For as long as I can remember, I’ve had creativity pouring through my veins. In primary school, I wrote stories and plays, often based on my favourite things at the time like Alvin and the Chipmunks, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Jurassic Park, and Disney’s Aladdin. I acted in the Chipmunks plays I wrote, and made the props out of cardboard. For my year 7 graduation, I choreographed my own dance and sang “Just Around the Riverbend” from Disney’s Pocahontas. I was a performer. And my dad used to film me doing all kinds of crazy things on camera to encourage me.
But somewhere along the way, I was taught I had to be realistic. By the time I was in high school I’d decided I wanted to be an actor on TV or in movies, but I was shy and the messages I kept hearing was that it was too hard to get work as an actor. I could do it as a hobby, but I was smart at science and maths, so I should use those abilities to my advantage, and get a better paying job I wouldn’t have to struggle so hard to achieve. I think these messages are part of the reason I believed it was too hard to memorise a lot of lines, so when I did act in plays at school, I always opted for bit parts with as few lines to remember as possible.
This past Friday night I went to hear Darren Criss (Blaine Anderson from Glee) sing and talk about the experiences he had that led to him finding success as an actor, and it cemented a number of things I’ve been ruminating on over the past few weeks as I’ve been trying to figure out the best way for me to personally transition from live improv performing to also getting into on screen acting — a dream I’ve had for most of my life but never believed I had the ability to achieve.
While some aspect of getting work as an actor is luck, the people who generally get the big roles are the ones who have dedicated so much of their time to achieving their dreams. It really helps to have a supportive network of friends and family who believe in you and tell you that you’re capable of doing anything you want. Darren Criss had that life since he was a kid. I look around at all the talented people I admire and it seems they’ve been working so long in their chosen fields to keep learning and getting better at what they do. And then I look at me.
I’ve switched from creative endeavour to creative endeavour so much in my life that it’s no surprise I haven’t found relative success in a majority of them. Sure, I’ve completed projects, made short films, been published, performed on stage a decent number of times, but making money from any of it has been incredibly limited. And I wonder how much of it comes down to me not believing in myself, not believing other people want to see what I produce, and settling for being happy that at least I’ve done what I set out to do, even if I didn’t make money from it. After all, creatives are given these messages every day — do it because you love it, not because you want to make money from it. It doesn’t matter if anyone sees your work, as long as you’re happy with it. And if you’re good enough, your audience will find you.
I also have a tendency to play down my achievements because I don’t want to come across as trying to sell people something, bragging, or putting someone in a position where they feel obligated to say “Oh that sounds cool, I want to watch/read that,” without actually wanting to follow through. I think there may also be a part of me that believes what I’ve done pales in comparison to what those people who are actually working every day to achieve their dreams. I go to a decent number of events in San Francisco where actors, filmmakers, and other industry types go to network, and while I have done a decent amount of filming, directing, screenwriting, and video editing, it’s all been for fun, and apart from what I produced in my Graduate Diploma and PAC Screenworkshop classes in Australia, with friends. The limited number of festival submissions I’ve sent places have never been accepted. So I don’t feel like I can talk to people in the industry here and say “yeah I’m a video editor” or “I’m a screenwriter.” I’ve only recently developed the courage to introduce myself as an improvisor, and that’s thanks to being part of a dedicated Leela troupe that I auditioned for, for over six months now, with multiple performances under my belt. On top of that, I’ve probably spent an average of 2-3 nights a week dedicated to improv classes, rehearsals, and shows since the beginning of the year. I feel like I’ve been putting the time in in a way that I haven’t with my other previous creative pursuits. Even when I worked on my novel, there were a couple of month(s)-long stretches where I didn’t do anything for it at all. Or at least that’s how I remember it. I’m still not entirely sure how I managed to fit in finishing it while balancing motherhood.
But this segues nicely into how motivation works for me, and how I’m sure it helps a lot of others, too.
A large part of the reason I was able to finish and publish my novel, Adrift, is because there were people in my life who believed I could, even when I didn’t. I had people counting on me to finish it because they wanted to read it. Even if no one else wanted to read the book, or buy it, I wanted to do it for them.
And that’s the place I feel like I’m at right now with pursuing improv and acting further. I still think it’s near impossible to get the kind of work in the industry I’d like to do, but I know for sure it’s not going to happen if I don’t even try to take steps forward. Still, I wouldn’t be taking those strides forward if it weren’t for the countless people who’ve told me they like the characters I play, the choices I make on stage, and my emotional range as an actor. I hadn’t expected to ever see myself as an actor. I still don’t consider myself one, even though logically I have learned that improvisors are actors, too. But other people believing in my ability is helping me with the courage to at least take the next steps forward into the world of acting, and seeing how far I might be able to take it.
In July, my family and I drove to Hollywood. Los Angeles. I saw the Hollywood sign and Walk of Fame on Hollywood Blvd for the first time in my life. Suddenly, somehow, living in the Bay Area, about a 5-6 hour drive from LA, moving into acting on camera seems more tangible. There are still the same hurdles — a lot of people competing for a limited number of positions. The fact I have kids and can’t so easily work around them for jaunts to filming locations outside of the Bay Area until they’re old enough to look after themselves after school, which I estimate is at least 5 years away. But it’ll probably take me that long in training to get good enough to have the potential to land a role I’d like to have, anyway. I don’t have to put my life on hold in the meantime.
There are other things that have led me to believe my dreams are more tangible now. I’ve achieved and done a lot in the past year that I never would have believed possible when I lived in Australia or Malaysia. When my husband’s parents were visiting in April, we all drove out to Las Vegas, and when we arrived, I saw a banner advertising a stand-up show featuring David Spade and Ray Romano. Now, I’m not a fan of Ray Romano’s, but Just Shoot Me started airing when I was in high school, and through that show, Spade had become the (American) comedic actor I idolised most. Between him, and then Owen Wilson when I discovered him a couple of years later, I had developed an obsession for checking out any work they had been involved with, comedic or otherwise. I backtracked on Spade’s previous work with Saturday Night Live and Chris Farley, and followed him through into Joe Dirt and Dickie Roberts. Though I’d settled down on following him once I moved to Malaysia due to the sheer fact I didn’t keep up with much of my movie and TV interest when I was there, I still held onto that initial memory of how much I loved his work. So when I saw he was coincidentally performing in Las Vegas the same week I was there, I couldn’t resist. It was the only thing I couldn’t stop thinking about having the opportunity to do. Never in my life did I think I’d ever get to see him perform live. Then two months ago I found out he was going to be performing in San Francisco, and addict that I am for seeing my favourites live, couldn’t pass up that opportunity, so I saw him again last night. With nearly 7 months between performances, it was nice that there was only minimal crossover of the material he performed. I also learned he recently released a memoir, which was on sale at the show, and I bought so I had something to read while I waited the hour or so from when I was seated (the closest non-reserved seat available! So much better seating and a cheaper ticket than when I saw him in Vegas).
But David Spade isn’t the only celebrity comedian/actor I’ve admired and had the opportunity to see live since moving to the US, who I never expected I’d have the chance to see. Rob Schneider is another one, who I believe I somehow found through my exploration into David Spade’s previous work, and I even got to meet him after that show. I didn’t even know he did stand-up, but he was fantastic. Then there was Hal Sparks, who I first encountered through Queer as Folk, which I probably started watching before I even knew I was bisexual myself. That was such an influential show for me in terms of it being the first thing I watched that truly showcased a lot of characters who weren’t straight, and I’m a strong advocate now for sharing more stories with that kind of diversity.
The first time I ever really paid attention to a particular film director was when my brother got me into Kevin Smith’s films. This was again around my formative high school years — after everyone at school was over the moon with Dogma because they loved Matt Damon and/or Ben Affleck, but I preferred Mallrats and Chasing Amy, even though they were his earlier films. I was aware that Kevin Smith occasionally travelled around to do Q&As, including to Australia, but it’s been many years since he’s really been involved with any of his earliest Jay & Silent Bob related films, and that’s when it seemed he did them regularly. Still, despite the fact I haven’t seen a Kevin Smith film since Zack & Miri Make a Porno, I jumped at the opportunity to see a full Kevin Smith Q&A live (I’d already previously seen him live hosting the Q&A after Misery Loves Comedy at Sketchfest at the beginning of the year).
In a similar way that I took away a lot from listening to Darren Criss, hearing Kevin Smith talk about his experiences working on his projects was, I have to say, more inspiring. Here is just a simple down-to-earth, relatable guy who just made what he wanted happen. Despite his years of experience, and having daughters who are friends with each other, he was starstruck working with Johnny Depp. The way he talked about it made me feel like it was exactly how I’d react if I were in his shoes. He’s also a big proponent for DIY creativity (he encouraged the audience to just go out and make it happen themselves), and in these days, with the power of the Internet, it really seems like if you put in the hard work, that’s the easiest way to get yourself seen. Even Darren Criss, with all his years of acting in high school and college, didn’t really start to get noticed until he made his Harry Potter musical, which helped him get his foot in the door for auditions in LA.
I enjoy listening to these stories from people I admire, from David Spade, to Kevin Smith, to Darren Criss, because they give me hope, and show me it’s possible to achieve my dreams by going about them in a non-traditional way. I have always been more of a DIY pursuer of the arts. It’s why I wanted to have creative control over the books I’ve published, and barely had any interest in seeking an agent for my novel. The struggle I have had has been in finding the right team I could work with on an ongoing basis. People who liked me and my ideas enough to want to collaborate with me on other projects. It’s why it took me so long to find my way into improv, and why training with Leela and then performing with YUM! has been a huge step forward for me. Leela has been the place where I have found those people who do want to work with me on other projects.
Several months ago, my friend Able, who I met when he was the TA in my Improv I class, and I were talking about how great it would be to perform improv in an LGBT troupe. So we set about discussing and finding the other LGBT-identifying improvisors we wanted to work with. We ended up adding Dillon Thomas and Casey Trujillo, who I already worked with in YUM!, and Steven Burnett, who we’d admired in Sketchy Alley, and was one of my early excited supporters (pre-YUM!), who I enjoyed playing with at one of Leela’s improv jams. I love the character banter Able and I play with whenever we see each other (at some point, we really have to film our old Scottish men characters, because everyone seems to enjoy watching us play them up). I’m constantly inspired by all of the amazing people I get to work with here, because getting better at what I do is so much easier and more enjoyable when I like the people who help me get there.
I really feel like I’m starting to move into that next phase of my life now. I’ve been talking with Dillon a lot, since we’re in two troupes together, and we both have an interest in screenwriting and filmmaking. And there’s a strong desire within both of us to start moving our experiences together into film work. We’re also starting to work on being in an improv duo together, which I think will help us develop some of those film ideas. We were in a scene together earlier this week that was so awkward and uncomfortable but we were both present and able to commit to the reality, that I’d love to be able to develop it further for film. It’s nice that we both inspire each other in ways that we want to move forward and do more.
I’m still terrified of even attempting to try and do anything the traditional way to get into film or television, but I am taking steps to build my confidence and learn in case I decide to try and move beyond working with people I already know and enjoy. I’ve been working with a private coach, and start an on-screen acting class this week. I couldn’t have taken that leap without the encouragement I’ve had from my friends and coaches in the Leela community. Though I do occasionally feel some of that impostor syndrome. It’s hard for me to see myself the way those that encourage me see me. It’s especially wonderful when those compliments come from those I admire and have more experience than me. I wouldn’t be where I am without them. They help me make my dreams a reality.
Having said all that, I have improv shows coming up! This Saturday, I’m performing in my second show with LiGhtBrighT, 8pm at the 9th St Independent Film Center in San Francisco alongside Marjorie’s Mask (the Leela troupe Able is in) and Sketchy Alley. [Facebook event page | tickets]
Then, on Saturday 21st November, I’m performing with YUM! (same time and venue) alongside Marjorie’s Mask and Pamela and Dave. [Facebook event page | tickets]