(3 minute read)

Dear young Caitlin,

This is a letter to you, that sweet self of mine with fire behind her eyes and uncertainty in her steps.

17. You’ve left the bubble of your familial support for your dreams and are about to start ‘real’ actor training. And you are hungry for it. There’s a part of you that believes you are going to change the world with storytelling – just as storytelling has changed you. You have been privileged to grow up in a family of artists and have been exposed only a little to opinions outside that bubble.

You are proud of what you do, and that pride swells you up. So when you meet a fellow freshman, a biology major, and they ask you what major you are, you say without hesitation, the joy and excitement unhindered in your voice: “I’m a Drama major.”

“Aww,” she says, “That’s cute.”

And you immediately deflate. Because her tone is clear: Drama is what little kids do. Drama is not a mature, adult choice for a major. Drama is not a career, it’s a hobby. You drop it in high school and then choose what your ‘real’ career will be.

You become acutely aware for the first time that there’s a narrative out there that what you do, what you’ve dreamed of doing since you were 13, is not a ‘real’ job.

My darling firecracker, this will only be the beginning. Later, after you’ve established your own damn theatre company, for godsakes (oh yes, that’s coming my dear), you’ll have a conversation with an Uber driver in which they’ll run their eyes up and down all 5 foot 3 of you, noticing your female-presenting gender, your baby face (“it’s a gift!” everyone keeps saying), your short stature, and they’ll say: “You’re the Artistic Director?”

“Yes!” you’ll say, and you won’t fully understand the knot that’s formed in your stomach until well after they’ve driven away and wished you a dubious “Good luck.”

What is a ‘real’ actor? What earns you that title? What qualities must you have, credits undertaken, degrees finished, shows accomplished?

My fierce little gnome, at 17 you have already learned this narrative, and have formed answers to these questions, albeit unconsciously. Some parts of this narrative are:

  • A real actor is a working actor.
  • A real actor makes their living from acting and nothing else.
  • A real actor will sacrifice whatever it takes to ‘make it.’
  • A real actor doesn’t take a break.
  • A real actor is cast in major roles, on Broadway, or in major regional theatres, or in film and television.

Does this narrative feel familiar to you, now that it’s out in the open? Can you close your eyes, breathe deeply, and see how decisions you made, shame you felt, pride you experienced, may have been informed by your belief in this narrative?

My spunky beanpole, you were right, stories do change us, and they change the world. Stories are how we learn about how to be in the world. Stories are so innate to human nature and so ubiquitous to our daily life that often, we don’t even recognize that a belief we’ve formed is because of a story we’ve decided is true. We’re not even aware of the decision-making. We are exposed unconsciously to stories, or narratives, about the world and how it works all the time, and if that story fits enough with our current understanding of the world, we’ll tuck it into our library of stories without even thinking about it. Why would you question something that feels obvious?

You fell in love with performing. Later, someone told you, a book told you, a movie told you, a thousand unspoken things told you that making a career out of being an actor would be hard. It would be hard because you were told there are many more actors than there are jobs for them, and that many of these jobs pay very little, or pay nothing. And you looked around to see if this story was true, and it felt like everyone was also telling this same story. People much older and wiser than you were telling you this story. So it must be true, right?

My sweet fire-muffin, this story is very compelling to believe. It slots right in with other stories you’ve heard about the world: that the world’s resources are scarce, and you’ll have to fight to get your ‘piece of the pie.’ That you are alone in that fight. That however much of the pie you manage to grab will indicate your worth as a human being.

The problem with these stories, as well as the ‘real actor’ story, is that they paint only a very narrow picture of the world. These stories catch, like wildfire, and they spread, because they feed on fear, and there is a lot of fear in the world. But even though you will see and hear the wildfire all around you, if you were to zoom out to a birds-eye view of yourself, you would notice that there is a whole, vast landscape that exists beyond the ring of wildfire.

And, my passionate little tealeaf, beyond the ring of wildfire is a vast abundance of stories about how to be an actor in the world. Here is one new narrative I’ve been adding to our library:

The only qualifier necessary to determine if you are an actor or not, is if you believe yourself to be one.

Green text on a pale yellow background, reads: You are still an artist if you pursued another career for financial stability. You are still an artist if you have a survival job and make art when you can. You are still an artist if you haven't created in a while. You are still an artist if you only make art as a hobby.

Let’s be clear, my love: When you hear that artistry is not a ‘real’ job, what they mean is that in this culture, artistry does not have value. But that is much harder to say out loud, because intuitively, deep in our bones, we all know that art, stories, and creativity have value. They are as ubiquitous as the air we breathe.

But remember, people are afraid. They have believed the story about scarcity, the one that says that there are not enough resources in the world for everyone, and so they are afraid there won’t be enough for themselves, and so they must believe that the only value that really matters is financial value. They are scared, and so they tell themselves they must ignore the whispers from Creativity, the gentle tug from Play, so that they can focus on getting their piece of the pie before anyone else can take their slice.

But one day, you will see beyond the ring of wildfire. Your mouth will hang open with the abundance of artistic paths you can take, the options teeming before you. Although you will never fully let go of the fear inside the ring of wildfire, and on certain days it will sneak back up to surround you, you will know and remember that there is more.

Yes, my bright plum, you are real.
Yes, my sassy petunia, you are an actor.
You are an artist.

Be discerning with the stories you choose to believe about the world we live in, my spicy honeydew. There is always more to see than meets the eye.

With all my love,
31 year-old Caitlin

Caitlin at 17. A young white female with dark brown hair, wearing a light blue top against an American flag background.Photo taken by Julia Rose.

Thank you to Sean Bowie, who posted the meme seen above which inspired this piece. I couldn’t find the original creator of the meme: if that’s you, or you who know it is, please let me know so that I can thank them properly!

Thanks for coming with me on this journey today. Did this piece spark a question?

Please feel welcome to share your response to caitlinlushington@gmail.com. With your permission, I may use your question as the launching-point for my next bit of writing.

And so a wee circle of collective wisdom is created and grows!

I look forward to hearing from you.

With love,