The Magic Struggle Bus

Growth as an actor and growth as a human being are synonymous.
— Stella Adler

Forest World is under attack. My sister stands at our border, ready to fight the enemy off with only a stick and her gloved fists. I stand at her elbow, shivering in a Green Bay Packers down coat on a November afternoon, but I have finished my homework, and I am ready. The enemy is imaginary; our resolve is not.

Rome is under attack. I stride with Octavius Caesar toward the generals of the opposing army, and I stare Marcus Brutus and Caius Cassius in the eyes for the last time. They wish to speak; I wish to avenge Julius Caesar. They will have killed themselves by the end of the night. The blood onstage is a mixture of water, soap, and food coloring; the story is not.

My adolescent psyche is under attack. My acting teacher has asked me why I can’t seem to fall in love with my scene partner. I have decided, despite my limited experience with the word, that I am in love with the actress I am working with. If my teacher and my peers can’t see the one element of truth in the scene we’ve presented, what is wrong with me? Why do I lie? I will be in the psych ward of Bellevue Hospital by the end of the night. The conflict is in my mind; the stakes are not.

I am tearing through the backyard of a stranger’s house in Wisconsin. My sister has not finished her homework, so she cannot revel in a bayshore community emptied of its summer residents; that joy is mine alone. Today I am locked in mimed combat with a robot master from the Mega Man video game franchise, and tomorrow she may be an imaginary crush forced to assassinate me. I have always had a taste for the melodramatic.

My impulse to perform dates back twenty-five years. With my parents as a captive audience, I would parade stuffed animals across coffee tables with storylines as absurd as those yet to take place in my own life. I would drag my sister along for the adventure; we were Charlotte and Emily Bronte, exercising our imaginations years before we would use them for profit. I would make a mess, take a bow, and cook up another performance.

Soon, I am attending my first audition shortly after moving to Virginia in the fifth grade. There is a stage adaptation of The Hobbit coming to the McLean Community Center, and I feel the pull. I read the lines they give me with as much passion and clarity as my untrained mouth can muster. They do not cast me. I attend the performance with a critical eye: the trolls are not frozen, that one just trembled, I can do better. I do not quit.

However, I do not audition for another four years. I perform for trees, playgrounds, and the occasional family member. The stories are in my mind, and I do not wish to share them with an audience. I am afraid to fail in front of strangers. This has not changed.

I am auditioning for NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, telling my peers that it is my dream school. I do not expect to be admitted, but the experience will be valuable. I hand the auditors a resume I wrote on notebook paper five minutes prior, along with a picture my sister ripped in half in the waiting room so I would have a headshot to give them. I take direction well. They offer me a scholarship, and I do not have to quit.

I am sitting in a room with seventy-two actors for our freshman year orientation. The sage teacher leans on his cane and intones, “In a way, this is Hogwarts.”

We have all read Harry Potter. We lean forward as one.

“You’ll be learning magic here. How to create life out of nothing.” At last, we will all know the secret to brilliance, and we will all perform on Broadway. Anything short of two Tony Awards would be failure. Four years later, only sixteen of these students will graduate together. I will not be one of them. I will graduate with another class, because my education will also take place in a mental hospital, a sheet metal factory, and a black box theater in De Pere, Wisconsin.

But no theater education is complete without references to Thespis, the first Greek actor to step out of the chorus and speak alone. The impulse to perform dates back thousands of years. No actor would step into the blue spotlight without a certain hunger, a desire to be the only one heard. This hunger flows through the the theater majors of every university. We do not doubt that we are hungry; we only wonder if we are hungry enough.

Two years later, I am lying on a stiff couch, wrapped in a thin white sheet. I am trying to sleep through the sound of a woman screaming at a hospital employee. She demands drugs, anything that will ease the vaguely defined pain. I feel that I am less helpless than her, because I did not come to this emergency room due to a drug addiction. At the same time, I feel that I am exactly like her, because I have come seeking help with a vaguely defined pain.

My pain stems from my work: I am at odds with my impulse to put on a mask. I wish to be authentic, to run away from the theater and never look back. I do not sleep this night; I think only of escaping the theater.

A social worker with bags under her eyes asks me why I am in the hospital. I tell her I attempted to throw myself from the tenth floor of a building. She asks why.

“If I lie so much that I can’t even control it, I’m a sociopath, and the world would be better off without me.” I have rehearsed this logic for the last twelve hours, since the moment my teacher told me that falling in love with my scene partner should be easy. I consider the conundrum unresolvable. The social worker sighs and offers advice.

I have forgotten everything she told me. She gave me perspective, encouragement, and conversation. She convinced me to go on medication, and she made me laugh by describing mortality as being “toast.” She convinced me to continue being alive, somehow.

One week later, I am sitting at a table on the eleventh floor of NYU’s Tisch Hospital, holding court. A dozen of my closest friends are visiting me, and the other patients on my floor will tell me how lucky I am to have such support. Still, I inform my friends that I need to leave school and seek medical attention at home. I tell them that I want to quit.

Within a month, I have a job building custom enclosures with Wisconsin men who listen to Nickelback and do not go to the theater. Within three months I am in a community production of Man of La Mancha, belting out the finale with the rest of the chorus. The song is called, “The Impossible Dream.” The cast, crew, and audience convince me to continue being an actor, somehow. This has not changed.

As of today, I have been acting onstage for ten years, the length of time they say it takes to become a real actor. They also say it takes ten more years to become a good actor, but I don’t know who they are, so I would like to believe I am occasionally capable of good acting despite them. If nothing else, I am a working actor.

This summer has been the most demanding theatrical challenge of my life. The Island Shakespeare Festival is staging Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Jane Eyre on an island an hour north of Seattle. I have rehearsed three plays at once, ten hours a day, six days a week, along with fourteen other actors with their own stories. Our outdoor stage pales in comparison to the monolithic Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where all Pacific Northwestern actors go when they have “made it.” We have not made it in that sense, not yet, but I can still look my summer as evidence that I have made it more than I ever imagined I would. I have three roles that I love, I get to play them for an entire season, and someone wants to give me money to do these things. By my standards, I have made it. And yet, by my standards, I have also failed.

I once wanted to perform for the sheer joy of it, out of the sight of audiences and casting directors. I have grown out of this version of myself.

I once wanted to perform for only the biggest houses on Broadway, in the sight of the most refined audiences and casting directors. I have grown out of this version of myself.

Yet I am still afraid to fail, and I am still afraid to lie. I have not changed.

My past echoes into this season. I cannot ignore my experience with mental illness, love, or fear, because they are tools for building a human life. My passion, my instability, and my inquisitiveness are what bring me back to this craft. A cast member told me that you do not choose who you marry once; you must choose them every day. I will choose to act as long as I must. If the past is any indication, I have no choice in the matter. I will act until I grow out of it.

Actors do not act to fulfill their lives. Actors live to fulfill their acting. Few names are spoken with the hushed reverence of Heath Ledger, Robin Williams, or Phillip Seymour Hoffman. All three acted with a passion and precision that we lamented as impossible in our training. All three died before we were ready to let them go, after protracted battles with mental illness, addiction, and the other myriad side effects of trying to live more than one life in one lifetime. We do not fall apart for our work; falling apart is our work. As is piecing ourselves back together. As is doing it again.

I am begging Phoebe for her love on my knees. I am proposing to Jane Eyre on a clear spring day. I am rallying the people of Rome to mutiny. Again, and again, and again.

Can I keep this up? Ask me in ten years.

Michael C. Robinson is an actor currently living and working in Seattle.