Here’s a crazy fact: The last time I was properly on stage was December 2017.
Holy freaking cow. That is crazy to see in print. Why? Because I used to pursue acting with such ruthless abandon that the mere idea of going a few months without a guaranteed contract would potentially trigger a panic attack. If you would have told me in December 2017 that I would one day be free of the continual nagging ache in the bottom of my heart that told me I was never going to be good enough, I would have wept right there on the spot and begged you, “How can I do that?”
The thing is, you may have been one of my Facebook friends at the time when I would announce in post about an upcoming show and think, “How exciting!” But the thing is, constantly sacrificing everything wasn’t very exciting. Fear. That’s mostly what I remember of my days on the audition grind. Fear that I wouldn’t be able to support myself whenever my current contract ended. Fear that if I didn’t get the next role, then I really wasn’t good enough. Fear that this was the only thing I was good at. And finally, fear that if I didn’t do this anymore, if I “gave up” then I would be selling out. I was afraid more than anything of losing my identity if I “surrendered” to another dream. If I wasn’t Gina the Struggling Actor, then who was I? A normal person. Certainly not an extraordinary or interesting person.
It started slowly. The last official theatrical endeavor I pursued was in Philadelphia while on an understudy contract. You can read all about that in What I’m Doing While I’m Not Acting. It’s only been recently that I can stand before another person and say, unashamed, that my experience in Philly was traumatic. Maybe not capital letter T “Traumatic”, but it was undoubtedly one of the more significant little t traumatic periods of my adult life. I guess I didn’t feel like I had the right to own that trauma because I chose to accept the contract. I thought that by denying the impact the experience had on my life, I could rewrite my story and heal. Guess what? No one ever has healed from a traumatic event by route of denial.
I returned from Philadelphia in a fog and all I could see through the misty grey junk was the word, validation. I was desperate for someone–anyone– to give me a chance and confirm my self worth. What was a gradual decline in Philly, quickly and all at once spiraled rapidly out of control. I would have accepted any role in any play. I would have depleted my dwindling checking account to take up temporary residence in any part of the country for another credit on my resume. Meanwhile, I was entirely incapable of attending large social gatherings because I brought back from Philadelphia a super fun new level of crippling social anxiety.
The climax of my struggle erupted on the day I told my then-boyfriend that I was going to start using a stage name. He didn’t approve as I explained to him that this was possibly a way out of my own mind. If I went by a different name, it wasn’t actually me that was being rejected. Gina still had a chance for validation, even if her stage-named alter ego was too short, too flat chested, or just simply too mediocre. This certainly sounds like a mild case of multiple personality disorder now, but back then I was so utterly disgusted that my boyfriend couldn’t see the logic of this plan that I left the house and took an angry drive around the neighborhood.
What happened next was… I detoxed. I cut out auditioning cold turkey. I even started to regard my bookshelves lined with colorful Dramatist published plays with a lackluster disinterest. It was wonderful and bizarre how easy it was to let my former dream of being on stage quietly and abruptly die out, like blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. Although, I continued to attend the theatre as a patron several times during my “detox”, and those shows– no matter how entertaining– always maliciously succeeded in stirring up those feelings of “why wasn’t I good enough to do that”. Even if there were now cobwebs threatening to suffocate those old insecurities, they were dusted off and made shiny and new every time I left the theatre.
It was then that I decided to finally reconsider the advice that a former therapist gave me about two years prior. When I confessed to her how difficult it was for me to attend plays without becoming bitterly critical of myself, she suggested that I just stop going to the theatre altogether. I thought she was crazy and, of course, completely disregarded her advice. Sitting there and bearing it was something I was expected to do as an actor. Obviously, this therapist had no idea what it was like to pursue a career in the performing arts… I was replaying this advice in my head and sitting at my desk at work when suddenly a text from a friend popped up on my phone. The message made my heart skip a beat. She said, “SARAH RUHL”. Yes, Sarah Ruhl– my favorite playwright and the inspiration for the title of this blog– was going to be at a staged reading of one of her plays in Nashville. Just as I was entertaining the idea of banning myself from all performance venues in the greater Nashville area, Sarah Ruhl comes to town. Obviously, I had to go.
Fast forward a few days and I find myself sitting in a large auditorium, feet away from the woman who has written some of the most beautiful lines in theatrical history (at least according to me… and probably several well-informed critics that are paid to have an opinion). I also find myself sitting feet away from so many familiar faces of actors, stage managers, and directors in the Nashville theatre community– so many people that have beat me out for roles and whom I secretly used to resent, so many people that witnessed me self-sabotage, and so many people who only know the pathetically saccharine version of myself that used to show up to auditions with an invisible sign taped to my jewel-toned audition dress reading, “PLEASE VALIDATE ME”. Don’t get me wrong– I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed listening to those masterfully orchestrated words of The Clean House fill the auditorium space around me, but I was also simultaneously distracted with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. If that those stomach cramps could talk, they would have said, “You don’t have to be here anymore. It’s time to say goodbye”. After the show, I had the opportunity to greet Sarah Ruhl and briefly chat about my blog, the wretched Nashville weather, and my experience playing Eurydice. And you know what? That was enough. It was so much more than enough. It occurred to me that not only did I get to meet my theatrical idol, but I got to play one of her heroines a few seasons back. What more did I need? That was an entirely sufficient parting tale to officially put my former dreams to rest.
That night as I drove home, instead of wallowing in self pity (like I did every other time I left the theatre), I started to analyze all the rejection I had endured over the last few years. I auditioned for grad schools three years in a row, multiple agencies, and just that season alone I submitted myself for something like 47 plays. I literally traveled by planes, trains and rented automobiles to beg for validation. All of those doors of opportunity were slammed in my face and at the time I wondered why. I dreaded the answer being, “You’re just not good enough”. But that night, after meeting Sarah Ruhl, a sense of peace fell over me when I realized that perhaps those weren’t opportunities that I was denied, but situations that God was protecting me from. Those closed doors actually cleared a path for me to figure out who I wanted to be without the obsessive need to prove something to the 18 year old Gina who once said, “I want to be an actor”. That night, after meeting Sarah Ruhl, I finally gave myself permission to dream other dreams and I knew I probably wouldn’t attend another play for a really long time. In the 45 minutes it took me to drive home in the rain, I was able to mourn that dream that wasn’t realized, own my disappointment, and claim the exciting new intricacies of fresh aspirations.
I don’t want you to be mistaken, Reader. I’m not saying all of this in order to convince you that a career in performing arts is in it of itself toxic. What I intend to do with this post is paint a truthful depiction of how it’s possible to lose your identity and become addicted to validation as a result of pursuing a career as an actor. At least, that is what happened to me– briefly. Luckily, I stopped listening to the voices that told me “quitting” was “selling out”, that wanting stability, a family and the desire to succeed in other fields was a sign that I wasn’t made of strong enough stuff. I am plenty strong and I am plenty okay with letting this dream go. I was and I am a good actor. I did and I do have a love for storytelling. But there is so much more ahead of me than a life addicted to validation. I never dreamed that someone like me could get into grad school for anything other than theatre. I never dreamed that I was deserving of a “normal” life and that I could have a salaried job. I never thought someone would value me for my own words, my own ideas, my own intellect. But that’s what’s so funny about our dreams… they are so incredibly limiting compared to the dreams that God has for us.
God is bigger.
God is bigger.
God is so much bigger than our need for validation.
My name is Gina D’Arco and I’m a recovering validation seeker. Who else out there can relate? Let’s walk this journey together because you’re not alone.