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I Thought I Wanted To Be An Actor, But I Just Wanted To Find My Voice

Growing up shy, I hoped being onstage would be freeing — but that catharsis wouldn’t come until I shouted for myself, not an audience.

Posted on April 6, 2021, at 1:50 p.m. ET

The first role I was cast in was a rock. I was 2, the youngest in our neighborhood, and so in our block-wide productions I was given the part best suited for my abilities. I don’t remember playing the actual role, only the review — that I could never stay still, the one skill the part required.

The neighborhood plays were conceived of and written by my older sister. She has always only ever wanted to be a writer, and she pursued that dream with a steadfastness that meant she was a playwright by her early twenties. It was always a given that my sister would fulfill her dream — I only ever saw her persevering, never any struggle. When she was in college and I was in middle school, she staged her first productions, and I remember going to them with the supreme sense of the inevitable: that this was what she would always and should always be doing.

I had the same fierce desire to write, but not the certainty. It seemed that making a living out of your words and imagination was too good to be true — a fabulous existence that would always be just out of reach. I read widely about writers’ lives, and they all, to a person, seemed to revel in pain and alienation. As someone who had had enough of that before the age of 14, I wasn’t sure I wanted to sign up for a job where people judged the depth of your excellence by how deeply you had suffered. I had accepted that my childhood and adolescence would be full of suffering, but I was not prepared to have it continue into the self-willed space of adulthood.

The first play my sister had produced outside of college was staged in the same space where I had done children’s theater — an old abandoned middle school that our town was halfheartedly attempting to turn into an arts space. In fifth grade, I had acted there, in my last year of unself-consciousness. I had gamely played the part of a saloon girl in a spaghetti Western parody that the children’s theater put on. My best friend and I were both cast, and I remember the best part about being in the play was that I got to wear a blush-colored dress with puffed sleeves — what I considered to be the height of beauty and sophistication then.

My sister’s play came my sophomore year of high school. In the intervening years between that elementary school production and my sister’s, though, I had grown a kind of artistic consciousness, or at least a vague understanding that how I saw myself and my own body in the world differed drastically from how everyone else saw it. Nowadays, I have the words for what I was experiencing: misogynoir; fatphobia; colorism. But then, it was only the distinct feeling of wishing to disappear, because the body I inhabited suddenly seemed to draw commentary from anyone and everyone around me.

My body was a topic of conversation to all, the understanding being that it was fundamentally wrong, a problem to be solved.

I had never, before, given much thought to my body — it was merely something that moved me around. But in sixth grade, I began to gain weight, and in seventh, a not very good psychiatrist put me on a high dose of an antidepressant that caused me to gain even more in a short period of time. Suddenly, my body did not make sense to the people I saw every day, even some of the people who claimed to love me. I remember going to get my hair braided at my cousin’s house and her saying, as I settled on to the pillow she’d placed on the floor so she could reach my head, “You wear dresses that short? I’m scared of you.” Before that moment, it had not occurred to me what length my dress was, but I instantly understood — I had grown too fat for the skirt to go past my knees, and the extra inch of skin above them was somehow a threat. My body was a topic of conversation to all, the understanding being that it was fundamentally wrong, a problem to be solved, one that could be figured out if I just thought about it long enough.

It took a long time for my ambitions to catch up with my body. Like all adolescents, I was still making and remaking myself. In middle school, I still thought that maybe I would be an actor. My mother dutifully signed me up for more children’s theater workshops, which eventually resulted, in eighth grade, in being invited to audition for the role of Dorothy in a regional production of The Wizard of Oz. I remember the audition very well — being instructed to pretend to sneak from one end of the stage to the other and furtively pick up a book. Halfway across the stage, miming the movements of discretion, I suddenly felt more in my body than I ever had, and with a shock I realized how embarrassing this all was. My movements were not natural but in the wholesale quotation marks of someone who was deeply self-conscious. I was not good at this. I was a terrible actor.

With this new self-consciousness came a silencing that extended into my daily life, a literal one. At home, I was still vicious and sharp-tongued — I still earned my childhood nickname of Surly. But in public, I could rarely speak. It felt, at the time, as if I had swallowed a large, round, smooth stone from the bottom of a clear cool river, and the rock sat at the bottom of my throat, preventing any sound from coming out. I often longed to speak — I wanted to speak — but I could not get a sound around that stone, no matter how hard I tried. Perhaps the most disorienting thing about the mutism was that few people seemed to notice it. In my small private high school, where I was one of very few Black students, it was easier for everyone around me if I didn’t speak. The few times I was able to push out sentences in class, I remember them usually being met with a long, awkward silence before the conversation continued, and another student, ten minutes later, repeated what I had just said as if my words were their own. Being mute was a kind of burning indignation, one that I tried to fight against every day, but very few people outside my family expected me to have a voice at all.

A few years after this revelation, the spring of my sophomore year, my sister had her first production. It was a semi-autobiographical piece about a single mother and her daughter and the discussions they have over a series of car rides. My sister had written one of the daughters as a preteen, and they were having trouble finding an actor to play her, so somehow, either the director or the producer volunteered me for the part.

It was a supremely disorienting experience for me, a person whose whole life was beginning to be defined by dissociation, to inhabit my sister’s imagined version of me for a paying audience. The role was needling and bratty, a classic younger sister, an archetype that came with that designation; she had a few good one-liners. My sister had written the role to be charming, and because she is a good writer, it worked. Audiences liked it. I remember only applause.

The play had a short run — three days, I think — and on the final day of production, the director approached my sister to ask her if I might want to act in another production. This woman’s friend was mounting a production of Ed Bullins’ satire of Blaxploitation Dr. Geechee and the Blood Junkies, a play which most of the Black actors in Boston were unofficially boycotting. The play is a kind of allegory for the crack epidemic — a long-form exploration of the metaphor of addict as violent zombie. It takes elements of Shaft and parodies of ’90s media like CourtTV and movie announcements to form a pastiche of criticism of mainstream media representations of addiction and race. This is a very generous read of the play. It was a production that found great humor in the idea of a southern sheriff fighting a vampire — that was the whole joke. The director was a white man in his sixties. His stage manager was a Latina woman in her early twenties. The rest of the cast seemed impossibly grown-up but, looking back, they were all probably in their mid to late twenties as well. The director was scrambling to fill roles — the actor playing the part I was offered had walked off set and refused to participate. I was the youngest cast member, still in high school, and I was offered the part not because I was good but because I was young enough not to ask any questions.

As a 15-year-old and in violent, silent internal revolt of everything around me, I told myself that I hated Boston, that I wanted to leave the city and the state as soon as I was able. I knew that when I did, it would have to be of my own volition — my mother was a single parent, only a few years out of grad school herself, and even if she had had the funds to bankroll an escape, her principles would never allow her to do so. With such a huge desire to escape, the only way out seemed to be college in another state. But I was not, for a long time, a good student. A chronic procrastinator, it never really occurred to me to finish my homework on a regular basis. My sophomore year I had turned things around and begun to get A’s, but I was keenly aware that when I applied to schools I would have a string of terrible semesters to explain. I was also interminably shy and hated to do activities, so I was on the lookout for extracurriculars that could fool an admissions board into thinking I was a team player.

The adults in the production — mostly white — spoke of the boycott as a frivolous thing, a case of Black artists being too sensitive and not understanding nuance.

So it was partly my own cravenness that led me to agree to do the play, despite knowing about the boycott, but it was also the adults in the production — mostly white — who spoke of the boycott as a frivolous thing, a case of Black artists being too sensitive and not understanding nuance, that thing that everyone calls for whenever anyone calls something, rightly, racist. In my memory, Bullins only came to a few rehearsals, and I only knew him as a great and respected writer, which is what everyone told me. Wikipedia did not exist then, so I had no way to know about the abuse allegations brought against him by his former wife, the womanist poet Pat Parker, who once said that she “was scared to death of him.” I only knew that these older artists had deemed it silly, anti-artist, almost, to question the work we were putting on. I did not know yet that I could question why these white producers and white director were so eager to put on this particular play.

Because the cast was already deep into rehearsals, they had all hyperbonded, in that way only actors can, weeks before I arrived. The part the woman had found too demeaning to play was that of a sex worker who gets bitten by the star blood junkie and then goes into a writhing transformation onstage, a grotesque parody of an orgasm that ends in the character becoming a zombie herself. I don’t remember if I read for the part before I played it, if I even read the script — I must have, but I did not register what it would ask of me. For this part, I had to first enter the stage in a skimpy costume, then proposition the lead actor. From there, he’d indicate that he would pay me for sex, reach over, pull me into an embrace, and sink his teeth into my neck.

I had never even held hands with another person, let alone kissed anybody, and I was acutely aware that this was the most physical contact I had ever received from someone who was not in my family or a doctor. It was mortifying. To compound the humiliation, the costumer gave up on trying to find an outfit for me and told me I should dress myself. This was in the mid-’90s, when plus-size fashion was either large, shapeless sacks or overalls. Back then, I mostly wore overalls. I knew what I was supposed to wear to suggest that I was a streetwalking zombie, but I also knew that no store sold those types of clothes in my size.

And on top of all this — I was still not fully living in my body, then. I hovered above it most days, wounded by its continuous mortifications. And though I was able to speak in my initial interview with the director, I was not able to keep up the facade with anyone else. I slunk into rehearsals and sat on the bleacher seats and stayed quiet, hoping none of these people would ever notice me.

The production was to be held in a unitarian church in town — a big, drafty building with a color-blocked mural on the front dedicated to racial unity. We rehearsed at night, in the middle of a Boston winter, so the church was always dark and drafty; I remember mostly the hazy lighting, the wind whistling through the eaves, how the whole wooden structure groaned in the cold. Even though I had been warned that others found the play offensive, I still wished, after my first conversation with the director, to be part of it. I had told myself that if I got this role, I would be able to be a more interesting, less strange and damaged version of myself. In my head, I made up an elaborate fantasy of what else would fall into place in my life if I got the role — I’d bump into my crush on my way to and from the theater, and he would find my double life as an actor with artists so much older than me so alluring and we would quickly start dating and everyone would finally begin to recognize me as the artist I knew I could be. I told this story to myself over and over again so many times that I began to almost think it was real, and it was a disappointment each evening when I arrived for the start of rehearsal and I didn’t see the boy I liked — though I knew he didn’t live anywhere near the theater and in fact I probably would never see him at all. In that fantasy, though, I was able to go back to take control of some sort of role-playing, since the one I had on the stage had gotten away from me.

Every time the lead actor grabbed me by the shoulders and made to bite my neck, I flinched and froze and my whole body went stiff. I tried to will myself not to. I tried to think myself out of that response, but my stubborn body wouldn’t listen. But I couldn’t help it — he made me want to recoil into myself, and that was all I could convey on stage.

The director was getting increasingly frustrated. First, he sent the stage manager over to talk with me. I had wished on so many occasions that she would be my friend, but I thought of her as so much older than me, and I saw the omnipresent clipboard she carried as a sign of her own supreme competence. Her body would never betray her, I told myself. It was probably perfectly in line with her mind. She took me to a dark corner of the church and tried to give me some advice. “Just relax,” she said. “Get used to the cast. Hang out with people. Talk with people. It will be fine.”

At that point in my life, the concept of relaxation was a foreign one. I was so silent outside of my house that most people chose to read muted panic as tranquil calm. At home, no one ever relaxed. Ease was a state to be distrusted, repose was rigorously questioned. If ever I was to stop moving, not actively go about the house tidying or reading or some other virtuous activity, my mother would ask, “Are you depressed?” Which, it was clear I was, but any desire to stop and wallow in it was pathologized. The key was to be depressed but keep it moving — perhaps the motion would carry you to a calmer state.

I did not make the connection, then, that to be an artist, to be a writer, means that on some level you must remain sensitive to the world. I did not know that sensitivity was necessary — I thought it was only being messy.

So when she said “relax,” I did not know how to respond. Eventually, they called over one of the actors to give me deep breathing lessons. We stood in the church secretary's office, which had become a kind of hangout spot for the cast. Here, I would usually spend my breaks doing my homework, listening to the other actors boast to one another about how hard they had partied the weekend before. I was a very sheltered teenager, if you have not already gathered, and so I took these feeble brags at face value.

The actor who gave me the breathing lessons played the town sheriff. He was scrawny and wiry, with ruffled hair, and was considerably less intimidating than the lead, who was tall and broad and movie star handsome — Denzel Washington as a local. The actor who played the sheriff, in contrast, gave off more of a Steve Zahn vibe. The sheriff had me stand in front of him, while all around us the cast gossiped and lounged and ran lines. “Put your shoulders back,” he said. “Plant your feet on the floor. Breathe in very deeply, now out. Close your eyes.”

It was another kind of humiliation, to practice breathing in front of an audience. But I willed myself to do it — I closed my eyes and expanded my chest and let out one big whoosh. For a moment, the change in oxygen levels left my brain feeling thin and plastic, a pleasant feeling. Then I opened my eyes and noticed that the sheriff had been staring at my breasts moving the whole time.

He was embarrassed to be caught and quickly turned his eyes away. We didn’t talk about what happened, and I certainly didn’t tell anybody about it. Back then, it was something to be shrugged off, another penalty of girlhood, and to tell someone about it would put me into the same category as the woman whose role I had taken over — too outspoken, too sensitive, a word that I took as a slur. I did not want to be sensitive, because to be sensitive suggested a weakness, an irrationality that had been subtly conveyed to me about all those actors who had said no before me.

I did not make the connection, then, that to be an artist, to be a writer, means that on some level you must remain sensitive to the world, to the parts of it that everyone else tells you it’s normal to respond to with a deadening. I did not know that sensitivity was necessary — I thought it was only being messy. And I did not know that sensitivity requires a base level knowledge of yourself and its own reactions that I was incapable of cultivating.

The role I had been asked to play required, after the lead bit my neck, for me to become a monster onstage. For weeks, I wasn’t able to do it — the director would cue me to scream, to start my transformation, and I could only come out with the feeblest of squawks. But after the breathing lesson, I could do it. I erupted into a series of whoops, loud and insistent, guttural cries that I paused to echo in the theater even as I slunk backstage. At the time, I did not make the connection between all my suppressed rage and alienation and my ability to make that sound. I only was relieved that my body was finally doing something right, something that I actively wanted it to do, for once. After we opened, every night, the audience cheered at my exit — the scream was played for laughs. I wish I could say that I felt free in the screams, or that afterward I found my voice, or that they were a source of catharsis. But it would take many more years before I learned how to scream for myself, not for a performance to please others.

I think, looking back, I wanted to act because I did not know myself at all. I thought to be an artist, you had to know yourself with the same kind of rigid control used to memorize a multiplication table or a series of lines. I did not know that self-knowledge is an expansive thing, ever-changing, its fluidity part of its power. That it can only be cultivated through periods of rest and reflection, and that my body is my partner in my quest toward self-knowledge, not my opponent. But those lessons were years away. ●


Algonquin

Kaitlyn Greenidge's debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, was one of the New York Times Critics’ Top 10 Books of 2016 and a finalist for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. She is the Features Director at Harper’s Bazaar and a contributing writer for the New York Times, and her writing has also appeared in Vogue, Glamour, the Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Whiting Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Libertie is her second novel.

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