the explanation that I had to focus on my BC Calculus and AP English homework. I couldn't sacrifice the time when I had much more important things to do.
Academic perfection was the "real" work; artistic stuff was just fluff. Who wants to be a starving artist anyway? Shouldn't I get a real job when I become an adult? Besides, all the rejection...who needs that abuse? Even if you reach the height of fame and fortune, the world will watch you fall and make an E! True Hollywood Story about it afterwards. The negative cultural messages about becoming an artist were clear and getting clearer as I finished high school and transitioned into college. I didn't even consider conservatory programs because I didn't see them as a "real" education. Even as I continually took Theatre courses in college, I resisted declaring Theatre as my major until I absolutely had to because of Barnard's deadline. Even then, I considered it to be a default choice because Theatre courses were the only content area that I had taken every single semester of my time at college. I didn't have enough credits in any other content area to be able to finish a major in the four years without devoting all of my time to it, and then I wouldn't have enough room in my schedule for Theatre classes!
Again, the affirmations and rejections from outside authority figures loom large in my mind when I think of my college years. Another memory that I hang my hat on when I feel insecure is from after the auditions for the Fall semester Theatre classes my sophomore year. The auditions were always held in Barnard's theater, with all professors and other auditionees in the audience. This was always intimidating, and the Fall audition in my first year of school was a disaster; I forgot my monologue in front of everyone in the packed theater and stupidly apologized instead of just starting up again. For some reason I subjected myself to the auditions again the following year, and that time I felt great about my performance. After auditions were over, one of the professors I revered from afar who taught acting at Juilliard as well approached me, ME, out of all the crowd of students filing out of the theater, and said, "Your performance---that was acting." Wow. And I thought, well, maybe I'm good if she thinks I'm good! But that pride and confidence did not come from within. It was completely contingent on outside praise.
The incessant messages about the hardship that artists endure continued through college, and often came directly from my Theatre professors. Several of them would comment that being an actor is incredibly difficult, and if you could possibly imagine being able to be in any other career on the face of the Earth, you should pick that one instead of acting. There wasn't much practical advice about what the day to day life of a professional actor actually looked like, though. Meanwhile, I auditioned for a few student-run productions early on in my college career and didn't make the cut, so I quit auditioning for student-run projects all together. I told myself, "I don't ever get cast in student productions," because of a few unsuccessful attempts. I wish I had taken the lesson that auditioning and not getting roles is simply part of the process. Instead, I internalized the idea, "I only get cast in the Theatre department's productions. I am good at school; I am not good at things that aren't directly a part of school."
The intrinsic connection to performing that I had discovered in my Pierre days had completely fogged over with the need for approval from forces outside of myself. Instead of taking refuge in the knowledge that acting and performance were a fundamental part of me (and who gives a shit what anyone else has to say about it), I started to tell myself that I couldn't possibly be an actor because I couldn't take the rejection and I hated auditioning (even though I had barely experienced much of either). By the time I graduated from college, I had given up before even beginning. I decided the smart thing to do would be to focus on my singing/songwriting if I did any creative thing at all, because at least I could do that without having to audition for the approval of a director. But even in that context, praise and approval from outside were paramount in my mind and I began to lose the love I had for music, too. Rilo Kiley lyrics come to mind: "Get a real job / Keep the wind at your back and the sun on your face. / All the immediate unknowns / Are better then knowing this tired and lonely fate." So I got a real job.
Luckily over a few years of living the wrong life I maintained relationships with people I knew from the Pierre days, who saw my misery and questioned it; who challenged these negative notions about being an artist that I built in my mind over the course of years. I have written about the path back to the things I care about and deprogramming that misery again and again and again, and the process continues. The person who introduced me to The Artist's Way, the book that spurred my return to creativity, was actually a co-star in Really Rosie. Every day I try to take a small step toward a life that that little girl named Pierre would be proud of.
Looking back on the Pierre days, I'm realizing that his story is an allegory for this process of deprogramming negative messages we've internalized and returning to the things we care about. In the final verse of Pierre's song, his surly attitude leads to him being eaten by a lion (the lion tells Pierre he's going to eat him, and Pierre says, "I don't care."). Pierre's parents find the lion, realize Pierre is inside, rush him to the hospital, and the doctor turns the lion upside down and shakes him. Pierre tumbles out, and his brush with death transforms his attitude. "He rubbed his eyes and scratched his head / And laughed because he wasn't dead." The last line of the song? "The moral of Pierre is: CARE!"