Some people take a lifetime to find their voice. I found mine at an early age and quickly proceeded to play hide and seek with it.
Three year old Susan: (singing on audio tape recording)
Dad: Ok, stop singing. It’s your sister’s turn.
Lil’ Susan: Noooo.
Dad: But, it’s your sister’s turn.
Lil’ Susan: (more emphatically) Nooooooooooooooooooooooo!
Dad: Fine. Then keep singing.
Lil’ Susan: No….Now I don’t want to.
And thus began the story of the push and pull relationship I would have for years to come with claiming my voice.
I believe one of the largest myths regarding owning our creative voice is our perception that someone else can take it away from us. We are all born with a creative voice, but many choose to squelch theirs, feeling like it doesn’t compare with the greatness of others. We limit ourselves, even though most of us are free to express our voice without too many repercussions. Are there risks involved? Sure. But, that doesn’t mean we don’t have a choice. It just means that many of us choose not to take the risk.
When I was 18 years old, I decided to take that risk and pursue a life as a professional performer. My father, who squelched his own creative talents in pursuit of more “academic” accomplishments, did not approve. It would create a rift in our family for decades. I found that when you choose to pursue something that creates disharmony in what, up until that point, was your foundation, you constantly seek a deeper reason for making that choice; confirmation that you made the right decision, as if that is even a possibility. So I set off, in the theatrical world of complete subjectivity, to seek black and white redemption.
I thought that if I could achieve a certain level of success, it would justify the choice I had made to pursue my deepest passion, despite its consequences. So, early on, the ability and willingness to express my voice, and the success I would find from that, became inherently linked. But, what is success? And whose version of success was I seeking? My version had to do with the quality of theatres and roles, the financial compensation, the ability to focus solely on performing and positive recognition for my work. I can only imagine what my parent’s version of success looked like, but like many parents, it probably had something to do with health benefits and a 401k.
In my first eight years as a working actor, I saw some early successes. But, no matter what I achieved, it never felt like enough. When I didn’t get the opportunities I sought from others, I created my own. But, there was still a void. Perhaps because through this, I continued to perpetuate the story of lack; it’s a story that many in our industry live by. We limit our own voices and constantly compare them; believing that there are not enough opportunities, we decide that someone else’s talent somehow takes away from our own. There are at least two types of characters in this story; those that diminish the greatness of others to feel better about themselves, and those who diminish the greatness of themselves to try to understand the story. I was in the latter group.
I decided I must not be good enough to achieve my goals, because I saw other people achieving “my” goals first. I didn’t understand, at the time, that our goals don’t always happen on our timeline because we rarely understand the full scope of what we are learning. It’s fairly natural to compare yourself to others, but we get in trouble when we then allow that comparison to limit our own path; which is what I did. It was time for a break from theatre. I needed to step away to gain perspective. I was frustrated; mostly due to not living up to my own expectations. So, I decided to put my voice away for a while. Kind of…
I spent the next decade cultivating a career as a holistic health professional. My intent was that it would become my other main job and that I would begin performing again. My goal as a practitioner is to help people achieve wellness through dissolving any core beliefs that are holding them back. To be a quality practitioner means having to face your own limitations as well. The thing about having a big voice, is you can’t quiet it for too long before it has more to say. So, though I hoped that taking a break from theatre meant walking away from the source of my conflict, I was actually walking directly into the source…myself.
In time, I began to see true shifts in my own life. I became healthier, happier and overall more balanced. I began achieving my professional goals. I opened my own storefront and healing center, I taught classes at holistic hospitals and universities, I co-produced and co-hosted my own radio show, I was a columnist and I became a professional Kirtan musician. Kirtan, a genre of interactive world music that is actually a form of yoga, is very fulfilling, but I missed musical theatre and comedy…
So, I inched my way back, stripping away any remaining layers of emotional resistance I had to doing the thing I love. This spring, I was in a musical again for the first time in years. I wasn’t sure how I would feel. How would it rate on my success-o-meter? And then something interesting happened. The experience brought me joy. Joy, to me, is this sort of irrelevant life quality that other people speak highly of and I mostly ignore. I have spent my life focused on what I determined were higher achievements than joy. When I did something, it had to have a measurable outcome. Joy was not tangible.
To “reclaim” means to “recall from wrong or improper conduct” or “to rescue from an undesirable state.” Reclaiming my voice was just that. My creative voice had been put up to the task of redeeming my life choices. It had been assigned the job of proving a point that was impossible to prove. Aimed at an intangible version of success, it was doomed for failure. No wonder it kept shutting down. So, I assigned it a new job. Its sole mission now is to be an expression of the things I feel are important to share with the world. And furthermore, its job is to bring joy to myself and the world around me.
Performing feels different now. I don’t base my self-worth on my ability to be cast. I recognize my talent as well as the immense talent that exists around me and see those as harmonious. I recognize a greater need to teach about reaffirming ourselves and each other, as our self-worth affects the good of our entire community. I continue to create my own opportunities, because ultimately our success cannot be reliant on someone elses perception of us. If we wait for other people to give us opportunities to share our voices, we may never be heard.
No one can take your creative voice away. No one can give your creative voice to someone else. Your message is unique. And it is up to you to find it and decide if you want to share it. We are responsible for our own success; whatever that success means to you. After all, why is something our passion in the first place? Is it possible that by doing things in our life that brings joy to ourselves and others, that we have found success? It’s possible. Without joy, it was likely that no amount of praise or paid gigs would have made me “feel successful.” But, just for the record, I will happily accept all of the above!