I have a fortune cookie fortune on my laptop to remind me of something that I need to hear now and again.
“Be a first rate version of yourself, not a second rate version of someone else.”
I remember when I was younger, I wanted to be someone, anyone, other than the person that I was. I hated myself, and I couldn’t think of anything more unsatisfying, more boring, more unlikable than me. So I used to daydream about being anyone else. Sometimes it was a superhero – wouldn’t it be neat if I had powers? Sometimes it was a celebrity – who wouldn’t want a fan base? Sometimes it was someone with an interesting profession – I think we’ve all daydreamed about being something like an astronaut. Sometimes it was just some random person who had what I thought was a better life than me. When I would sing along to songs that I liked, I would always try to get my voice to match the singer’s. I never sang in my own voice, because I didn’t think anyone would want to hear it.
When I experienced the breakup of my first really serious relationship, I found myself looking for a whole new friend base, since I was basically starting over socially. (Long story, for another time, perhaps.) I decided to try my hand at improv comedy with a troupe in town, and so I entered their training program. Improv is hard, and I never made it to the performing troupe. However, while I was training one of my trainers told me that he was looking for people to come audition for a musical he was directing a few towns over. I figured sure, I’d go support the guy, especially since he said he was shy on male auditions. I figured I would join the chorus, fake my way through singing, and no one would ever hear from me again. Turns out that I was cast in a supporting role, with one song that I would be singing lead on. I was very nervous, but there was a voice coach who was there to help us hone our voices, so I’d have some training and hopefully wouldn’t suck.
We were a month into rehearsals. I’d already memorized my lines and my one song, when the director came to me with a problem. One of the other members of the cast had skipped too many rehearsals for them to feel comfortable with continuing with him in the role, and I was asked to step in and take his place. My desire to please people won out over my complete fear of my own voice and I said yes. The new role was the second male lead, who led most of the full cast songs and had a couple of duets, plus a few solo songs as well. I was terrified but was determined to make the most of it.
Time went on and the director and choral director really worked hard with me to refine my lines and my voice in time. I’d invited my parents to rehearsals – I was 23 at the time – but they said that they wanted to hold out for opening night. Rehearsals eventually moved from the little log cabin that the theater usually performed at to the local college’s main auditorium, which held just shy of 1100 people at full capacity. We started into dress rehearsals, and that’s when I got my first case of pink eye (the men started out sharing makeup until the infection hit several of the men in the cast, after which we were instructed to purchase our own makeup for our own personal use). At some point in the process the choral director got laryngitis and had to direct us by using a metal clicker for the better part of a week. In the movie Shakespeare in Love Geoffrey Rush’s character Philip Henslowe is often presented with a situation of great adversity, and somehow always gets asked how everything is going to work out in time for the opening. His response, which is something of a running gag in the movie, is always “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.” Speaking from my experience, that’s pretty much par for the course in theater.
Things managed to mysteriously work themselves out by opening night, and my parents were seated in the half-full auditorium when the opening number started. Each of the major characters had at least a solo verse in the song, and usually would come from offstage to center stage, sing their bit, and then head offstage again, as if they were passing through the townspeople. Mine was about halfway through the song, and when I started singing it was apparent that my voice had been very well trained indeed. I was considerably louder than the rest of the cast that had proceeded me, and my father – who didn’t really believe I could sing – responded with the best critique I got in the entire run of the musical: “Well, I’ll be a sonofabitch.” I was using my own singing voice, although I was affecting a deep Southern accent, but it was clear, it was strong, and it was good.
We finished the run and I went back to concentrating on becoming an improv comedian. I was over at the director’s place one afternoon playing games when he got a call. A few minutes later, he passed the phone over to me. I was mystified. Why would someone calling him want to talk to me? It turned out to be the head of the theater, and he wanted to tell me that my performance had been nominated for Best Actor for the theater’s season. I was beside myself – I couldn’t believe that my performance was good enough to be considered for such an honor. I excitedly called Mom and Dad to tell them the news and together, we made plans to attend the awards ceremony.
The night of the ceremony came and they eventually got to my category. I was prepared to cheer on the winner as he went to the stage to accept his award. They read the nominees’ names and I think I blushed when they got to me. They opened the envelope … and read my name.
I was completely stunned. I didn’t even know what to do. Fortunately the ceremony was laid back enough for them to skip acceptance speeches, because I wouldn’t have had a clue what to say. (I imagine it would have gone the way young Anna Paquin’s Oscar acceptance speech went, which was – in its entirety – “I’d like … to thank … the Academy” before hurriedly rushing off stage.) I returned to my seat with my award in hand, something that I still proudly display to this day.
And that is the story of how I became an award-winning actor.
There’s a little side note to this. Theaters that present Tony-eligible productions must seat at least 500 people. Were the performance in Manhattan, in the same auditorium, it would have made the cut for the Tonys.
But this story is about that fortune I quoted at the top of the post. That experience at the theater is when I learned for the first time that being a first rate version of myself is usually much more rewarding than trying to be a second rate version of someone else. From that day forward whenever I sang in the car along with the radio or the tape deck or CD player, I sang in my own voice. I eventually started doing karaoke, and while I was doing that my performances were usually very well received.
It hasn’t always worked for me – sometimes I persisted in trying to be someone else, but eventually the daydreams about being someone else stopped. To be fair, to this day I still occasionally let my mind wander off to me being in a different life circumstance – holding a different job than I’ve held in the past, suddenly coming into money, that sort of thing – but it’s always ME at the center of that, not me trying to be anyone else.
And honestly, throughout all the trials and tribulations and troubles that my mental illnesses have given me, I’m pretty okay with being myself these days. I wish my circumstances were slightly different, but I’m working on changing them, slowly but surely. One of these days those circumstances will come to fruition, and my life will be improved by them. Until then, I’m fairly content being who I am – a first rate version of myself, rather than a second rate version of someone else.