A tale as old as time: Bette Midler has a one-woman show; a musical theatre performer flees her former professor. Last night, I saw I’ll Eat You Last, a one-woman biopic starring Bette Midler as the renowned show business agent Sue Mengers on the day Barbra Streisand fired her. A legend playing a legend talking shit about a legend. I needn’t say the adjective that best describes it. But I will: Legendary.
As we walked up to the theater, my friend spotted our former professor, a man whose approval I spent four years trying and failing to win, and I hid. In an almost silly way, like when a cat tries to sneak across the back of a sofa and falls off. I have a lot of affection for my old professor; he was tough but he gave me my first professional job. But last night, especially in the shadow of the Booth Theater, I just couldn’t face him.
I know that was silly. I have a great life and should be proud of it. The disappointment at having to change my path is small compared with all the great things I have now (improv, vacation time, self-esteem). I never regret leaving my old life until I run into someone from it.
Leaving theatre was the hardest thing I have ever done. Even though I do improv and cabarets, I feel like a fraud when I say I’m an actor. I’ve always defined an actor as someone who makes his or her living performing or someone whose main job and concern is finding the next working gig. I did that for five years; had I not had my vocal issues, I might still be doing it.
As I carted my shit from open call to EPA, a lot of my classmates and auditions friends dropped out of the business. They became teachers, they went to graduate school, they got married and left New York, they burned out. I always felt superior to these people, the ones who couldn’t hack it. I said terrible things, “I’m just jealous you found something you love as much as this. I wish I could,” “Rejection can really get to you,” “I must be sick because I like the challenges.”
I now know how much those comments and the condescension behind them hurt because people have said them to me. People who are still sticking it out; those who are working and those who aren’t. The fear of being judged and pitied by my peers kept me in auditions far longer than my love of performing. That’s neurotic and narcissistic but that’s show business kids, ‘cause all of us were neurotic and narcissistic in our childhoods, or something like that. The takeaway, I guess, is that any big life decision comes with some major trade-offs. I’m still working to feel like I don’t have to justify mine to other people. Maybe by the time Bette Milder does her next show, I’ll be ready.