Even before the invention of the inspirational Instagram quote, our culture placed a huge emphasis on the importance of following one’s dreams.
Chase your passion and find your life’s purpose. Follow your heart and achieve true happiness. But what about when you do the thing – you chase that dream – and you realise it’s not for you after all?
I was quite little (both in age and stature) when I decided I wanted to become an actor. I loved stories and make believe and pretending to be other characters living extraordinary lives. I loved the rush you got on stage when you performed – the high of entertaining people, making them laugh and cry. Once I was in my teens and my family’s Foxtel package included the E! channel, I became enchanted by the glamour of being a movie star. The make up and gowns, the awards ceremonies, the cute co-stars, the exotic travel and the inane celebrity profiles published in fashion magazines (which meal, I wondered, would I decide to order to convince the interviewer of my hearty appetite?).
I finished Year 12 and did really well, but instead of going to uni, I auditioned for and was accepted into a drama school in Sydney. It was meant to be the beginning of everything for me. Instead, it was the year my acting dreams died.
When you were studying it for real, acting was less fun and more excruciatingly painful. At 17, I was pretty innocent and naïve. My classmates were, for the most part, much older and definitely more worldly. They had Life Experience and it gave them an advantage when it came to performing.
As part of our morning warm up, one of our tutors would pick lines from a Shakespeare play, select people randomly from the class and ask them to recite the words authentically. If he didn’t believe you the first time, you kept going until you Spoke Truth.
During one particular class, the lines chosen were from Romeo and Juliet. I’ve always been introverted and acting class had made me even shier, so I almost never volunteered. That said, I lived in constant fear of being singled out, so normally to cope with that ‘fight or flight’ instinct, I rehearsed how to say the lines in my head. Just in case.
This time, I hadn’t – and so, of course, the tutor called me up.
These were the lines:
‘Her vestal livery is but sick and green,
And none but fools do wear it. Cast if off.
It is my lady; O, it is my love!’
These words come from Romeo’s ‘What light through yonder window breaks’ speech. Like any normal teenager, he’s being rude about the moon being a virgin – or something fun to this effect.
From what I’d observed of my fellow students, if you spoke with enough confidence and expression, you were home and hosed. I was dead keen to sit down as soon as possible and so I spoke with confidence – or pretended to.
‘Try it again,’ said our tutor.
I tried emphasising different words. I tried thinking different thoughts to see if that infused the lines with the right meaning. Nothing worked. I didn’t know what he wanted.
‘I. Don’t. Believe. You.’ our tutor said, shaking his head in frustration after my tenth or eleventh attempt. ‘Do it again.’
By this time, my legs were shaking and there were tears pouring down my face. It sounds so stupid to anyone that’s never been a part of something like that. How could it even be a thing that affects you? But part of being an actor is desperately seeking the approval of other people. Your audience, your director, your teacher, your fellow actors. When you’re failing so obviously and you don’t know why, it leaves you raw and vulnerable. If you’ve ever thought you were terrible, this is a brutal way to have it confirmed for you.
As I stood there sobbing in front of the class, the other students did their best to be encouraging. Finally, after several deep breaths, I looked up and nailed it (I must have – otherwise I assume I would still be there).
‘Yes!’ cried our tutor. ‘Yes!’
I wish that I’d just told him to fuck off (I wish I’d at least thought it). Instead, I smiled gratefully through my tears and sat back down on the cold hard floor of the studio as my classmates cheered.
I don’t know if I ever spoke to anyone in my real life about this humiliating incident. At the end of that term – after I’d had two lines in our school play – that tutor wrote in my report that he didn’t think acting was for me. It hurt my feelings at the time, but he was right.
Later that year, my class put on a production of Macbeth with a warm and passionate director. I played one of the witches, a murderer and a messenger, and totally crushed it. It was so much fun to play with the language, to bring that imaginary world to life. But by then, I’d already decided I wanted out.
In terms of self esteem and confidence, drama school knocked me down a few pegs (eight years later, I can see that it might have been a few pegs too many). The main reason I wanted to leave the acting world was because I didn’t like how it made me feel. The rush of performing on stage wasn’t enough to make dealing with all the other insecurities worthwhile.
No matter how many books, interviews and articles I’d read about the importance of having thick skin, I didn’t like the prospect of having to constantly deal with rejection that was so very personal. For most people, being singled out for how you look, move and sound is an aspect of schoolyard bullying that you (eventually) get to move on from. I didn’t want a whole lifetime of that.
Nowadays, my time at drama school mostly serves as joke fodder for my boyfriend and as an amusing footnote I offer up very occasionally to surprise new acquaintances. Those dreams I once harboured feel so far away from who I am now, but I’m still glad I gave it a go. At one point in my life, it was all I wanted to do – and if I’d ignored this, I’d have always been wondering what might have been. Better to try and fail – or try and realise it’s not for you – than to never try at all.
Sometimes I do speculate about what might have happened if I’d continued down that path, but rather than feeling wistful for a future that was never to be, it makes me appreciate of what I have now.
Manda Diaz is the co-creator of The Regal Fox. A pop culture nerd with a fondness for books and red pandas, she works in communications in Canberra. You can follow her on Twitter at @Manda_Diaz.