I’ve “quit” acting twice. Clearly I’m pretty bad at quitting. The first time was partway through high school; I went to a very large public high school in Pennsylvania (850+ students per graduating class) where the competition in the theatre department was quite fierce. I started doing musicals in middle school, and by sophomore year of high school I got my very first role with a solo singing verse and (brief) lines of her own. I was excited to see what our upperclass years held.
Then, during junior year, they announced that year’s musical: “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Now, as is true in most theatrical circles, there are more women involved than men, so competition was especially tight for women. The fact that they had chosen a show with two speaking female roles (oh, and a bunch of concubines) felt like a slap in the face, and anyone could tell who would be getting the coveted roles in that show. To make matters worse, those concubines required dance skills – and despite 12 years of dance training I couldn’t hold a candle to some of the pre-professional dancers vying for roles.
It was with a heavy and slightly bitter heart, then, that I gave up on the theatre troupe and devoted my time fully to my other main extracurricular pursuit: speech and debate competition. When choosing colleges, I’ll admit that I was intrigued by Carnegie Mellon’s strong theatrical history both academically and extracurricularly – but it was never the plan to get back into theatre.
When I arrived at Carnegie Mellon, it was in the height of the swing revival, and I chose to spend much of my free time with the ballroom dance club. I soon met a partner and began rehearsing for the year’s first ballroom competition (a tape of one of those rehearsals exists somewhere, taken by my parents on a college visit.) I learned many things quickly during those first few months: for example, if your ballroom dance partner is male and shorter than you, the tango is best left alone unless he’s looking to be sterile by 21. Ouch.
I also learned that ballroom dance, at least at CMU, is deceptive. I chose the club because I was looking to meet people outside my computer science major, and was quite pleased with my little plan. That is, until one evening when the competition team gathered to watch Strictly Ballroom. Right before the movie began, someone began complaining about their compilers homework, and the others clearly sympatheized. “Wait,” I interjected, “…how many of you are NOT computer science majors?”
One hand went up. (He was Electrical and Computer Engineering.)
This didn’t diminish my opinion of anyone in the group, but it did make me laugh at myself – I seemed incapable of finding an interdisciplinary social circle. But I was determined to meet people from other departments; after all, CMU’s academic diversity is one of its strong points.
Then I saw an audition announcement from the student theatre troupe on campus. They had chosen “The Compleat Works of Willm Skspre [Abridged]” for their February show. Selections from that piece were really popular in the speech competitions I did during high school, and I had always wanted to do the show but knew it was never an option, since it was an all-male cast.
The audition announcement was looking for three guys and one girl. The director wanted to cast a girl.
Suddenly I HAD to audition for this show. I knew there was no chance of me getting the part. No seniority, hadn’t acted in 2 years, no preparation (I pulled my speech piece from high school, Dorothy Parker’s “The Waltz”), and surely stiff competition. So it would be an understatement to say I was surprised to receive a callback. Suddenly, I got scared. I WANTED this, and I was getting too close. I’d be heartbroken to go to callbacks and receive the inevitable rejection. I had never been cast in any roles even close to this size before.
Callbacks happened, and I don’t remember them much. I was intimidated, excited, and wanted to throw up. They played lots of warmup improv games, which I had no experience with. I was sure that would disqualify me. After callbacks, I met my best friend at Yum Wok, our favorite noodle place, for dinner. I expressed all of my emotions, and made it clear that I wouldn’t be getting the part. I tried to make myself think about anything else, like the next ballroom competition or how terrible I was doing in Physics for Engineering Students (ugh).
At the conclusion of our meal, we got the requisite fortune cookies. Deferring to whatever tradition we chose at the time for determining cookie ownership, I took my cookie and read the fortune.
“Your luck has been completely changed today.”
I remember it precisely, partially because I’ve never received it since, and partially because it sent my heart dangerously racing again. Fortunes don’t mean anything, but… what could it MEAN?
I got my answer very shortly thereafter – upon returning to my dorm room, just a few hours after callbacks, there was an email waiting in my inbox, offering me the role in Compleat Works. In fact, doing some loose mental math one could come to the conclusion that the email was received within minutes of the fortuitous cookie. Any plans I had to quit theatre forever were instantly forgotten in my jubilation. I was a bit scared for being so out of practice, but I needn’t have been.
And the cookie was right. Being cast in that show entirely changed my trajectory and sent me back into theatre. It was my Compleat Works cast and crew that pressured me to audition for an improv show with no improv training – and when I got cast in the Harold team for that show, improv became a permanent fixture in my life. As for the troupe itself, Scotch ‘n’ Soda, I did numerous shows, mostly as an actress but also as PR designer, master electrician, and producer. I also became President of the troupe – and the lessons I learned from that experience were probably worth the cost of tuition all on their own.
But it all comes down to that show, that moment. If I hadn’t been familiar with Compleat Works, if I hadn’t seen the posting… what would my life look like now? Would the inevitability of my acting infatuation found another way through my armor, or was this a perfect storm? Either way, I am thankful for it and for everyone involved in that journey (though those relationships are too complicated to even begin to chronicle.)
If you want to get into a chicken-and-egg discussion – Schroedinger’s cookie? – one wonders whether things would have been different if I never opened that cookie. I imagine they would have been similar, but I can never shake the feeling that there’s some sort of magic out there, playing puckishly with our lives every now and again.
Here’s to hoping your cookies are fortuitous.