Mariah Proctor just graduated from BYU in Theater and was selected as one of 36 students across the nation by the American Theater Wing that puts on the Tony Awards for an acting intensive workshop in New York. As part of that workshop the students met with some of the most illustrious people in theater in New York. She reports:
Well, I’m in New York. It poured rain the first day of my acting program and because it was cheaper, I bought a children’s umbrella. So, I showed up to meet 35 new and important people with a big green cartoon face and orange antennae suspended over my head and dripping all over me (because, in fact, the size of the umbrella was as inappropriate for me as the design was). I should’ve known by the looks the New Yorkers were giving me en route that I was undermining my own clout with that showpiece. I should probably have sprung for the grown-up version.
Thankfully, I don’t think that first image of me seeking shelter from such a ridiculous article ruined anyone’s first impression of me. Even if it had, we’ve been meeting lots of important people and having the opportunity to make new first impressions almost daily. It is astonishing how many of our guests and teachers ask everyone to go around and as part of their introduction and share an interesting fact about themselves. I’m sure it’s both by way of getting everyone comfortable with each other in the room and a way of getting a taste for each individual’s energy and character. It’s amazing that working in the entertainment business is as much a matter of people finding people with whom they might actually enjoy spending hours and days and months of collaborative time as it is about talent or ability.
Each time we start to make the loop and people begin to present their interesting facts, I get really anxious to find just the right random thing to present about myself. I wonder as I frantically shuffle through my inner rolodex (yea, my internal technology is all very vintage) of fun facts what each will say about me and which me I’d like to embrace. We had a visit from a film and television casting director and I discovered that despite my frantic rolodexing, I begin communicating about myself long before I’ve landed on something to actually say.
It’s a business bummer, but particularly in film, casting projects has a lot to do with typing. Someone walks in and immediately they are tall, Caucasian, twenty-something, quirky warmth, best friend type. All before anyone has spoken a word. So this casting director went around in our eager little gaggle of aspiring actors and told us each off the top of her head what we might be typed as. When she got to me she said, Connecticut—-(Connecticut??)—cut in Indie.’ She said other things as well, but none of them explained what she meant by that first thing.
One of my best friends in the world is from Connecticut; I bear no malice toward it. Despite that, all I really associate with it are these two pretentious Connecticut poodles that lived on a houseboat in a cartoon I watched as a kid and that the scariest thing that can happen in Connecticut is losing your tennis racket in a Pottery Barn. So, apparently that is what I exude only cut in a little Indie whatever that means.
I was puzzled by this on the entire walk home up 8th Avenue to Central Park West and then I looked down at my clothing and saw the deliberate, crisp cut and pattern of my shirt, the muted red pants, the jewelry—-I was Connecticut cut in Indie. It had nothing to do with my personality or energy, she was just responding to the preppy without quite being mainstream style of the outfit that I happened to wear that day. Again, I found myself communicating without words.
Part of this acting program I’ve been participating in was attending both the dress rehearsal and actual red carpet event of the 67th Annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall. We sat in the Orchestra pit for the dress rehearsal; I was literally front row center. Since it was only a rehearsal, every time they announced the names of the presenters (which names were always what you might call household’) two random people would come out in place of the actual presenters to walk through it just for camera angles. We in the rehearsal audience grew used to not getting our hopes up just because they announced the entrance of our favorite star.
So, when they announced Sally Field I turned with zero expectation and then was embarrassed to hear a yelp come out of my mouth like when a puppy gets its toe stepped on. Sally Field actually did attend the rehearsal and there she was standing right in front of me. I heard the director of our program say “I must’ve seen Sally Field in her pajamas five times, that woman can always be counted on to come to the rehearsals.” There is a lady communicating something about herself without using any words.
Fast forward to that night (and remember when you visualize it that I got all dolled up in the interim and so did Sally Field), when they announced that Cicely Tyson had won in her category the entire audience leapt to their feet with uproarious applause. It was a mad house, but the moment she arrived at the microphone the place went absolutely silent, she had the rapt attention of every ear as they eagerly waited to see what she’d say. No other acceptance speech had this effect, the world stopped to hear her speak.
I knew very little about Cicely Tyson, but she has an elegance of spirit that compelled me to jump to my feet at her triumph and utter not a word when the floor was hers. I’ve since seen her in The Trip to Bountiful for which she won that prestigious award and it was by far the best live acting I have ever seen. Perhaps it was the years of delivering that kind of performance-the reputation that preceded her—that begged a standing ovation even from the very elite. Perhaps it was something in the wisdom and perspective of age that her presence carries with it. Either way, long before she spoke at the 67th annual Tony awards, she lived well and in living, communicated without words.
“What last piece of advice would you leave with those of us who are just beginning a life in this field?” It tended to be the pinnacle question that we chose to occupy those dear last moments of a master class or meet the artist’ after the conclusive “we have time for one more” had been spoken. The answer, it seemed, was always the same. Before long it became almost a running joke, but I saw in all the mentors’ and artists’ and teachers’ eyes that they meant it sincerely when they said, “Be yourself.”
By the law of out of the mouth of a dozen or more witnesses shall all truth be established,’ being yourself is apparently the key to making it in this acting business and in life. But in true existential fashion, my knee-jerk reaction is well, who am I?’
If I’m honest, I have much more of an idea of who I am then I’m letting on, but in spending 2 weeks watching a city full of people who are screaming loud and clear about themselves without ever opening their mouths, I feel a sudden urge to take the reigns on what messages I’m silently sending.
I want to always show up at rehearsal when few others do and be counted on and be elegant and be wise and cultivate a spirit of unmistakable compassion and humor and good nature that speaks before I do.I want a reputation of excellence to precede me. “There is no such thing as an unwritten life, only a badly written one.”
And so (still so new to post-graduate, full-fledged adulthood), I will write the life that I want to have and choose carefully those things that I communicate without words.