Thursday, July 12, 2012

On a Blessed Summer in Iowa

“For life is the best thing we have in this existence. And if we should desire to believe in something, it should be a beacon within. This beacon being the sun, sea, and sky, our children, our work, our companions and, most simply put, the embodiment of love.”
-Patti Smith

The joy of being unemployed every few months is that I have time to spend time with the people who made me and the people who made them. A day after the Riverside Theatre in the Park’s season closed, I land in Louisiana, the birthplace of my father. Within five minutes on the bayou, the gate attendant has called me “baby” in that sweet, albeit slightly condescending way that only Southern women of a certain age can. As in, “Get out of the way, baby.” Even in the airport, the air smells of caramelized sugar folded around fresh pecans. I’m craving a praline already; perhaps Yiya has some from Christmas in one of her three deep freezers. I’ve not been back to Opelousas in almost three years. We get out of the car on Hibiscus Street and the first thing my grandmother says to me is, “Well if it isn't Ethel Barrymore... You look so skinny!!" She quickly seeks to remedy my starving-artist-induced-weight-loss with an entire plate of ham, a sheet of heavenly hash, and caramel pecan topping with sweet potatoes under it. After all this food, I insist on doing my yoga in the garden… her response: “Well, that will be a treat for the neighbors!”
208 Hibiscus Street. Opelousas, Louisiana
Coming back to the home my father grew up in and the only place I’ve known my grandparents to live has helped me maintain my grounding during yet another transition from one job, one city, one relationship (or lack thereof) to different jobs, a new old city, and a new relationship. Endings and beginnings. Everyone’s lives are full of them; however, as an actor, my work revolves in two or three month cycles... so the endings and beginnings just keep on coming.

When I accepted the apprenticeship at Riverside this March, I focused everything toward that goal: On May 15, I move to Iowa City. I couldn’t have been more thrilled to quit my day job(s), sublet my Wicker Park  apartment and work only on my art for two months. I packed my Honda Civic, affectionately known as Elliot Smith, to the brim groceries from Trader Joe's, my sewing machine, bags of yarn and books on Shakespeare. (The car was bought for my pensive older brother when he turned sixteen. He named the silver car in homage to the ill-fated singer and the freedom a junkyard car provided for Good Will Hunting at the end of the film by the same name. Fortunately, the car continues to be in better shape than it’s namesake… and allows me to “go to see about an acting job.”) With the fierce tunnel vision which is simultaneously my greatest ally and fatal flaw, I was completely focused on getting to Iowa City and playing a fun, classic role at a theater I'd never been to. I arrived and began to play.
But it only took me a week here to realize that this job too would end. Eventually I would have to begin my second year out of school, which would look a lot like my first year. It’s amazing how the obvious can be so insanely surprising sometimes. WHAT?!? You mean I have to do all this over again? You mean I can't live in Riverside board member Natasha's basement forever? I have to move back to Chicago, work a day job, audition, mail out headshots, send email after email??? Chasing a dream sometimes feels like just that, a chase. I guess I’ve got to learn to love it because building a career is a marathon, not a sprint. And you don't really know if you are winning or what the prize is at the finish line. The prospect of another year in the theater is exciting and intimidating, isolating and hopeful.
I gotta say, things do get easier. Work begets work. Because of my job this summer, the Riverside artistic staff has cast me again in an upcoming new play. I shall return to Iowa City in the middle of December to be a part of The Exit Interview by William Missouri Downs. Riverside's production is a rolling world premiere produced through the National New Play Network. This production not only marks my first new play, but also my first professional show at an Equity house where I am not an apprentice. I feel I have graduated and for that I am truly grateful. But boy, do I appreciate being an apprentice with this fantastic group of human beings. These young artists are going places. 
Apprentice Class of 2012. Photo by Kelly Gibson
So it's back to Chicago for me for the fall. I'll be back at the yarn shop and standardized patient work and some other way to make money yet to be determined. I will say that if I'm going to do this vagabond actor thing, I must learn to pack lighter... I have too much stuff. Stuff is weight. Weight is burden. Burden is bondage. Bondage is slavery. Slavery is not freedom. I want freedom. To be fair, I did not think I’d be bringing back a person from Iowa as a souvenir. But I did and for that I am grateful. More on that later.

As I look back on my five years in college and my first year as an actor, I am amazed at how time and integrity change all things. Time changes us without our knowing or consent. Integrity ensures that we become the people we intend to be. I am grateful for this summertime and the splendid integrity of the artists I had the honor of playing with.

Residents of Arden during intermission on closing night. Photo by Kelly Gibson.