Let's have a small conversation about self-worth.

This is not news, what I’m about to say, so if you’re looking for hot takes, keep surfing. But here it is:

In writing and in performing, the artist creates and polishes and practices and presents, with the hope of acceptance and validation. We spend hours behind the scenes, writing and rewriting, choosing music and polishing monologues. Then we present our work—ourselves—to the people who have the power to employ us, publish us, market us, pay us.

And statistically speaking, it often doesn’t work out.

I served on a panel for performers recently, and we spoke to a roomful of kids who’re also interested in performing. One of them asked me how often I get the job, which is a loaded question, but a fair one. So I did some quick, very unscientific math in my head and came up with this: I get a callback about 50% of the time. Of those callbacks, I get the job about 30% of the time. In writing, it’s similar; with regard to full manuscript requests, I’d say it splits the difference. Probably 40% of the time.

This means, on average, that 60% of the time, I get nothing. Nada. Zilch.

For a very long time, I equated that with talent, or lack thereof, thinking that this 60% meant that I was unqualified or untalented or unable to meet some kind of preconceived notion for who I was supposed to be.

But I’ve come to a place of understanding here, that gives me peace and also annoys the heck outta me.

So, so often, it has nothing to do with me. I mean, sure, I have to come in prepared and I have to deliver. So, so often, these choices are made based on variables that are outside of my control and above my pay grade. I believe in the book I’m pitching, the one that’s gotten lots of read requests but no proposals. I believe in the quality of my performance, like in the audition I gave earlier this week. I gave them everything I had and I knew it went well, and still. No callback came.

Does that sting? Of course it does. And yet, the place I’ve reached in this stage of my career (or at least on this particular week) is this: it wasn’t my turn. And that’s okay. It can’t be my turn every time. That’s ludicrous. My style of performance isn’t for every show. My book isn’t for every publisher.

There is no failure here. There is only the gathering of information. The only true failure comes if I actually give up.

And I refuse to do that.

In this brilliant documentary about auditioning—it’s called SHOWING UP and you should definitely watch it if you’re a creative whose works depends on the ‘yeses’ of others—Chris Messina speaks my heart. Watch. Learn. Be the clown, tip your hat, and move on.

Angling

“At sunrise, everything is luminous but not clear” 
― Norman Maclean

At the moment, three shows that I was called back for are in various stages of preparedness, from early rehearsals to beginning their runs. Two of the losses just broke my heart in the regular way, and one callback was the actual worst audition I’ve ever given. (Like, it was months and months ago, and I still cringe any time the memory rears its ugly head.)

This is a funny industry. Faith Prince, veteran Broadway actor and brilliant comedienne, once said, “You know what they call the prize-winning hog the day after county fair? Breakfast.”

Translation: you’re on top of the world one day, all shiny hair + glowing reviews + celebratory champagne, and then the show closes and you’re back stumping for a gig like the next guy. It’s sort of like interviewing for a job, once or twice a month, forever.

It is—in a word—exhausting.

So here I sit, stapling my resume to my headshot and watching some of my dearest friends enjoying the rehearsal process or the press junkets for shows that I got this close to calling mine. If I tried to tell you it wasn’t hard, I’d be all smiles and lies.

I met with a dear friend and fellow actor for coffee last week, and we talked about this, and he said the wisest thing: “I’ve decided that my career is really all about what I do—how hard I work—between the yeses.”

I’ve got a few fishing lines out right now, and a few others already caught, sitting on ice in the cooler next to me. I’ll show them to you soon, but not yet. Not yet. I’m still fishing.

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It breaks your heart, every time you cast out and get a nibble and then reel it in, only to find that some smarter/better/younger fish ran off with your bait. But other fish are waiting, swimming, hungry for a meal. So you worm up, cast again, and sit. And wait.

And while you wait, maybe you close your eyes and feel the breeze and listen to the birds. Maybe you hum a song to yourself, a reminder that the fish isn’t always the goal. Sometimes, it’s your feet dangling in the water. Sometimes it’s the patience of the waiting.

Sometimes it’s just the breeze.

From the way, way back: What I Had Forgotten

The rush of adrenalin from the wanting to try to do a new thing, a scary thing. And the rush of adrenalin when you realize your heart had decided long before your head knew about it.

The terrifying, dizzying dance of nerves during an audition, those moments when you have to prove to the world what you already know you can do. The heart-wrenching realization that, no, really, you’re proving it to yourself all over again, too. Will you forget your lyrics, the ones you practiced a thousand times in the car coming home from the grocery store? Will your excess energy create wobbly, unstable vibrato, or will you push too hard on the high notes and go sharp?

The heart-fluttering email or phone call. The one that says, “You’re in.” The one that says, “You’ve still got it. We saw lots of people, and they were good, but you were the one. We want you.”

The rehearsals and the learning of lines. The inscrutable pencil scritches made in the margins of your script. Blocking your scenes. Forgetting your blocking. The lull in practice when somebody goes up on a line. The ache of the silence when you go up on a line. The jaw-dropping, kidney-punching reality check that you are all dependent on each other, so do your homework. Don’t screw up. 

If you do, though, we’ll hug it out.

The first time you walk the back alleys of downtown to the stage door. Your door. It is still light out, and many folks are clocking out for the day. Not you. Your game face is on. You don’t need to go through the MainStreet entrance, baby, you’re in. You’re one of the players. Back door friends are best, anyway.

The lacing of the costume. The smell of atmosphere-corroding hairspray. The heat—the oppressive heat—of the dressing room lights as you apply your pancake makeup, lipstick, false lashes. The shoes that pinch and are worn at the toes and have just enough give to make sure your point is pretty.

The rituals: Break a leg. Mérde. Thank you, Fifteen. Thank you, Ten.

The wings, so fraught with emotion and tension and nerves. Don’t look at the script, because you know the damn thing, even when you forget you know it. 

The moment, that final moment, before you part the curtain and make your first entrance. You are not yourself anymore, baby. You are other. You have emerged anew.

The crowd watching, waiting, laughing where you’d hoped they would and not laughing where you thought they would. The fear that you will see someone you know and become immobilized with fear at disappointing them, only to realize, once you’re onstage, that now you’re someone else and that audience doesn’t matter. Let the actor backstage worry about that now. You have work to do.

The inevitable screw-ups and missed cues and stories to tell of recovery. The shaking hands and shaking voice, at first. And then the settling, the careful shift into comfort. You’ve got this. You have got this.

After nine years of grading papers and finishing graduate school and wiping boogers and shopping for groceries and taking care of family, here—these things—are what I had forgotten. 

It’s fun to take a moment—perhaps not every day, but every now and then—to sit back and remember who you are, and who you’ve been, and who you might be again. 

* written March 30, 2013, opening night of Lauren’s first show in nine years.

An Angel in a Vietnam Hat

"Find any open table," the volunteer said. We shuffled through the room, looking for open seats next to fellow performers or the homeless veterans who'd just sat in our audience. They'd come in from the nearby VA to watch the show and have a meal, and easily established themselves as the best audience of the run. Enthusiastic, encouraging, engaged. Every high note received applause. Every partner lift was met with oohs. During bows, those who were able stood. They all shouted, "Thank you!" The audience was thanking us. Unprecedented. 

I found a seat next to a few castmates and a few vets: Martin, a shy-smiling grandfather who walked with a cane and reluctantly confessed to his time in Panama and Desert Storm. Earl was a big bear with a fast mouth who took off his New England Patriots cap to explain the quote written on it, spoken by his favorite player, Tom Brady. His hat was covered in Vietnam pins. 

We broke bread, as they say. While we ate turkey and potatoes, we spoke of the show and rehearsals and which numbers were their favorites. "Them girls were in sure good shape, I told my friend!" Earl boomed. "I mean, all that dancing! Them folks that didn't come sure missed a show." We crossed our fingers for Martin and Earl to win the raffle--each prize was a handmade blanket. When Earl's number was called, he chose the smallest one. "I can't have nothing that's too big to carry with me. This one sure looks soft."

Talk gradually got deeper. Martin was quiet--head bowed close to his plate, eating quickly and taking pictures with his phone--while Earl carried the conversation, talking about his four kids and their troubles. Drugs. Abandonment. Neglect. Deep, hard truths. By this time, we'd been served our dessert, but my pie sat, untouched, as Earl spoke. 

When the meal came to an end and the bus arrived to take the vets back to the VA, I asked if it would be okay to give each man a hug. Martin went first, using his cane to walk to the end of the table where I stood. 

"You have the best smile," I said. He did. Martin's smile lit up the room. When he smiled, he meant it for the world. 

"Oh gosh. Thank you. It'll be better when I have my teeth fixed," he said, taking pains to smile with his lips together. 

"No! When you smile, I don't see your teeth. I see your heart." It was true. Martin was kindness on hard times. He hugged me again, longer this time, before quietly picking up his cane and heading toward the door. 

"Earl, can I hug you now?" I said, making my way to the other end of the table. Earl jumped to his feet and hugged me, thanking me for the day while I thanked him for the great conversation. 

"I...I wanna give you something," he said. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a white towel. It was torn on one side, but clean, the kind of towel you'd use to wash a car with. "It's a rag. It ain't nothing. But I want you to have it." 

I took the towel from him and looked at it for a long minute, maybe too long. "It ain't nothing," he repeated. His voice was strong. Proud. "It's just a rag. But I just wanted to give it to you." 

They say when a child gives you a gift--a dandelion, a crayon drawing, a stub of a pencil--it should be taken and cherished. Children give what they have, and it is all they have. They have given you all they have. Earl was not a child—far from it—but the gift was just as sincere.

There's a story in the Bible about this one time Jesus sat down outside the temple and watched the crowd putting their money into the treasury for offering. The rich folks threw all kinds of money in. Big money. And then this one woman--a poor widow--walks up and puts two very small copper coins in the coffers. They were barely worth anything.

Jesus called everyone around him and said, “Listen to me, guys, cause this is important: what this lady just gave is worth more than all that other money combined. Those rich folks had tons of money to give, but they had to sacrifice nothing. But this woman? She had nothing and gave in everything—all she had to live on.”

Sometimes theatre is literature, meant to provoke and inspire. Sometimes it's entertainment, meant to bring joy and laughter. 

Sometimes, it's meant to do work that can't be done any other way. Sometimes, hidden in the middle of a six-shows-in-two-days performance marathon, your life is suddenly made clear by an angel in a Vietnam hat. By a man with a silver cane and a closed-lipped smile. 

Thank you, Martin and Earl. I sang Christmas songs for you, but you gave Christmas to me.

-LL, 12.11.16

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The In-Between

I am on a performing hiatus.

My last show closed three weeks ago, my next project doesn’t go into rehearsal for nearly six more weeks. This isn’t a long time, especially not in the performing world, when droughts between bookings can last months, even years.

I am grateful to have a project to look forward to, and grateful for memories so fresh from the last one that I can still feel the mic tape residue on the back of my neck.

I hustled for jobs during the holiday season, auditioning as far back as the spring for gigs that are opening right now, playing familiar stories and songs to packed Christmas houses, audiences desperate to feel merry + festive + spirited.

None panned out, though. Some callbacks came and some didn’t, but no bookings. This is the most common outcome for a performer, something we’re conditioned to expect—so well-conditioned, actually, that when you do book a job, it feels like, “Are you sure? You didn’t mean the girl who went before me?”

Though I licked my wounds for a while, I’m grateful (there’s that word again) for the rest. Grateful for the time with my family, for the chance to read bedtime stories and have a little laying-around time. Grateful that my holidays won’t be as rushed as my summer and fall.

And yet…

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There comes a time in every period of rest where I forget what I can do. I don’t know if this is a universal truth or something that is just recurring in my addled brain, but inevitably, at some point during my period of rest, there will come a moment where I think, “Wasn’t that a fun thing, what I used to do? Too bad it’s all behind me. All over now.”

I realize how dramatic that sounds.

Actors are the only artists whose art depends on the work of others. Painters can paint, dancers can dance, but unless you are the kind of actor who creates his/her own work, an actor cannot just act without being granted the opportunity.

But writers can write, and I am also one of those. So December, as she looms in all her bedazzled glory, will be dedicated to health + family + writing, three things that are supremely important to me that have been given the short end of the stick over the last few months.

And I’ll try not to forget the rest.

Little bit of truth, little bit of bull

I have a lot of friends—particularly theatre friends—who pay no attention whatsoever to their reviews. They don't want to be swayed by the critics, perhaps. Or don’t want to be made to feel self-conscious about their performances. Or maybe they don’t care.

I care, unfortunately.

I’ve performed all over the place, and I’ve been reviewed all over the place, geographically and figuratively. I’ve been fortunate enough to receive favorable reviews from a lot of critics, but I’ve also been completely ignored, even as a principal character in a show, as if I weren’t on the stage at all on review night.

And you know, both are fine. Because neither is really the truth.

Reviews are just opinions, after all—even when they’re grounded in evidence and written by experts—and opinions, by definition, are one person’s perspective, one person’s version of a thing. I have a version. The critic has a version. Often we agree. Sometimes we don’t.

When I was performing Diana in NEXT TO NORMAL, I had help from a mentor—a beautiful, smart woman who lived with Bipolar Disorder and talked me through the reality of her diagnosis on the ground. For the purposes of this blog post, I’ll call her Shelly.

One night, for a performance that included a talkback and post-show reception, my mentor came. So did her father.

After the show and talkback (which Shelly participated in), we met up for the reception at a nearby bar, chatting over custom cocktails and glasses of wine. My stage manager asked Shelly’s dad what he thought of our performance.

He sipped his drink and looked down for a while, lost in thought. When he looked up, his eyes were shiny. “You know, I didn’t realize what Shelly goes through every day, until I saw this show. I think I’ve been going about my relationship with her all wrong.”

Sitting in the audience, Shelly’s dad saw something in my performance that shifted his paradigm. My performance, at least as he admitted that night, had an impact on the way he viewed his own daughter.

I like to say that what other people think of me is none of my business, which is true. In theatre and writing that can be hard to remember when reviewers make it your business. They make it everyone’s business, because it’s the critic’s job to do that.

I try not to believe anything that’s said or written about me too much—not the hype or the crap. Because all of it is a little true and a little bullish*t.

But Shelly’s dad? His takeaway after my performance that night?

That was the best review I ever got.

Titles Are Hard.

I used to be a teacher. Before that, I was a newspaper reporter. This “regular person” phase of my life lasted a long time. More years than I care to admit.

During that time, I did no acting at all. I lived in cities all around the country in my early twenties, spitting distance from many prestigious regional theaters. I never auditioned. I kept up with the audition notices and read the reviews, but I counted myself out.

The only writing I did was a small motherhood blog, mostly filled with funny stories or reflections that didn’t fit easily into playdate conversation or the workroom at school.

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Maybe it sounds less than fulfilling, but I loved my job. I loved the kids I taught, the people I worked with. I loved the women at the daycare who took care of my baby while I took care of other people’s older babies. I always said I’d never leave the classroom for anything other than writing full-time. I allowed that dream.

I never allowed the dream of performing again. I never talked about that dream. That river ran too deep.

I went on maternity leave for my second child. A few months later, I went to my first audition in years and got the part. I went on another audition and got an agent. The snowball grew.

Here’s what I’m saying: doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.

Be brave, y’all.