🎵 The song for this post is Katamari on the Rocks, by Yū Miyake and Asuka Sakai for the game Katamari Damacy 🎵
I made some great new friends this weekend; one of them was with a group who all came back to my place and we drank wine, talked about a musical we'd seen, and read some 10-minute plays. After reading one together, New Friend seemed a bit overcome, and looked me dead in the eye, telling me "this!! this is what you should do in your life!" She proceeded to tell me, rather insistently and for several minutes, how obvious it was that whatever amount of theatre I'm doing isn't the right amount, that I should seek to increase it.1
This was… awesome!? Being seen, knowing that sharing something meaningful to me produced this reaction in someone: it's why you participate in art, and a lot of why I do pretty much anything. I want others to feel something meaningful, and she did, enough to insist that this be my new (old) life path.
With a few more glasses of wine, the group got into "why theatre, Pablo? What did it do for you, what does it do for you?" and this came up the next day in therapy too, so I'll write out a few things I've figured out.2
(maybe-helpful context: I've had varying degrees of depression for a lot of my life, suicidal ideation started around 11, and I was listless and unmotivated until I was about 17, when I was deciding that actually I loved theatre and wanted to do it. I was hooked: I felt that my purpose in life was to change the world with acting and directing. I auditioned to half my colleges (they were BFA programs at theatre conservatories) and entered Brown thinking I was probably going to major in theatre. A lot has changed — I'm a lot happier, to start — but this should frame who I was when all 👇 was happening).
Fooling yourself into feeling feelings
I've spent a lot of my life avoiding and suppressing my feelings. Acting tricked me out of that for small bits of time, and what I felt as "purpose" was probably closer to relief, for finally letting myself feel things the way humans do. It was like attaching a respirator to someone who works very hard not to breathe.
I met a man a few months ago and he told me he'd done couples counseling with a previous partner, and while they didn't work out, they bonded over thinking their counselor was crap because the counselor got exasperated and told the couple "you need to feel your feelings!" And the couple was like "what the hell does that even mean?!" Just like "be yourself," how can you possibly fail at that?
But he and I laughed, because, now we're a little older, and we know: you can absolutely fail at this. It feels bad to be angry! Or sad, or lonely. So you can ask your brain to take you out of the pot if you feel it heating up. If you've had happiness taken away from you, you're reluctant to lean into it when it's available. If you cope with pain by building a model of low self-esteem, you might convince yourself that good things are for other people, so you won't embrace sources of hope or ambition. You might decide a set of feelings is inappropriate for an intellectual reason (jealousy for someone you should feel "better than," for example) and push them away. In college I heard a quote: "If you find yourself having a strong, unanticipated feeling on a topic, it's likely you simply haven't thought it through enough." I thought this was aspirational.
So theatre… well, it fucks with this, and provides balm without telling you. When you perform a script, for those bits of time, you can safely be in love. Safely let jealousy course through your veins. Safely feel bold or desperate enough to bet it all on Red. Your brain lets it all through customs because these aren't your feelings! They were written down by someone else, and you're just playing a part. Except you still embody them! You still reach into yourself to find those parts and give them sunlight. Which is good, because I was starving.
Living in the present
Acting forces you experience the current moment. It anchors you into the people right in front of you, at this very second. This combats dissociation, which is the more precise description of what I called "listless and unmotivated," and as before, when you're acting it doesn't feel like you're taking medicine.
I've always had an active brain, and recently I have a better articulation to describe the factory behind its output: it's never in the present, it's always processing (or chewing, modeling, and sorting…) things that happened in the past or things that might happen in the future. While someone else is enjoying life's simple pleasures (e.g. "this ice cream is delicious") or feeling alongside a friend who's telling them a story, I relitigate and replay conversations, connect narrative threads, or think about that article I read for the 10th or 11th time. I'll mentally play through conversations with people I wanted to have later.
I wanna be clear: this has advantages! When you have one of those conversations, you're prepped! If you see someone and you've connected multiple narrative threads of their life into a coherent narrative, you may help them see things things they missed, and will appear especially empathetic and considerate. That's especially funny, because you did it by not being "in a moment" with them 😝
But it's also a shit way to live. You miss out on simple pleasures. You're constantly lonely because you're never actually "with" people, and many will often catch onto this vibe and find you weirdly alienating. You'll fall into habits of analyzing everything, of never relaxing, because you feel like you need to hold onto a ridiculous level of detail for everything you're put in front of, or else the world (your world) will collapse.
But when you're acting? You are letting down a scene partner if you're not present with them during line delivery. If the audience sees an actor who's thinking about something else (instead of a person reacting to what's happening in front of them) they'll be disappointed. When you act, like with meditation, your brain and your senses are here, now. And I wasn't doing that for myself in real life. Acting provided a good break.
Getting to imagine something else
After a few shows, a number of folks in High School approached me with "I didn't know you had it in you!" They knew me as a quiet, mostly agreeable guy, but they'd see me onstage as a cruel boss, or a pop star, or a fool you loved to laugh at. It was socially very cool for people to see me be someone other than their projections of me. Most importantly, "people" who's perceptions I challenged included me.
A bit like the "feeling your feelings," when you play other characters you get to try on new skins, character traits. You get to craft — as carefully as any fashionista with their visual aesthetic — entire personalities. Imagine how your ideas and opinions on cars would feel if you had to drive a different one every week. Imagine what you'd learn about perceptions to cars if you had to pick up a date or a business partner in a different one each time. It's that, but for psyches. It's incredibly powerful to ask yourself "what if I was fearless about the things that scare me?", and more powerful still to then explore living in that existence, however briefly.
It also changes your relationship to embarassment or dignity. I… can't remember the last time I've been truly embarassed? Maybe that's why I overshare on this blog 😛 But after you've had to confront, cultivate, and subsequently share your most vulnerable parts with scene partners or an audience, the idea of being looked at is a lot less scary.
(I'll make the distinction between being looked at and seen. I also think my brain won this war for a while, convincing myself I was being vulnerable when I often wasn't. Just like a lot of engineers get so into posturing they start to believe their own shit, I think for years I never really shared myself to others; in part because I myself tried to deny big parts of me that I was ashamed of rather than trying to integrate. Wholly unrelated, let's all play Celeste)
You'll never truly stop being yourself, of course. My 10th grade English teacher said one of my favorite things about acting and being: no matter how good a pretender you are, "pretending to be chased by a lion" and "actually being chased by a lion" will always be radically different experiences, for the person doing it and a viewer. But it's good to see how far you get.
Played well with my other strengths, weaknesses, preferences
A few other things:
The main other activity I could have done in high school was sports, but:
- Theatre is cooperative, sports are competitive.
- There were girls in theatre. And fat people. And gay people. And the theatre tech kids. It was just more my vibe.
- Theatre didn't require me to be athletic, which is good! Because I wasn't!
Sports are great though, I think I could have had a much better relationship to my body, masculinity, and dude friends had I pursued it.
I was impatient and had never learned to practice skills that I couldn't get better at right away (I only started applying myself and studying in college), so athleticism was a no-go, but so was music. Practicing an instrument every day was not something I was ready to do. Also, that was my brother's territory, and when you have a household that's so premised on harmony and a sibling who's only two years apart, one way you can avoid friction is staying out of each other's lanes. And he was really better-suited for it anyway.
Yes I did.
When I was in High School a dad was passing out flyers trying to get kids to play football. He said "other sports you can play your whole life, but for most people football is just high school." I hadn't thought of that: the equipment required, the number of players per team, the coaching requirements and practice schedule: it's just not a game that's conducive to any other life phase.
Sadly, I think that's true for theatre? There's community theatre and if you have an interest, go participate! And there are, like, acting classes you can take that normally have a showcase performance at the end. But there's something really magical about doing this, with a bunch of peers, at a time when your responsibilities look a lot different, and before you have solifidied so many narratives about yourself. So I'd like to end this with a call to action, but I think it's a bit limited.
What if we taught writing the way we teach acting?. "Teaching" acting vs. how we teach things like singing or dancing or film criticism is pretty wild; this does a decent job talking about the kind of weird exercises you do, and I think makes a decent case for mixing up how we teach other things too.
Post I wrote in college, 2007, just as I was choosing to leave theatre, drop my friends and communities there, and go hard into CS.
An Honest Theatrical Playbill, from McSweeneys.
As much as I have theatre takes, they sound like this:
This Brendan Kiley article from 2008 that pissed a lot of people off for saying a lot of true things (I don't believe every word of it, but directionally is correct IMO).
Similar points in this blog post.
1. ^ I promise you guys, reading plays together is really, really fun if the plays are good and the vibes are strong. You get to microdose a lot of the stuff I describe here.
2. ^ Saurya, ever the killer wingman to life, heard me start articulating this thing to a new friend and flat-out asked "Pablo, are you always acting?!"
And I doubled over laughing. Buddy!!! You don't just ask this!!! Making new friends and you go straight to the jugular! 😝 But maybe we can consult my wall of masks?! I made a joke that as a trained theatre artists, I refuse to communicate in text anymore. Only subtext; if you say something to me plainly, I'll miss it.
Thanks for the read! Disagreed? Violent agreement!? Feel free to drop me a line at , or leave a comment below! I'd love to hear from you 😄