The debate of whether life imitates art or art imitates life is a circular paradox similar to the struggle we’ve always had with chickens and eggs. To me? At the end of the day? The order isn’t as important as the overlap. And the older I get – or is it more experienced, more jaded, more skeptical, more aware, less naïve, less idealistic, less easily-buffaloed? – the more I see that understanding this overlap is something we have to be vigilant about as artists. It’s our duty, it’s part of the work, it’s an element of the unwritten job description.
I blame my training as an actor. I went to a perfectly good state school for my undergraduate degree in performance (Yes. I know. Performance. This surprises no one.) where my well-meaning professors spent four years getting me to break down my walls and get in touch with the emotional core of my being. And I’ve spent the last seven years trying to build those walls back up.
When you’re on stage it’s your job to live fully into each moment. You’re constantly barraged with demands to raise the stakes, go after your objective as if everything depended on it, play each moment – whether you’re begging for your life or asking for the butter – as if it’s life or death.
And what does this teach us about how we’re to move through the world? When it’s time to sit down to brunch, when it’s time to go to the day job on Monday morning, when it’s time to engage in any kind of relationship with other actual humans (not artistic constructions of humans in their most desperate hours), when it’s time to – God help us – go after the connection and intimacy of a Relationship (hopefully with another actual human as opposed to some kind of artful construction) – how are we to function? How are we to engage with each other when the stakes aren’t life and death? Are those of us who tread (or at one time trod) the boards condemned to living our lives continually raising the stakes, even when a healthy dash of perspective might be what the “scene” calls for?
In rehearsal, we have (when we’re lucky) six weeks to live the same moments over and over again. We have the unbelievable luxury of knowing where we’re going to end up, being able to find the breadcrumbs in the text that can take us there, make choices with the boldness of someone who not only knows what comes next – but who also gets to take the same path again and again until it’s smooth, until it’s – in its weird way – rational for you. On stage, we get to make sense of our journeys and move through the world with a modicum of consistency each night.
But real life’s not like that. There is no continual narrative. Even for those of us who believe in a “plan,” a plan is different than a story. Beginning, Middle, End – we only construct these things out of the discreet moments the universe hands us so that we can make some sense of them – not because a narrative is actually there.
I don’t know. I don’t know how to make these distinctions, even though I know they’re essential to my survival. Which is one of myriad reasons why I’m not an actor anymore. Because I have a hard enough time with the blurry lines between life and art when my job is to keep my viewfinder on “panorama” and open to the fullness of the picture. I think the wall my well-meaning professors helped me break down was also what was giving me some shelter. True, I needed to break through it to move through the world and in and out of my art, but sometimes it’s cold, sometimes there are gusts and gales and rain and snow. And unprotected from all the elements all the time? That’s no way to live, either.
I think what I really need is an artistic Pope-mobile. Something that affords some kind of protection against would-be assassins, something that keeps me warm and dry, but affords a really nice view of everything going on around me. Maybe that’s what all of us need. Picture it – a fleet of Pope-mobiles, agilely navigating the intricacies of the human condition from a distance that keeps us safe and whole.
Because the art that matters? The people that matter? The relationships and the work that matter? These things are too delicate, too precious, too essential to be careless with when we can’t take a moment, talk things through and take it back to the moment just before I say the thing that changes everything – because everything’s already been changed.
When I was in high school I had a bumper sticker on my first car that said something about enjoying life because it’s not a dress rehearsal. Which is lame. I know it’s lame, but I was the Queen of the Awkward Ball and I was 16. And very earnest. And let’s not dismiss the kernel of truth I could sense even in adolescence. Because at its lamest, most awkward core? It’s also a little bit true.