A little over three years ago I was quickly indoctrinated into the true meaning of "making it in New York City." The first six months were NOT spent turning down offers for lead roles in the next Broadway hit. Nor did they include booking numerous national commercials, which would have afforded me the ability to forego a survival job and live off my residual checks. And the first year certainly didn't include me bragging to my friends back home, "Oh, yeah! Moving to New York is a piece of cake; in fact it's been the easiest transition of my life." Nope. None of this even came close to happening. And yet, that's what's in the back of almost every actor's mind when they first come here. We say to ourselves, "Oh, I know it's going to be hard. I'll have to pound the pavement for a while." But what we're really thinking, is, "I'll pound the pavement for three weeks, get discovered, and be living the life of my dreams in a matter of months. Yeah, yeah, it's not the norm to hit it big right away, but I'm an exception to the rule."
And then, reality sets in. Or at least it did for me. I spent the first year in NYC playing "Frogger" with renegade cab drivers in Times Square, while rushing to every open call audition I could find. I asked what I now believe to be at least a half of NYC's population for directions, while I was looking for a place to stay that didn't have roaches rights written into the lease. And I spent many a breakfast, lunch and dinner scrounging for loose change in my purse -- the last of the nest egg I arrived with -- so I could buy myself yet another $2.00 chicken kebab from Avram, the neighborhood Greek street vendor. Luckily he liked redheads, so if I came up short, he'd hand me the stick of meat, whisper something I can't repeat, and send me on my way.
All this is to say that my brave and bold move to the center of the modern world didn't turn out exactly the way I had anticipated. Hmm. In fact, not a single thing I thought would happen, that I was convinced I deserved to have happen to me, actually did.
But here's the part that still gets me, or I should say, gets my parents. I'm still here. I haven't thrown up my hands and said, "Well, I gave it the ol' college try. I think I'll go to law school now and get a real job." I'll be the first to say that I wish I had a bit more stability in my life in all aspects and that I really don't find anything noble about the "starving artist" lifestyle and identity. But what is incredibly inspiring to me is the resolve that some have to stay true to their deepest calling, no matter how damn hard it is.
So, let's fast-forward a couple of years, shall we? I'll cut the suspense and tell you right off that I'm still not famous. But what I am now is "familiar." I consider that one minor step away from famous. Anyway, I'm familiar enough with NYC to give directions to anyone who asks. Well, anyone who asks in English. I'm familiar with where the audition studios are, how much time it takes to get from Minetta Lane in the West Village to Astoria Kaufman film studios in Queens. I know the subway lines like the back of my hand, and I can get to all the great underground theatres with my eyes closed (no reference to my visual impairment intended). The cashier at my local bodega knows my name, how I take my coffee, and that I'll ask him to tell me a joke every time I walk in there. And, of course, I've discovered all the low-key bars and lounges in my area, as well as discount shops and diners. Basically, New York has become a full fledged home for me.
And the longer I travel on this artist's path, whether in New York, or even San Francisco, the more my idea of "making it" keeps changing. It's evolved into finding the abundance and the joy emanating from within me, rather than searching outside myself for something I must obtain. I'm not saying that I don't want to get a great gig on television one day or that I'd balk at ICM calling me up to represent me. But I'm finding that I'm less willing to spend my time waiting for others to choose me. And I'm using that energy now to choose myself.
When I look back on these past few years I see the incredible wisdom that was somehow guiding my path to where I am today. Because I wasn't scooped up right away when I arrived in NYC and my time was all too free to do with what I wanted, my imagination was hungry to stretch and suddenly had tons of time to play. So, the writer and director in me emerged. And surprisingly quickly a piece started developing, and I started creating. In a matter of a few short months, an incredible design team, four actors and a theater that basically gave us a space for free almost magically came together. And in May of 2005 my first New York show premiered -- Sugarville: a little death. I wrote, directed and produced the show and began creating an experimental form of theater I lovingly and quite seriously described as "visceral theatre." Sounds pretentious. What does it mean, you say? Well, not so simply put, "visceral theater" marries profound storytelling with sense-oriented production design. I founded a theater company called Vanguardian Productions, and our goal was to create an environment that stimulates as many senses as possible -- sound, sight, touch, smell, even taste -- that parallel what the characters experience during their journey in the play.
Our next show in NYC was the solo piece TRUCE, which I wrote and performed. TRUCE was directly inspired by my mother's and my story of our vision loss and the dynamics that emerge when neither party wants to face the truth, thus not face each other. Keeping with our visceral approach, a scrim was set up from floor to ceiling and wall to wall. The lights that shone behind the scrim faded out during the play, while a projection of a black spot on the front of the scrim slowly grew larger and darker. As the show went on I became more and more difficult to see, thereby allowing the audience to experience my mother's and my vision loss themselves.
And the "choosing for myself" way of navigating the theatrical world in New York has been continuing for some time now. After TRUCE, I directed two other NYC shows. And this past spring I was offered my first commission to write and direct a new show in San Francisco, which just opened in mid October.
So, here we are again, wondering what will come next. What adventures and insights will I have? What disappointments and challenges will I face? And what resources will I draw on to persevere? I never thought this is where I'd be three years ago. I wonder if I'll be saying the same thing three years from now.
Marilee Talkington is a visually impaired theater artist and a previous contributor to Opening Stages. For more information about her go to www.vanguardianproductions.com.top