When I first read the play, I wanted to shove it across the room and flush it down the toilet. It’s a bleak, dark, and often inappropriately funny tale of addiction, consumption, and loneliness, Americana at its most selfish and reckless.
I hated these people and I couldn’t imagine playing any of them.
But the play was good, really good. And relevant, really relevant. And so a week later, right before I had to give notice of my audition status, I took out the plunger and fished out the dirty pages and gave it another read.
Maybe I could play one of these sisters…
There’s a note in the beginning of the play that tells us that Lil has “no ability to defend herself.” Hmmm…. I’m defensive. I’m a fighter. Probably not my spine.
Of her older sister, Sis, Tommy Smith, the playwright, tells us that she “never takes a breath.” There. I know that. She’s anxious. Hell, I have a whole blog devoted to that. There’s an in…
The worst thing you can ever do as an actor is to judge the character that you are playing. You have to come from their perspective. You have to walk in their shoes. You have to to embody and understand their choices.
That doesn’t mean you have to go out and do all the messed up things they do. When I played Chloe in “Walking Away,” I didn’t have to try cocaine in order to know how to be a cocaine addict. But I did need to research it’s effects and meditate on where that need to shut out and escape reality comes from — and I’m sure downing a few Red-bulls right before the drug scenes probably helped too.
Ok, so maybe I could play Sis, I thought. She’s selfish. I’ve been accused of that. But she’s a train-wreck. I’m not a train-wreck. She’s an empty, soul-less, betraying, drug-addict whore. Whoah! Calm down killer.
So maybe I couldn’t play her without judging her…
But then, at the initial auditions, Caitlin Hart, the director, said something about Sis that completely opened her up for me. Karina, my scene partner and I had rehearsed and brought something to the table that Caitlin pretty much smashed wide open and destroyed. Ok, Sis is funny. She’s hilarious. She’s unabashed and unafraid, she told us.
Oh my God! I get her. Oh my God! I know Sis. Sis is one of my best friends. Not now. But in the past, one of my best friends. I have a very close friend who’s a recovered addict and though I didn’t know her when she was using, I imagine her to have been just like Sis.
What a revelation.
Here I was judging this character so fiercely and yet when given just a little more insight, I discovered this person to be someone so simliar to someone I fiercely love, adore, and respect. Sure, that’s in the past. My friend isn’t doing all the crazy things Sis is doing in the play anymore. But she did.
Do I dare to damn her for it?
Everyone we meet in life is only a series of choices and circumstances separate from us. The people we abhor and judge are not in fact so very different from us. We want to think they are. Because it makes us feel safer to be separate from them. But the truth of the matter is, the more we are able to open our hearts and look at the common humanity that we share with the people we judge the most, the better equipped we are to embrace them and free them to make the kind of choices that might better the world instead of stifle it.
Joseph’s inspiring cousin Tyler shared this fabulous video on Facebook today and I couldn’t help but know that it was perfect for this entry’s meditation on judgment.
The fact of the matter is, we all feel judged at times. We all have had others look at our choices and our circumstances and then quickly place a value and label on us.
Here are some of the labels I’ve been called in my lifetime:
Poor White Trash
Past Your Prime
Never Gonna Be
Dumb as Dirt
I am none of these things. And yet, in a moment, I have embodied these labels enough to have someone feel the need to call me them in retaliation for something I did or something they thought I was.
Names hurt because they don’t account for everything else that brought us to that label and yet there’s still enough of a truth to the surface of the idea that we can’t simply dismiss it as a lie. So it stays with us.
I am so lucky to have the opportunity to play people that I might otherwise judge. It’s one of the many ways that acting stretches me as a person. I can’t simply maintain the us and them status. I have to look at that which I label and get inside of it. Grapple with it. Embrace it. See these flaws in me.
When I reflect on it, I see that the theme of judgment is one that I’ve been circling around for most of my artistic life. Its ideas were wrapped up in “The Waterbabies” and “Morning Cantaloupe,” two plays I wrote in high school and college. Those plays helped to birth my current feature “Born That Way,” a Sundance Finalist script I co-wrote with my best friend Mary McHale that I’m working to produce with my uber awesome and talented friends Rob and Laura.
“Born That Way” asks, ‘what if you were born into my life? How would you be different?’ It’s a dark, messy foray into the embarrassing and unwanted ghosts in each of our own closets that we work so hard to keep tucked away. It explores religion, race, sexuality, gender, politics, statehood, all the things that separate us from each other. That put us each in pockets of separation. Us. Them. And it begs us to see the other side of those judgements. It labels. And then upends that very label.
Now some of you might say : but we need judgement. We need order. We need standards. We need rules. We need prisons. We need authority. We need to stop and punish that which is wrong.
But in the renegade days of school shootings, child soldiers, and banning girls from schools, it is the dialogue of openness, not judgment, that sparks real change in the world. Mental illness and gun control, poverty and war, religion and gender. We do not solve these global complexities by attacking our attackers. Because if we continue to attack, new attackers will always emerge.
Instead, we must solve these issues by looking at our attackers. By seeking to understand them. By establishing new policies that create a forum for prevention before rather then punishment after.
An eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind.
Stop judging the characters in your own life. Instead, find ways that you are both the same. And then approach those differences carefully, circle around them, ask why.
You may surprise yourself with how much shared humanity you both actually have.
You may find, that at heart, way deep down, somewhere down the line, you are or were, the same.