I read this book called something like “How to Become a Successful Actor.” Chapter One congratulates the reader for taking the first step, buying the book. Chapter Two is called, “Do You Have What It Takes.” I was certain that I did. Performing makes me feel more alive, glad to be human and who I am. Acting affects me physically, in a way I can only describe tritely. I’ve felt my chest tingle as if there was electricity surrounding my heart. Chapter Two, however, did not describe this sensation or discuss passion, imagination, instincts, honesty, or vulnerability, all parts of acting I felt I understood.
Acting is so a part of me that I can’t remember when I first wanted to act. This makes it really difficult to suffer the casual actor, “I’m here for a week and thought I’d give it a try.” I’ve always wanted to tell stories. Growing up an only child, I learned to entertain myself, and I told stories, with my dolls, body, even feces. Yes, at age two, I painted my room with my own droppings. That’s a sign of a true artist. Besides mentioning that embarrassing installation piece, my family likes to remind me of something I said at age six: “I just want to get up on that stage.”
I haven’t always felt comfortable with performance. I had a full-fledged panic attack during a piano recital and had to be removed from the stage; it took a while to recover from that incident. In high school, I developed a series of Obsessive Compulsive rituals that enabled me to perform, but if I wasn’t able to wear the right jacket, touch the right parking meter, or warm up to the right song, I panicked. I still get nervous. You want to get nervous because it gives you juice, something to start with before the material takes over. At least this is the way it works with me. Chapter Two didn’t describe any of the above trials and tribulations. Instead it listed a series of tests. If you past the tests, you have what it takes to make it in the business.
The first test suggests you knock on your neighbor’s door and ask for a pair of socks, inventing a reason why you desperately need to borrow them. I could think of plenty of reasons—none of them very good. “My dryer’s broken and I’m supposed to be at a dinner with my boyfriend’s mother. She’s so judgmental about my appearance. I just need some socks that don’t smell, and I don’t have time to run to the store. It’s crazy I know, but I promise I’ll wash them and give them back to you.” “I got an acting gig, and the costume calls for matching black socks. I’m really broke right now and don’t have any dark socks. Can I borrow a pair? I’ll buy you a new pair after I get paid for this gig.” There’s no way I was going to try any of these lines on my neighbors or anyone for that matter. In a sock emergency, which is extremely rare, you go to a store and buy a pair. End of problem.
But thinking about knocking on my neighbors’ doors made me realize I wasn’t going to talk to them about socks or anything else. I have tried to smile and wave at them, but they don’t acknowledge me. I’m the encroaching sign of gentrification, and we long a go silently agreed to ignore each other. This silence scares me, and I imagine it means many things it probably doesn’t. The silence allows my own insecurities and white guilt to flourish. I’m also terrified of their children, skate punks who practice their tricks in front of my house. It’s rumored that if you cross them they fuck with your car, so I need their approval. They make fun of me when I bike ride and wear a helmet. I pretend not to hear the sarcastic “Nice Helmet” and hope that they secretly think my road bike’s badass. They don’t.
I scanned the rest of the tests—sing randomly in public, talk the whole way through an elevator ride—and there was no way I was going to do any of them. According to this book, the first business of acting book I’d ever read, I don’t have what it takes. I’m a failure. If I could pass one of Chapter Two’s tests, I would be ready to call anyone up and ask them to represent or hire me. I would be able to face rejection and bravely introduce myself to important people. I can’t even face the skate punks who diss my bike helmet. I want them to like me. I care way too much what people think about me. I can’t even deal with imaginary rejection, and this is probably what causes my phone issues.
Important people call my internship, and it’s assumed that I should know who they are and what their phone number is, so when I ask them to spell their last name and for their number, I imagine they groan with pain, sensing my extreme stupidity. They will never hire me, and I will have to find a different career, perhaps as a dog walker or truck driver. I want their approval so badly that I pretend like I know who they are and face the consequences when they hang up, and I have to give a message that looks like, “David (or Dylan?) Hambinglinger (SP?) called.” I’ve taken to using IMDBPro to solve the mystery of my incomplete phone messages. I type in whatever syllables I managed to hear and pray a match comes up. I’m trying way too hard to make people think I’m capable, and this actually makes me incapable.
Ironically, it’s as an actor that I’m able to get away from this self-consciousness. I need the security of pretend to give me permission to take risks. This isn’t to say that every time I act I’m completely free. There have been performances where it’s become about watching to see if I’ll mess up, and this is not fun. But those experiences are outnumbered by the moments of escape. I could imagine being someone who could ask my neighbors for a pair of socks, but I can’t do it myself. By my count, this means I’m definitely an actor. I need to act. But will my sensitivity, something valuable on a stage, prevent me from ever getting an opportunity to act? As I discover the answer to this question, I will try to do things that scare me. I will stand up to the skate punks. I will say something like, “Thanks, you should wear one too” or “Whatever, dude.” After all, my car’s already pretty damaged.