I have a confession to make: I come from a supportive, artistic family. They love that I’m an artist, that I’m an actor (working or not–though both they and I obviously prefer it when I am), that I am pursuing my artistic passion as my career. They enthusiastically attend all of my plays, my concerts, my premieres, and they share my triumphs and my failures alongside me. Before I left grad school to return to Los Angeles and act, my mother once famously commented to an acquaintance that I was “still dissertating” in the same tone that one might refer to a drug problem.
I am completely aware that this is rare–unicorn rare–and that I am unbelievably lucky. And I acknowledge, too, that having the support system I have is a huge part of my success, and of my continued hold on sanity. My family’s support has been occasionally monetary, consistently grounding, and has often made the difference between my spiral into despondency (I’m powerless; I’m not booking; I should quit), and staying the course (I have to work at what I can control; I will book; perseverance is paramount).
But having a support system is not, in itself, enough. It is not the silver bullet, and it’s important to remember that you are the master of your own destiny, regardless of whether your parents would prefer you were an artist or an accountant.
I say this not to devalue the incredible and invaluable encouragement and backing I received and continue to receive, but to stress that artistic (and commercial) success is not made or broken by the presence or absence of support alone. After all, for every person like myself trudging like Sisyphus to make things happen with the abetment of others, there are ten more who toil alongside, without a support system, equally committed to making their mark. And many of the success stories we hear about belong to folks whose parents advised them explicitly against going into the arts–current critical darlings Benedict Cumberbatch and Jennifer Lawrence are on that list.
You can’t presume that a support system is the ticket to success or happiness. It’s an investment of support–and the same downsides of any other investment hold true. In particular, I’ve found that the particularly emotional character of investing or lending support makes for fertile ground for self-sabotage, as the actor struggles to balance the comfort of having support with the accompanying need to provide a return on the investment made.
In many cases, for example, the artist perceives the familial and community support as finite–there is a definite, variable point whereupon one’s dream edges over the line from fanciful to foolish, and the support curdles into impatience or pity. In other cases, the artist can come to feel as though the support has stipulations, in which case encouragement becomes the albatross around the actor’s neck, ceaselessly reminding them that they can, will, or may let their supporters down. I’ve met many an actor who has fallen prey to one or both of these situations–and invariably, their work and their drive has begun to diminish as their sense of obligation to their debtors has seemed to increase.
For me, I wasn’t emotionally mature enough to handle having support, I chafed against it. That isn’t to say I didn’t recognize that I was lucky to have it, but rather that my fear of failing, of not living up to the expectations I felt the support entailed, of not deserving that support, came to outweigh the value I placed on my own creative aspirations. I let my fear mutate the support I received, the way one twists a loved one’s words in an argument. I translated encouragement as pressure and presumption, and resented what I felt was an unreachable legacy of artistic fulfillment and success.
My parents, after all, had both been successful on the stage in New York, and Matt on Broadway; I knew they weren’t perfect, but they were hard-working, and undeniably talented. rather than bolstering my confidence, that they saw me as equally talented intimidated me; I was afraid to fall short of their achievements, and so I rebelled by shutting away my aspirations, and turning to a career of which they had had no part: academia.
Eventually, for all my success in academics, I realized that I wasn’t really happy. That I was pursuing the wrong career for all of the wrong reasons, and that I had always been lucky to have parents who recognized me from who and what I was. And that there was no shame in following in their footsteps. In retrospect, I’m embarrassed by how long it took me to realize that I was running away, and there are times when it is all too easy to lapse into regret about how much time I have “wasted.” But the truth is, I need it to recognize my support system for the blessing it was, and come to that realization on my own terms. And, the further truth, is that this was my own path to take: that everyone’s path is different, and equally valid, and endlessly beneficial and educational. Life skills matter; life matters. How you live it, where you live it, what it teaches you. I had to learn that.
This isn’t to say, conversely, that not having support is easy; humans are social animals, and going it alone is often, in a word, lonely. Loneliness, it follows, can lead to depression, which directly curtails success and personal contentment. Depression and isolation are powerful forces, and incredibly hard to combat–in their throes, it’s easy to discourage overtures of friendship and avoid making community connections. Beyond these isolating consequences, there are networking and creative implications, and an actor who is closed off emotionally, is an actor who cannot grow creatively or ever be present in the moment in auditions or performance.
Make your own support. Make sure you understand that love and understanding and emotional openness are what you and what we ALL really mean by support. And those things rarely come with strings attached. Don’t get in your own way; you can’t control your worries, but you can stop them from snowballing into fears that stand in your way and tear you down. Enough folks are gonna try to do that, anyway. Make it harder for them. Give ‘em hell.