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What my acting class taught me about identity
In January 2018, I was sitting in a poorly ventilated room, in a building just off of Kensington High Street in London. In the circle of chairs around me were my new classmates—students who, like me, had come across the Atlantic from various cities and schools to study theatre. There were twenty-five of us in that room, and our head acting coach was about to completely change my perspective on identity.
She was in her early sixties and had a tall and commanding presence, with a warmth and quick wit that reminded me of my mother. Leaning into her chair, she began the lesson. “Let’s go around the circle,” she said. “Describe who you are in three words.”
It was still our first week abroad, so this did not seem unusual. A “get-to-know-you” exercise, we figured.
“Dancer, creative, outgoing” the first student offered.
Another from Boston answered, “Lesbian, Jewish, smoker.”
When it got to me, I said “Kind, sister, enthusiastic.”
Once we had all responded, our coach pointed to the Bostonian. “Lesbian, Jewish, smoker?”
The Bostonian softly nodded.
“No,” our coach said. “You can’t be any of those things. You can’t.”
The playful vibe in the room dissipated. Some students prepared to pounce. One girl audibly scoffed. Others’ eyes widened, unsure if they had heard right.
Our coach calmly adjusted in her seat, unfazed by our reaction.
“Imagine I get called into an audition for a new film,” she said. “My agency sends over a description of the role I’m being called in for, and let’s say it’s for the role of ‘the mother.’”
We all sat transfixed, wondering where this was going.
“Mother,” she repeated. “That word describes my role, but it says nothing. ‘Mother’ doesn’t tell me anything about the character. It provides no help to me, as an actor, for how to play ‘the mother.’”
The Bostonian cocked her head, not quite understanding what our coach was digging at. But at that moment I felt something in my head begin to shift.
“How many different ways can you play ‘mother’?” our coach continued.
“Is she soft?” She asked, as she slid down into her seat as though she was melting. Her chest caved in, her shoulders rose to her ears, and her head jutted out as if to listen to what I began to imagine was a pushy and demanding son.
“Is she needy? Si-si-si-simpering?” She then rocked and rubbed her hands obsessively, her lip quivering and eyes bulging.
I felt another gear in my head shifting slowly.
“Or,” she continued, her spine elongating, rolling slowly through each vertebrae, her elbows tucked in and hands clasped, giving us a long, piercing glare, “is she cold and cruel?”
The room was still.
Our coach righted herself, sitting up in her seat again.
“You cannot be ‘lesbian,’ ‘Jewish,’ or ‘smoker,’” she said. “What kind of a ‘smoker’ are you? Who are you?”
In the minute that followed, we watched as she physicalized eight distinct ways of holding an imaginary cigarette. As she fluctuated from form to form I saw characters come to life—a stressed and cross housewife at 3:00 a.m. waiting for her husband to come home from a one-night-stand; a nervous and unsure fifteen year old surrounded by peers pressuring her to smoke at a party; a paranoid and twitchy user who finds a sickening and green relief in every drag; an overworked but easy-going grocery clerk on her fifteen-minute break, scrolling through texts on her phone; a graceful heiress, pretend-struggling to light her cigarette and flirtatiously thanking an older gentleman for his assistance…
I have never seen an actor as clear, articulate, and spontaneous as she was in that moment.
“There is no one way to be a lesbian,” she explained. “There is no one way to be Jewish. There is no one way to be a smoker. Those are all what you are. Give me a description that you can play. Who. Are. You?”
With that, the gears in my head began to grind. I could feel my perspective widening. Playing someone—being someone—is not about what you are. What was I in that moment? A student, a daughter, an actor, an Australian-American, a volunteer… None of those things said anything about me—about who I was. They didn’t capture how my silly side comes out when I’m with my brothers versus my friends, or the fire I spit when I get lost in anger rather than forgive, or how I reveal different shades of reverence and spirituality in choir as compared to yoga, or how I cry when I listen to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.
I asked myself, “Why would I ever try to limit myself to titles that aren’t accurate descriptions of who I am?” But that’s what I and many in my generation had done. We’ve invested our sense of self-worth into our superficial identities and not our deeper selves. It finally dawned on me then that we are more than our groups and titles. We are unique. We are not defined by what we are but who we are, and who we choose to be.
In that moment, sitting in that poorly-ventilated room, I felt more empowered and clear-headed than ever before. I realized that my life cannot be reduced to these labels placed upon me, or those that I had placed upon myself. No, I’m an active player in my life, and my choices make up who I am.
Our coach then asked each of us to give new words to describe ourselves. It was suddenly hard to pick just three. There was so much of me to describe.
“Explorative, enthusiastic, home,” I said.
Our coach smiled.
The class mostly understood the lesson, though some of us were still on edge, and would remain so for the rest of the semester. I noticed as some struggled with tolerance over the next few months. They found it difficult to embrace new perspectives and trust our teachers and classmates. Instead they often judged, looking for reasons to be upset, and ended up causing drama rather than studying it.
That class laid the foundation for me to break from group-think. Whereas all I used to see were people’s superficial identity markers, I had now begun to see individuals defined by their character, words, and actions, and I actively sought to keep seeing them that way. I started making friends with people I had once cast aside because they didn’t identify with the same labels I did, and I often found we had more in common than not. Those I had once thought were “intolerant” because they held views different from mine were actually more welcoming than those I had originally identified with. I also lost friends because they couldn’t understand why I would want to strip myself of labels or engage with others who weren't like “us.” It was often difficult, but it was growth, and it was worth it.
You can call yourself a “friend,” but that title says nothing about what kind of friend you are. You can call yourself a “feminist,” but that says nothing about how you choose to treat others. You can call yourself an “American,” but that says nothing about what you believe.
I don’t care what you are. Who are you?
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