An Actor-Mom’s Guide to Transparency
When it comes to my work, I would probably break out into hives if I’m not in the space at least 10-15 min before the clock. The few times I haven’t been in early, I’ve tried to block out of memory like a trauma. I got caught in traffic once before a show and almost vomited all over the bus. I had a chaotic subway experience during tech week for a show in DC and resorted to walking an hour each way for previews and the rest of the run just to make sure I could control my time (great way to stay warm to though!). I will go to great lengths to ensure that I’m in a room where I can focus. I found that my willingness to sacrifice, however, does not have to be over-costly when there’s a group of people ready to collaborate – even when the support I need may be unconventional. Even if that means part of rehearsal is me running down the sidewalk with a baby latched to my body.
It happened like this. One of my dreams was to be a part of a theater company. A group of actors that collaborated on original work fueled by nothing but passion, relevancy, and inspiration. The dream came true when I joined a company of actors under the direction of one inspiring female writer/director and her team, and we rehearsed on our own time in rooms throughout the city, deconstructing and piecing together an incredible, original work based on Shakespeare’s women in the War of the Roses.
I played Joan of Arc in the company’s piece – a dream role – and I had long been connected to this project via readings, but for the first time ever we gathered as a team to rehearse and perform the piece as a staged workshop in New York, complete with moving elements and fully realized stage combat. Yay! ….Cue the welcome-to-mommyhood logistics: it was a few months in to my baby’s life, so she and I had been traveling as a pair for quite some time (first audition took us on a train together at 5 weeks old where in-motion diaper-explosions became a new learned skill). While the Margaret workshop offered me more infrequent scheduling to make it doable, each rehearsal and show day required not just lines worked, choreography memorized, scheduling finalized, and money (tightly) budgeted as always is asked of an actor, but also roundtrip bus tickets from another city (times two), travel smartly scheduled around both arrival and naps, multiple meals packed, diaper bag stocked, stroller and baby carried, babysitter scheduled and confirmed…and rescheduled, and an affordable location scoured in NYC for baby and sitter to stay while mommy pretended to be a historical-female-knight saving France. (Thanks, mom.)
I was in it to win it. I loved my baby and I loved Joan of Arc, and – somehow – taking care of both of these gifts had to be possible. I even discovered similarities between my baby and mademoiselle la pucelle…such as their strength of will. With the conviction of Joan refusing to bend a knee to any foreign king, my powerful and precious babe refused to bend one quivering lip to a bottle. Ever. (Of all base passions, bottle-drinking is most accursed!!!!) Ok, ok, I get it. Proud as that exercise of power will always make me as a mother, a few complications arose in regard to rehearsing and feeding…such as timing and location. She needed to be hungry on my 10 minute breaks, and I needed to be close enough to get to her. (At this point in her feed cycle – TMI warning – 10 min feeds were enough because the milk production was so high and fast, as verified by our nurse consultant. Girl could drink.)
With the demands on my body with rapier, dagger, and staff came balancing the demands of speed, efficiency, and milk ducts. The full immersion into parallel but different worlds required laser focus and total investment – something actors need to exercise all the time. The intensity of the experience highlighted for me some key lessons that grew my acting and, at one point, fed my baby on the move.
1.The Task: Stay in the Room.
This phrase gets thrown around a lot in grad school, mainly because we have multiple shows rehearsing all at once. The phrase revisited me at one of our earliest rehearsals by pounding painfully through my body to the rhythm of breastmilk threatening to break out of what felt like every pore in my torso. As the seconds counted down to our break in rehearsal, milk didn’t miss a cue, so my mind and heart had to listen with every bit of strength not to miss a crucial note, reaction, or adjustment to the text we just rehearsed. On the flip-side, as soon as 10 was called, my body had to spring into action and exit physically – and mentally – quickly enough in order to make it to the baby who needed me in time to get in a good feed before heading back into the room in time to kill some English scum. Great. Simple enough. The only way to do either of these things well was to focus on them one at a time.
2. The Objective: Be Private in Public.
A crucial planning mistake I made at the beginning here was thinking a few blocks was a travel-able distance. I didn’t account for the building elevator, slower physical body (yes, it really hurts when fluids are literally bursting through your skin, making your flesh rock hard), and people traffic. I had wasted precious minutes with this poor planning. When I reached my baby, she was unhappy, I was behind, and I already knew we would have to move out quickly – I could take a few minutes of rehearsal time, sure, but I didn’t want to worry about the trip back while I fed her…I also refused to deprive my baby of a single fractional ounce of food. So I made my move. While latched. I took off out of that coffee shop like a bat out of hell. Nursing cover blowing in the wind like a cape, action music playing in my head. Sidekick superstar sitter and friend of over a decade running by my side, baby carrier in hand. All of NY passed on numerous blocks as we tore down the sidewalk dodging pedestrians in the suits with cell phones witnessing the getaway of a dynamic duo and their precious cargo, tiny stockinged feet peeking out of blankets with quick and happy thrusts. Baby never missed a beat. Her drinks matched the rhythm of my feet hitting the concrete – a pace always safe, but fast enough to span the space. My heart raced and the cool wind hit my stomach. My loose top kept me from getting arrested as it casually draped over anything potentially revealing. For all the vulnerability of feeding in motion, I felt no shame. My private moment on public display, I cared only about her satisfaction and reaching a place of calm where we could focus. I cared only about my objective and didn’t think twice about how it made me look. I let that conviction pour generously into any searching eyes that happened to throw gaze my way and kept my eyes forward. When life happens, you gotta let it show. This allowance of visibility strangely made me feel strong.
3. The Method: Be Messy.
We made it to the rehearsal space with hair askew, skin bare, and body gratefully draining its stock. I wasn’t late, but I wasn’t ready to re-enter the room either. For all that work, I had failed. No matter my planning, I couldn’t complete the task, I would need more time, lose precious rehearsal, and need an allowance, and I expected disappointment to set in for the people around me who would show up ready and together – so I thought. Break had yet to completely close, so other actors wandered in with their deli sandwiches and drinks and struck up conversation, kindly accepting my new accessory. The messier episodes of my life teach me the most about art and people and how my perfectionism can give me a false sense of their expectation. And apparently, these lessons come when you’re dashing down a street in the heart of midtown with your nursing cover pressed against your neck and your baby happily feeding on your naked breast while you breathlessly count the seconds with the babysitter to reach the final block at your rehearsal and thank God it’s weirdly warm outside for January because the wind is slapping your mid-drift in an attempt to get your abs to work faster. The lessons come when your director laughs at your entrance, asks you to sit and take your time while you watch the choreography from a whole new (seated) perspective. The lessons come with knowing your baby is ok in your arms while you watch the fight instruction and love every move. You don’t fix your hair. You don’t apologize. When you accept, you listen and continue to learn. So much is off in the image of a single man sitting on a mountaintop as the symbol of wisdom. At least for me. Wisdom is covered in milk and breathing deeply while humbly experiencing acceptance from the people around you. When you’re living and breathing to the fullest, no drop of energy should be wasted on preserving an image.
4. The Safety: Find your People.
As my lungs returned to their calmer pace, I watched the room come together and rewrite the rules of what the the next few moments of rehearsal should be without hesitation or grudge. Each person showed ease in accepting where I was and what I was doing. Their graciousness taught me in real-time what true generosity looks like. With an exhale of relief and wonder, I realized that many fearful questions about how this actor-mom thing would work had burrowed themselves so deeply in my heart that I hadn’t acknowledged them until they were confronted by the generous behavior in front of me. I had been holding on to questions like:
“Would my double-responsibility create a problem for the people I work with? Would anyone find the commitment distracting? Would a few of my special needs make me too much work and not worth the time? How can I make myself seem as put-together as possible and make the extra work invisible?”
These questions could have been answered differently by a lesser group to negative results commenting on my value if not for the quality and confidence of the artists I had chosen to work with. My questions evaporated like mist as I witnessed life, and rehearsal, move forward inclusively and seamlessly. I was a part of it – and taken care of at the same time. Where I was willing to over-stretch myself, the company compensated willingly. In that moment, I didn’t need to lessen a single thing about myself.
I’ve heard it said many times in our profession that theater is family, but too often that’s said to mean the people who are willing to drink and cry with you. That may not be left out completely, but any shallow acquaintance or sophomoric colleague is capable of indulging in liquor and emotion, hardly a hard sign of real intimacy. Real friends endure discomfort for your betterment. A few steps further, family is willing to sacrifice something of themselves to aid and support a member who’s momentarily over-stretched. A company, in order to be successful, must have all these elements. What I experienced at that rehearsal was all these things and more. The discomfort for my betterment, the willingness to sacrifice, give aid and support, and beyond that – gladly and willingly – lead me to embrace unapologetically the gift they gave. I was able to hand my happy and sleeping baby into open and caring arms of a sitter while stepping into open and caring arms myself as I re-joined my friends in the fight – all with a changed confidence I hadn’t known before: I had let people help me. For all the casts and classes I had been a part of, it was in this embrace that I found my people. And the art we made was great. What I had hoped for in being a part of a company was growing as an artist. What I found was a family that helped me grow larger than my insecurity.
5. The Closer: Thank the Crew.
God bless my sitters. And every nearby coffee shop, diner, block, and spare hallway or room in the rehearsal space where they rocked, strolled, and played with my little one while I visited, fed, and returned to no-pay stage-blood letting. Trust me, more on them later.