How to Be...A Master of Make-Believe

A little over a year ago I graduated with my MFA in Acting.  A friend of mine likes to say that I have my Masters degree in Make-Believe.   The first time I heard him say this, I laughed.  It's funny.  And true.  Then he said it again.  And it nagged me a little bit.  If I had graduated with an MBA  or with my JD in law would there be a joke as readily available as the one regarding my degree?   Did it bother me because this innocuous joke  is indicative of  the status of arts in our society today?  I wasn't sure.   But I've thought about it a lot since then. As I went to check my email today, Yahoo reeled me in with an article entiteled "Degrees that could be a Waste of Money."  I clicked the article open and found Film Video/Photographic Arts, Studio Art, Architecture and Anthropology at the top of the list.  (Maybe  anthropology isn't widely regarded as a fine art but as an actor/writer/director I spend a lot of time digging for  information about people, history and culture.)  Yahoo offers the following as "better buys":  Graphic Design instead of Video/Photographic Arts, Education instead of Studio Art, Accounting instead of Architecture (?!) and Criminal Justice instead of Anthropology.

Could the message be any more clear?   Art  is an avocation and artists have no place in today's money-driven world where the focus is on creation for profit, not creation for the sake of expression, evolution and connection.  If there's no money in art (steady money anyway) then why on earth would you pursue it as a career?

When I went off to college and told my family I was going to major in theatre, I know they were disappointed but saw the degree as means to an end and not my future career path.  I imagine they thought I'd "settle" into a career in education and that my time spent in theatre would be a fun memory, a splash of color to my life story.  When I announced I was going to graduate school for my MFA, they were supportive but I think the hope was I'd find a job at a nice college, get tenure and be able to channel my passion into a steady paycheck.

And that was my plan initially.  There were many reasons I pursued my MFA and one of them was to have a safety net in an uncertain field.  A year after graduation,  and hundreds of job applications later, I've only been on one interview for a job at the collegiate level. But even at the lowest points this year, I've never once considered going back to the steady, corporate job I held before going to back to school.  I've never thought about finding something new or looking into different fields.  Yet I felt overwhelming pressure to find a socially acceptable job.   I was tangled up in my own safety net.

I stopped looking at jobs in academia.  I realized that this little dream I've had since I was four years old is still tugging at my arm---and if I don't listen I'm gonna kill a part of that artist that I've fought so damn hard to keep alive.

Picasso said, "Every child is an artist.  The problem is to remain an artist once we grow up."  What message are we sending young artists pursuing careers in the arts when we give their passion a death sentence?  When we tell the photographer to set down the camera and  open up a computer. When we regale the aspiring actor with devastating statistics.  Or tell the painter that he should switch to an education major.

I think Picasso is right.  We are born artists.  And usually, we encourage kids to let that inner artist run free.  To create, to be messy, to fail in order to learn and to be silly and expressive and wonderfully weird.  But with every birthday, if we don't continue to nurture that artist, it slips away.  As we learn the "rules" and are told the appropriate way to function, behave and live in this world we squash any room for that artist to live, let alone grow.  We are told to stop playing make-believe and grow up.  To live in the "real world."  So by the time we're adults, looking for jobs, it's often with the sole purpose of paying the bills, acting the way we are "supposed to"  and we relegate our artist to a tiny corner of our person.

How many times do we as adults look at children and sigh wistfully at  their unencumbered joy.  Watch as they  twirl around the room or sing joyfully in public, caring little about what others think of them and whether they  fit the mold.  I'm not saying we should wear princess outfits into Starbucks or do a tap number on the conference table at the office  (both sound fun though, right?!) but that feeling of freedom, of expression is the reason people create, become artists in the first place.

When I teach yoga, I teach crow pose at the end of each class.  It's a beginning arm balance that most people did easily as children but as adults find daunting.  You risk falling on your head and crashing to the ground.  But when you get it, the first time you tip forward to balance on your arms it's incredible and exhilarating.  Last night during one of my classes a woman fell on her head a handful of times as she attempted crow.  Right as I was about to cue another posture she tried again, tipping forward to balance on her arms and yelled exuberantly, "check me out, guys!" as she flew in crow for the very first time.

That's art.  That's the artist.  That's the kid inside all of us who lives in the joy of flying and not the fear of falling.

To be an artist is to be brave.  To say I'm willing to share a little piece of myself with you, a little bit of what I've created, of what I understand to be true and know that I face rejection and criticism but I'm willing to hear it if it means I can let my soul talk.   To be an artist is to live a courageous life of uncertainty and fear.  It means that even though I have a masters degree I walk dogs, teach yoga, freelance write and continue to put my work out in the world knowing that I'll hear "no" a hell of a lot more than I'll hear "yes."  And then do it anyway.  It means that I learn to live on less in order to be an artist, to stay true to the life I think I'm supposed to be living.  Having experienced the golden handcuffs of a corporate america job I know that benefits and a steady paycheck and 40 hours a week would come at a huge cost to me and so I make the conscious decision for my life to look a little different, and maybe a little less successful in other people's eyes.  But I believe I'm only a failure if I give up my dream.

I think we need to slow down and look at what we're doing as we direct kids out of careers in the arts, cut funding for music, theatre, dance and art programs in schools.  I think we need to evaluate the loss we'll create in our world if we continue to drive the artist out of our children so that we don't have to worry about their future, knowing they'll land a cushy job and be able to take care of themselves and then us--as long as they stay out of the arts and in a safe, thriving field full of money and security.  I believe that it's our responsibility, as a society, to nurture the artist within us all.  To make sure that  instead of extinguishing the artistic light inherent in all children we inspire, encourage and grow that light.  Let's emphasize the importance of following dreams and not paychecks.  Let's teach people how to fly instead of scaring them with the fear of falling.

We encourage children to play make-believe when they're young.  To step into another's shoes and try things on.  To find compassion and connection for different ways of being.  To think expansively.  We use it as a tool to teach, to develop the brain and encourage emotional and mental growth.   Make-believe isn't a way to live your life, it's a tool to grow your life--to reach outside the narrow confines of your existence and explore the world.

In my life I've been a fairy godmother, a politician's wife, a prostitute, a princess, the queen of Denmark and a welfare-mother-crack addict, to name a few favorite roles.   I've chosen to live my life investigating the lives of others, looking for myself in the many faces of humanity and then telling their stories.

I think Marilyn Monroe had it right when she said, "It's all make-believe, isn't it?"  We all have the power to make our lives whatever it is we want them to be.  To believe in our dreams and our right to pursue them.  To let our artist sing, dance, paint, act, write, play the drums, design buildings and do whatever our soul calls us to do.

Apparently, I never grew out of the desire to play make-believe and frankly, I hope I never do.