The holidays can be tough, whatever your line of work. For artists—singers and actors in particular—they’re a source of unique dread because we have to explain–or worse, justify–what we do.
Don’t get me wrong, my immediate family has always been supportive and loving, and I am so thankful for that and them. It’s everyone else I have to deal with: family friends, far away relatives and acquaintances
I’m from a small town in Florida, not a showbiz mecca like Los Angeles, New York, or even Atlanta. Being an opera singer-turned-actor (at this age, especially) married to a Russian acrobat raises more than a few eyebrows. Outwardly, I guess my husband and I appear “normal,” or normal enough. So the question, “What do you do in New York?” seems innocuous.
But it’s the question an artist most dreads.
And after all these years, I still don’t have my cocktail party answer down.
Honestly, the answer varies according to my mood and how much I feel like shocking people with the truth.
The actual answer: “I’m a singer, actor, and voice teacher. I have a lot of students, many of them on Broadway. I used to sing opera but then I quit. For years, I’ve performed on cruise ships doing shows I wrote myself. After twenty years, I decided I wanted to act, not sing, both on TV and in film. I also work and travel part-time for a magazine producing events. So I go to an office, teach 20 or so hours a week, audition several times a week, and study with an acting teacher.
My husband is an ex-ballet dancer trained in the Soviet Union. He’s an acrobat and aerialist. He works at Equinox and performs when he can. We met on a cruise ship and both work 60 or 70 hours a week to afford our studio apartment off Central Park.”
But that’s a mouthful, a monologue even, so here’s what I usually say: “I teach voice lessons and work at a magazine.”
Here’s what I want to say: “I am an actor.”
So why don’t I? The answer is complex. Here’s what comes up for me when I contemplate saying that I am, quite simply, an actor:
6. Illegitimacy (the feeling that I don’t have a “real job” or “enough money”)
The “actor” answer is usually met with shock, which genuinely nice friends or family try (but fail) to conceal. Then comes a slight pause, followed by a forced, well-meaning smile, and the faintly patronizing: “Oh, good for you!” before the inevitable final question: “Have I seen you in anything?”
And there we are. What am I to say, given I haven’t been in a Scorcese film or the Broadway musical Wicked?
The actual answer: “I’ve performed at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, along with all the major nightclubs in New York City. I’ve appeared on two major TV shows and in a few short films.”
Does any of this mean anything to folks back home? Sadly, no.
So here’s what I usually say: “Maybe, but probably not. Hopefully someday.”
They reply, “I’ll keep my eye out for you, so I can say I knew you when.”
Then they order us a drink or give me a hug. And inside, I die a little. Because I see the reality. I see what they see: a nearly 40-year-old woman “still chasing the dream,”when most women my age (at least of my background) have kids, a house, and a reliable income stream.
And this triggers shame, guilt, sadness, and feelings of failure.
The real problem isn’t the questions themselves. They’re an inevitable part of social interaction, particularly at parties with people I don’t see all the time. It’s just typical cocktail party smalltalk.
The real problem is that I feel the way I do. I don’t have an answer. Self-talk and mantras don’t erase feelings of inadequacy, in spite of all I’ve accomplished. I’ve done amazing things and I know I will do more amazing things.
But I still don’t have the trappings of success that many people outside the arts use as a yardstick: salaries, bonuses, health insurance, five year plans.
The yardstick for artists is simply different. Mainstream Americans haven’t heard of singers who haven’t appeared on The Voice or actors who haven’t starred opposite George Clooney. And while those things might happen, they aren’t the only measures of artistic success.
So at a cocktail party, my married radiologist cousin with three kids has a much easier time explaining his life (and by extension, who he is).
Reflecting back on the holiday season, I have decided that I’m not going to deny the discomfort I experienced. I’m not going to pretend I didn’t feel a little hurt, confused, and sad. Instead, I’m going to be kind to myself. I’m going to forgive myself for choosing the path I have. I’m going to applaud myself the bravery the artist’s life requires. And most of all, I’m going to keep going.
And next year when I go home for the holidays, I’m going to remember that the answer to the “what do you do in New York” question is ultimately unanswerable. It doesn’t matter which version I choose on any given day. I am more dynamic than a title or a credit. We all are.
To answer the famous question posed in Chorus Line, I am not my resume. And neither are you.