Friday, March 9, 2018

It Scares Me Who Seems to Be Successful

In college, a fellow student came up to me, tears in his eyes, as he recounted the discussion he’d had with our professors. They told him he was never going to succeed as an actor. They pulled out all the stops: too ugly, not talented enough, too brown. Of course, they were much more sneaky about it, but it all came down to these old men acting like a clique in a junior high.

He came to me because I was never one to keep silent. It had done me well, my curiosity, and a lot of my high school teachers liked me because, even though I argued a lot, I was enthusiastic, engaged, and genuinely trying to understand, not just be a little shit.

At my university it took me some time to learn that my professors didn’t want to teach. They were the quintessential stereotype of the failed artists. They weren’t even really that failed, having some accomplishments and good stories, but they were predominantly there for the steady paycheck, and they were certainly not happy with the way their lives had turned out. They had expected to be big.

And, to give them some credit, I imagine a lot of their naysaying was autobiographical, something they would have liked to tell their younger selves. “That big dream you’re banking on? Never going to happen. Quit and find something with a good retirement plan.”

My fellow students were better game players than I was. I just didn’t get it. And I didn’t want to get it. I believed in “good and bad” writing, I was confident in myself and destiny, and knowing that I was a good person, I thought that if I was just true to myself and my opinions everything would work out. (This also inspired the assumed sloppiness and unspoken entitlement you would expect.) Even after I became aware of the reality of the social hierarchy, it merely lost me respect for my professors.

I was somewhat ignored in college until someone found themselves the outsider of the professors’ favor. This only bothered me so far as I constantly felt myself fighting to do the art I had come there to do and no one seemed to have any respect for the work I was putting in. To be clear, I’m not a social person in general, and I wasn’t hated or ostracized. My friends originally asked me to parties and outings and I always said no, so they stopped inviting me. I like to be by myself, and while I struggled to really bond with anyone, it wasn’t as though I was the poor little outsider. My attitude made people pay no attention to what I was doing, overall. I don’t fault them for that.

The department was small, and we all talked in class, were on good terms, but I’d sit in the green room, undisturbed, for hours writing and no one would approach me. I witnessed this orientation around the “golden actors,” the ones who the professors deemed as wondrous, and watched students hang on every word of their esteemed instructors. I saw some poor behavior, from all of us, in attempts to get in the teachers’ good graces. My fellow students left me alone to my arguing. They often took on a “let’s wait until we see what happens,” position, even when someone else would be fighting for their own rights.

I was a fly on the wall, in many ways, and when they came to me at their lowest, my response was, “They do that to everyone.”

And it was the truth.

Every student would find me by myself to talk about it at one point or the other. “You’d understand. They don’t like you.”

Accurate enough. But when I told them the professors were full of it, that they would find any reason to criticize anyone, that even their golden boys would have moments of repression and insult, my peer would wave me away. “Yeah, but they’re right about them. So what does it say about me?”

The head of the department once told me that in all his years of teaching, only one student has ever left here being able to direct. I was like, “The student you told us who came in with the skill?”


“Don’t you feel bad about taking our money?”

I didn’t say that.

And for those of you who are thinking, “But looks and race do play into your ability to be a successful actor,” let me be clear.

He wasn’t just saying, “You’re not going to be the next Stephen Spielberg,” he was saying, “You will never be skilled enough to produce a decent play.”

He wasn’t saying, “Here are the factors that you need to be aware of,” he was saying, “Just give up now.”

He wasn’t saying, “You are sacrificing your brilliant abilities as a mathematician for a career you’re unlikely to succeed at,” he was saying, “I see no merit in you at all. You’re stupid for even trying.”

He was saying, “I don’t believe you can ever be an artist because I couldn’t. So, I’ll take your money, but I’m not going to bother teaching your because it won’t do you any good. Maybe, if you’re lucky, I’ll give you enough time to feel bad about yourself.”

The students didn’t believe me when I told them that everyone was being belittled. That if you weren’t brown it was because you were fat, if you weren’t fat, it was because you were ugly, if you weren’t ugly it was because you were stubborn. You were blonde so your hair didn’t light right. There were no parts for you until you were forty. You were too nice. You were too argumentative. No matter who you were, there was something holding you back.

Because there’s something holding us all back. And, yes, they can tell each and every student they’re not going to succeed and have a pretty good chance of accuracy. You don’t need to analyze their abilities to successfully guess who’s not going to be the next Johnny Depp.

Every actor has, at some point, been told they were never going to succeed.

When confronted, my professor’s argument was that if you can be discouraged, you should be. My argument is that if you can be discouraged, you will be. You don’t need some asshole standing there trying to demotivate you.

Art made is never a waste of time. If you created something, no matter if it didn’t go anywhere, no matter if you abandon it and your career later on, it is means more than if you had gotten halfway through a law degree, or spend your nights binge drinking. Experimenting with the art world is one of the best things anyone can do, no matter how shitty they are at it.

The point is, however, that I found myself still being ignored, even as they came to me for advice, even as I gave them an informed perspective about how their belittlement wasn’t personal. The truth was, my opinion didn’t matter. I wasn’t a professor or a chosen one, I was just some weirdo who seemed to be around a lot. They would rather listen to the man who tore them to shreds, who demonstrated little argument for his opinions, who didn’t care about the art world anymore simply because he was in a position of power.

Being liked and being respected was key. As long as I didn’t socialize, as long as I didn’t bother with presentation, I wasn’t ever going to have anyone listen to me.

It was a game changer for me, in both good and bad ways. Prior to that, I wanted my professors to be proud of me. I may not have cared about being popular, but I did want to be admired. I struggled to understand their opinions—why they liked what they did and hated what they didn’t—but the more I analyzed them, the less congruity I found. After years of digging through their answers and patterns, I had to finally acknowledge the most consistent factor in their determination of quality: reputation.

They gave me plays that seemed like weird for the sake of being weird, claiming their genius. They would go on long tangents about the meaning in them while at the same time admitting that the playwright in question had wanted to just make something impossible to produce and had been committed to an insane asylum.

I asked them how they knew a play had more meaning and just needed a deeper examination or if it was just meaningless: “You learn from experience.”

There was a lot more to that conclusion, but in essence, they changed their arguments to fit the stance they wanted. They liked the things that they thought made them look good and not the things that didn’t. I realized, finally, that it didn’t matter what I produced—or any of their students did—because they didn’t judge art on its merit, they judged it on its appearance. They would never seem worldly if they liked what the peasants made.

Not to say I was writing anything in their target demographic. I’ve never been a fan of Absurdist or experimental theatre. But I did try to improve my writing, and I did, for a time, believe that they could tell me how. On the rare occasion I could get criticism off of them, they commented on formatting and how I needed to prove my characters weren’t lesbians. That was all I ever got.

Over the years after that, I focused on presentation over concept. I tried to compensate for my laziness and polish my work, hold myself well, and do what it took to get people to at least think I might know what I’m talking about before I opened my mouth. I believe that it doesn’t matter what you say if you can’t get anyone to listen.

There have been ups and downs. I’ve lost some of my voice, some of my fearlessness. I’m much more cautious, which leads to less mistakes, but also less risk taking. I’m far better at pushing the project to its full potential, though now I realize that it’s being held back by a lack of personality and creativity—something that I had in droves prior.

I also have come to a frightening conclusion.

I believed that their power came from a reasonable credit of authority—the teachers, or the ones the teachers had praised. If you could do the work and earn that credibility, you would be freer to do what you thought was best.

Yet, in the recent months, I’ve been confronted with a different issue, that maybe it’s not reputation or a position of authority that gets you respect. It wasn’t the title, but the fear.

Personally, I find the artists in our lives, especially the ones we work with, are only respected if they are somewhat snotty. There are those who have a lot of experience and resume credits who you trust, but the people you don’t question on the ones who look down on opinions that aren’t theirs, even just a little.

I read an article on training puppies once. They said that while dogs love unconditionally, they only try to please people they respect. Those people who they respect? They don’t give out their approval willy-nilly.

Those who are listened to the most seemed to be the ones who distribute their acceptance less. It’s the ones that people want so much to be liked by. Being outside their praise is detrimental while being inside it gives a sense of belonging.

Donald Trump is a colossal horror. He is not articulate, but argues like a teenage girl. He is petty, childish, strange looking, and uncharismatic. This doesn’t shut him down, but only seems to serve him. It brings him to the public eye.

You have Kanye West whose most songs remembered by the main public are tunes he didn’t write, who tries to sing Bohemian Rhapsody at concert but won’t even attempt the high key. He’s called a lyrical genius even though the only song I know for sure is by him is the Katy Perry one in which he sang about anal probing.

There are authors who attack their reviewers, send surges of people after their enemies to harass them on social media, and yet they’re still best sellers.

There are teachers like my professors who belittle their students every which way and yet still are heeded like their word is law.

I once believed that success came from destiny with a little bit of hard work. Then I believed it came from hard work with a little bit of luck. I started to wonder if it wasn’t about “faking it until you make it.” Now I fear even that isn’t enough.

Do you have to be dismissive of other people’s ideas to get anyone to listen to your own? If you listen and collaborate, communicate, and be open, does it make people question your thoughts? Is fear of dismissal more powerful than doing your homework?

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