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Slowing Down for Success

Each artist has his or her own definition of success, from a Tony award-winner to an actor performing in their first community theatre production. Regardless of our proximity to what we think of as “the top,” countless ingredients comprise our recipe for success. Who do we admire in the industry? What have we been told by the media? What kind of work is well received and well paid? What do we tell ourselves about success?

When I was six, success meant having my family sit through my puppet show, "The First Thanksgiving," as I crouched beneath a rickety dining room table, manipulating popsicle stick people on a makeshift Mayflower as the turkey finished cooking. When I was twenty-two, success meant winning a Tony for Best Actress someday. As a thirty-two-year-old theatre artist with a day job and a desire to cultivate meaningful relationships and a life outside the theatre, I'm reworking my definition yet again. 

Our personal definition of success is as unique as our fingerprints, and is always accessible to us.

On one hand, I fear becoming too content, lest I stop trying to find new, more inventive ways to create theatre, to push myself to reach as wide an audience as I can in my work. But on the other hand is perhaps a deeper, darker fear: that I will get to the end of my life and realize that I never really took the time to let my successes sink in, and instead settled for a low-grade, chronic feeling of dissatisfaction with myself and my work. 

Last summer I was busily working away on launching a new company, The Perpetual Visitors Theatre, had been recently cast in a play, and accepted and invitation to have a ten-minute play read at a conference. My theatre life was full, and I felt so enthusiastic about each one of my projects. But the feeling of pride eventually withered into worrying that these projects might not be “enough.” Suddenly, I wanted to have my play fully produced. I wanted to book another role. I wanted more resources for my budding theatre company. 

Researcher and storyteller Brené Brown talks about this widespread sense of scarcity in our country, what she refers to as “our culture of never enough.” We often believe there is a finite amount of success in the world, and that when someone else succeeds, there is less success in the universe available to us. We make succeeding a zero sum game.

Make no mistake, though. Our personal definition of success is as unique as our fingerprints, and is always accessible to us. It cannot be stolen or overshadowed by someone else. In fact, we are the only person capable of robbing ourselves of the delight that accompanies making art. Do not accept the broad definition of what it means to succeed and do not put the decision in the hands of a director, agent, or critic. If we allow anyone outside of ourselves to craft our idea of what success is, we surrender our ability to steer our own joy. As you forge your own definition, consider not only you the artist, but you the human being. What fuels you? What are you willing to give up in your quest? What is non-negotiable?

We might not be used to this kind of self-direction in the theatre because we are used to hustling. We often audition for someone else, write for someone else, or perform for others—all the while living out the unspoken question: “Did you like it? Did I succeed?” We ask permission to feel worthy. As my wonderful acting professor always said, "A review, whether good or bad, is just someone else's opinion of you." 

a group of young women arguing on stage
Letters to Medford, adapted by Kyna Hamill and directed by Wanda Strukus, October 2014. Left to right: Alona Bach, Melissa Bergstrom, Nicole Howard, and Sloane Zwanger. Photo credit: Christine Banna.

In the midst of my questioning the worth of my own projects last summer, I decided to take a different view. I treated myself to an ice cream cone and a walk in my favorite park as I thought about how much my projects meant to me. This simple, improvised ritual allowed me to slow down and honor these milestones. I would eventually move my markers of success further and further out as I reached them, but I could not allow myself to race through the present moment without pausing to experience joy and gratitude. This small acknowledgement didn’t discourage my desire to grow or improve, but rather tapped into a wellspring of encouragement that I needed to keep going on my creative journey.

I often recall the advice of a dear teacher in whom I confided my fears about performing an original solo play. What if my play wasn’t ready? What if I failed? She listened patiently and said, “You have made something. Your job now is to share it with an audience, and see what happens.” It seems like my six-year-old self had the right idea all along. If I say my script was a success, does it have to mean that the house was sold out? Or could it mean I deepened my understanding of storytelling? For me, the courage and vulnerability it took for me to share what I had so lovingly made was success enough.

Regardless of how much we fear that celebrating our successes will make us soft or prevent us from being seen as “serious” artists, we must choose to reckon with our old definitions. If our self-worth begins to erode and our creative spirits begin to break in response to our own succeeding or failing, we will find ourselves bereft of our ability to make theatre, regardless of our training, talents, or connections. Where will we be then?

Amidst the rush of auditions and rewrites and hustling, I wish you the presence of mind and heart to celebrate your successes, whatever they might be for you. My current definition of success at the age of thirty-two will likely change when I’m thirty-three, fifty, or seventy. We are always evolving—doesn't it make sense that our idea of success should be allowed to change as well? As the theatre teaches us, our goal is to exist in the present moment as best we can and to make room for improvisation, for possibility, and for change.

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This article really resonates with me as a young actor still in my undergrad. I often experience phases of being constantly swamped with rehearsals, homework, and life in general, but then I'll switch to having an immense amount of free time and i often get complacent with my work. No matter how much I get terrified sometimes of approaching work or something new that seems overwhelming, I need to remember why I do what I do, buckle down and respect the (personal) artistic process, and share stories with people through theatre and performance.

Evan, I am so glad that this resonated with you. Personally, I don't feel that I started having these conversations with other artists or with myself until the last couple of years and I wish very much that we encouraged more young artists to talk about this earlier--because whenever one person speaks their truth, it frees everyone else to do the same, and saves us all pain and suffering. I love what you said about remembering why we do what we do because that can help to move forward despite anxiety and fear. All the best to you this year!

LOVE this. And perfect for sharing as many go back to school, start a new year, get ready for Fall or just because there's never a better time than now to be reminded of these things. Thank you!