Waking An Imagined Life

Ever since I was a child, I wanted to be an actress. I still don’t know where this dream came from—if it was simply the romantic idea of stage and movies, or if it was actually deeper, but I remember putting on plays in our garage and in the backyard. I loved the idea of playing different roles, getting lost in words and scenes and other lives.

In 3rd grade I was able to play one of the leading roles in our class play, and I was so proud that my teacher had chosen me. In 4th grade I was determined to get the leading role, which happened to be male. For the audition, I chose the longest monologue, sang a song, and I got the part, even though I had to beat out a few of the boys in my class. This was a really stand-out moment for me, and I still look back and wonder how I could have been so brave and determined when I was only 11.

I was one of those kids who lost confidence, direction, and self-esteem in those early teenage years. I went from being bold and daring to worrying absolutely and completely about what other people thought of me. I wanted to be cool. I wanted to fit in. I was terrified of failure or standing out or looking stupid. In 8th grade, we had to pick an elective class and even though I was desperate to do acting, I was too scared. A few years later, I sat at a coffee shop, skipping school and smoking cigarettes while everyone went to the Guys and Dolls audition.

Even in that moment, I knew I was making some kind of mistake, like my soul could feel it, but I could not bring myself to go back to the school theater. 

Once my father told me I was too shy to be an actress. I can’t say that his comment is to blame for my fears and inhibitions, but those words echoed through me. They enraged me and debilitated me. Every time I thought about taking a risk again to do an audition, I thought, “But maybe no, maybe I am too shy, maybe he’s right.” It became an easy hook to hang my anger, regret, and fears on. And even later, something to blame when I didn’t want to blame myself for not having the courage to pursue acting, to go to auditions, or go to acting school. 

Around age 16, alcohol replaced my compulsion and dream to become an actress. In some ways, alcohol gave me all of the things I imagined acting would be: excitement, attention, fearlessness, and the feeling that I could be anyone or do anything. Through my teens and my twenties, I was the girl who would get drunk and crazy, dance on the bars, talk to anyone, be anyone to everyone. This relationship with alcohol served and fulfilled me in a lot of ways, and though it was dangerous at times, for a few hours those nights when I was using, I got to be this unabashed, brave person I always wanted to be, the person I thought I deserved to be. Of course, in the morning, that person was gone and I was full of regret and remorse, feeling even lower than before.

But those high-flying moments, that feeling of total freedom and attention, performance, and ease, was enough to propel me into another night of drinking. And to forget any dreams I had of acting or anything else. 

I got sober the first time when I was 23 and decided to try acting again. I sent out headshots to local agencies and started taking improv classes. After about 10 months of sobriety, I started to falter- I got depressed, anxious, and lonely. I missed those nights of drinking and didn’t have anything to fill the void. No one in my improv group would have known it, but I relapsed after one of our performances. The funny thing about relapsing is that most people won’t even notice what a tremendous and life-altering thing you’re doing, what a huge step backwards, and a huge loss. I remember sitting at the table, watching their faces, in slow motion, going on with their idle conversations, as though me ordering a beer meant nothing at all. But it really ended things for me that night—the taste of it felt exhilaratingly familiar and strange and I lost myself immediately. I dropped out of improv a few weeks later and the relapse proved to be devastating—I discovered cocaine and it was another 10 years before I would try to get sober again. 

Over time, the idea of acting as a dream, has been a stand-in for all of my regrets and mistakes. It’s the thing I could have and would have done if I wasn’t so flawed. It’s a calling and pursuit that would have made me a whole and better person had I just had the courage to take the chance. It has become a metaphor for all of my sorrows and losses.

When I am most critical of myself, it’s the thing I should have done, and would have done, if I hadn’t been so tragic. 

Last week, after three and a half years of sobriety, I started intensive acting courses at a theater in Berlin. I was petrified, not only of the experience, but what it would mean to me. What if this whole time I was never any good? What if I am the worst in the class? What if after 20 years, I have been wrong to think that I should have been an actress at all? 

The class began with those awkward icebreakers and name games. We moved onto improv and scene work with partners, an entire day of learning to access emotions, and finally the performance of a fully developed monologue. It was deeply liberating to engage this part of myself that had been dormant for so long. It was playful and childlike, and I got to detach—I really loved learning how to release myself from the bondage of others’ judgment. It’s not something I do often, but the intensity of the course allowed me to push myself and get beyond my fears of what others think of me, to be vulnerable in an authentic way, because the irony is that good acting requires the destruction of that veil. I learned, you cannot truly act, unless you are completely vulnerable, unless you can stop trying to see yourself through the eyes of others.

Acting as a pursuit, was completely demystified. Doing it made me realize that, it wasn’t so romantic, or amazing, or crazy. It’s just a thing. Like a lot of things—and, I can’t say that it was more genuinely enjoyable than other things I‘ve thrown myself into, like writing, or podcasting, or even traveling, or mothering.

That is to say, because I was actually doing it, instead of just thinking about it, it stopped being this thing that was so mystical and out of reach. It’s just there. It’s a thing people do.  

I’ve been thinking more often about how our personal narrative shapes the way we see our lives and the way we see ourselves. For so long, I‘ve been angry with myself for abandoning this dream, also shaming myself for my alcohol problems and having this glaring loss of time, energy, and focus in my life. 

Taking the time to go to acting classes, to pursue this old dream has shown me that there were probably a lot of reasons that I didn’t do acting. Maybe I was a little shy. And maybe my teenage years through off my confidence (I wouldn’t be the first!). But also, I was doing other things. I had other interests and I also pursued them—like journalism and poetry, and I had an intellectual side, enlivened by liberal arts, politics and law. I got straight As in college and got a degree in anthropology. I went to law school. I traveled around the world.

I made choices. And choosing one thing means not choosing another. 

We all have dreams, but just because they haven’t manifested, does not mean we have failed or lost. The truth is, I don’t know what would have happened if I had pursued acting. I could have moved to L.A. and hated the waitress/audition life—or maybe I would have gotten a part, and had a break, and then spent my life chasing it. Maybe I would have ended up in a mirror-image life—married two kids, just in a different city. You don’t what would have happened, and more importantly, you don’t know how you would FEEL about what would or wouldn’t have happened because it’s NOT REAL. 

For me the biggest danger is the imagined life as it could have or would have been. . . if only. I love that I’ve done this workshop and learned so much not just about myself, but in the space that I occupy as an artist, as a human, as someone who has experienced a lot of pain and is making choices to move through it. I’ve had to make a lot of peace with my past, to let go of regrets and to accept the choices that I’ve made. Lately I’ve realized how much I’ve truly been through and I’ve had to really embrace where it has gotten me, and what I have learned through it all. We can’t be everything, be everywhere, do everything. But it is important to honor the life we have, and the choices we have made, and of course, the journey. Mine hasn’t been easy, but the path itself, has been an honorable teacher.  

Kate Leismer

Author, ex-pat, mother, traveler, artist

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