EXIT, STAGE LEFT
What Happens When You Get Sick of Your Dream?
Anyone who aspires to creative achievement lives in thrall to the trope of the Dream. Our culture promulgates this legend — that, as the result of a certain talent or knack or predilection or aspiration, there is one special thing that you’ve been put on earth to do.
For many, the Dream is a distant goal, dimly viewed through the hazy landscape of the future, inspiring you to use all available resources in its pursuit. You often hear that it’s about the journey, not the destination, but if that were true, why would you be striving so hard? The Dream becomes a compass point, a Polaris to guide your odyssey into adulthood and beyond, dictating all of your decisions — which friends you make, which lovers you chase, which work you take to feed yourself while you struggle toward your purpose.
But what if, after years of searching and slogging and getting more and more tired, you start to realize the Dream isn’t an object to be attained or a quest to be undertaken? What if the Dream is a box that you’ve drawn around yourself?
ACT ONE: RISING ACTION
I was 10 years old when I decided what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
I had acted in a couple of class plays over the years — once as a bookish duck and, later, as founding father John Jay — but what clinched it was seeing a local children’s theater production with the questionable title “I’m a Celebrity.” Filled with poppy songs, broad comedy and a message of self-empowerment, its target audience was clearly ME — as I sat in the audience, projecting myself onto the stage, I knew with a biological certainty that it was a leap I was meant to make.
The experience inspired me to produce a play on my own. I found a book of royalty-free scripts for kids in the school library and selected an adventure about a trio of proper British sisters who get kidnapped by pirates. I asked my teacher to make photocopies and recruited a bunch of fellow fifth-graders to fill the roles. They were all excited with their parts — until they realized we’d have to practice during recess. One by one, during the first reading, they decided they’d rather play than work. I tried recasting, but I ran out of kids. I was left alone on the playground with my scripts.
Thus began a boom-and-bust cycle that was to last more than 25 years.
The lure of the stage made sense for a kid like me, a weird combination of smart, spazzy and shy. Desperate to be liked, I found it was easier to make connections through the group dynamics of a production — or, better yet, with a shadowy audience from the distance of the stage. Plus, there were girls!
It was a tough slog from “loud weirdo” to “halfway decent young actor,” but I sought out opportunities in my town and elsewhere, begged my massively supportive parents for thousands of rides, and endured the weight of numerous distracting crushes. Along the way, I started writing my own plays, and even directed my senior production in high school, realizing that the only thing I liked better than acting was being in charge of the whole thing. (For the record, it was Tartuffe, and yes, I cast myself as Tartuffe.)
By the time I hit college I was determined to be a Serious Writer, but despite my best intentions I stumbled into a theater major without particularly trying. Luckily for me, there was a girl there (natch), with the auspicious name of Hope. One day she came to me and said, “Hey, let’s put up one of your plays.” It was even better than the fifth-grade playground, because this time someone came to me! So we mounted our first independent production in a dorm lounge. Within two years, we were a couple, a relationship that’s lasted 20 years now — in part, I believe, because we were friends and collaborators first, meaning we’ve always had something in common to complain about.
Before long, we had charted out our post-graduation path: We would move to New York (her hometown) and produce our own shows, with me writing, her starring and both of us directing. Our work would be breathtakingly original, with a unique combination of literary value and popular appeal. Nothing would stop us!
So we spent the next 15 years entirely devoted entirely to creating theater. We did as many as three or four different shows a year, all on an incredibly small budget. Eventually, we joined the staff of a theater space in Williamsburg that had been founded by some friends. It became our artistic home for the better part of a decade. We had to work day jobs the entire time, of course, but our evenings and weekends were devoted to art. Some would say we were living the Dream.
And for a long time, it seemed like that’s where the story would end.
ACT TWO: CRISIS
Here’s the thing about the Dream — even when it looks like you’re close, you’ll never actually reach it.
There was no single moment when we realized we had had enough. I’ll spare you the full litany of all the ways we felt humiliated over the years — the nasty reviews, the anemic audiences, the broken friendships, the professional jealousy, the meager fundraising, the endless herding of human cats, the exhaustion — since the truth is that they happen to everyone who makes a go at it, successful or no. Theater is a social art, and therefore one of the messiest. After a while, we stuck with this elaborate pageant of disappointment, not because the benefits were so sweet, but from a sense of duty to the Dream. This was what we signed on for, right? This is what we had committed to… right?
After years of debating whether it would slow our progress (such as it was), we finally made the choice to start a family. Our son was born two months before mounting a major theater festival. Between working my day job, producing the event and staging my own show as a part of it while they stayed home, I missed much of his first few months of life.
But that’s what happens, right? At least we were still at it! A kid wasn’t going to slow us down. I mean, we’d come this far!
The next year, I did a second production without Hope. But somehow, things had changed. Our son was up and walking. My day job, originally taken for survival, had become challenging and compelling in its own right, and I had to travel during the rehearsal process, putting us a week behind and frustrating my collaborators. The resulting show was completely compromised, and I realized, as we performed it in front of the same small audiences we’d been attracting for more than a decade, that I wasn’t enjoying this — at all.
And we had to admit to ourselves, we were tired of the whole damn thing. And we’d been tired of it for a long, long time.
For more than a decade, our self-image had been of scrappy young go-getters making our way in the world. Our energy and enthusiasm would overcome all obstacles! But a mindset that felt daring and romantic in our 20s was starting to pall now that we had spent a full third of our lives in pursuit of the Dream, with very little to show for it.
This realization was abetted by the very nature of the art form. The raw material of theater is time and space itself, yet that very expansiveness is, paradoxically, ephemeral — which means occasional flashes of life-shaking beauty, sure, but, more prosaically, limited resources and a limited audience. Once it happens, it’s over. It will never return. All that remains are some photos, some postcards, some video footage and some memories — all of them poor substitutes for the real experience. If you didn’t happen to be in Brooklyn on a particular weekend, then our work couldn’t exist for you. Which meant that it didn’t exist for the vast majority of people in our lives — even, sometimes, our closest friends.
This was certainly aggravating when it was just the two of us, but back then we had so little to lose. As long as we could push everything aside and produce a show whenever it struck our fancy, we had failed to notice our momentum fading into inertia. Now, we had a son. What would we show him when he was older, and he asked us where we had been his whole childhood?
None of this is intended to be self-pitying. There were a whole lot of good times, and we remain proud of much of what we accomplished. Plenty of people can and do overcome the same obstacles, so the responsibility for our doldrums definitely laid in our laps. We had been pacing the same perimeter for so long that we couldn’t see we had confined ourselves. And it took the intervention of a new life to finally break the spell.
The decision to step away was not taken lightly, but we made it more quickly than we expected. Before our son was two, a small announcement went out that we were giving up our positions at the theater, and our own production apparatus quietly went into retirement.
ACT THREE: DENOUEMENT
That was more than three years ago. Our creative fires burn as brightly as ever, but, without the boxes we spent years confining ourselves in, we’ve had a lot of freedom to think and experiment. For a while, we kept lunging for another box. We should make movies! No, a web series! No, I’m going to devote myself full-time to my other great passion, comics and illustration!
The reality has proven harder to navigate, and the truth is, we don’t know what’s next. Where we used to fear that, without theater, we wouldn’t know who we were, we’ve now discovered that there’s more to us than just our identity as striving performers. Were we a bit worried at first that, without the Dream, there wouldn’t be much to hold us together? Of course! But we proved that theory wrong. The accumulated exertions of that lifestyle brought us together, but thankfully, they haven’t defined our relationship.
Nowadays, I’m doing a more diverse and challenging array of things than I ever did during the theater days — what I lack is the clarity and convenience provided by easy self-identification. “Theater is what I do,” is what I used to be able to tell the world — and, most notably, myself. Now, what I do is what I do. It’s not as bright and vivid and all-consuming as the Dream, but I can touch it — it’s real. And if that means it’s more complex and less pithy than what came before, that’s probably appropriate to the encroaching compromises of middle age.
So do I miss theater? Not especially, or at least not yet. That part of our lives provided a lot of richness, but it’s over, for now. Does it mean we’ve drifted away from our social sphere? Yes. Is life without a self-ordained purpose a little bigger and a little scarier than it was before? Yes. Is it worth it to spend more time with each other and our son and give ourselves permission to approach the world from new angles? Yes.
Our next steps may not be as planned anymore, but we’re comfortable with that. We may still accomplish great things. Or, frankly, we may just drift slowly closer to the end of our days. But either way, refusing to define ourselves by the Dream has given us a sense of freedom and relaxation that we’ve rarely known before. And at this precise moment, for the first time since being a kid, it feels pretty nice not to expect too much either way.
As a recovering Dreamer, I have some thoughts for anybody else who’s taken a similar journey, struggling for years to achieve something they don’t really want anymore. It’s nothing as useful as “advice,” but hopefully there’s value in recognizing and sharing these feelings.
Don’t Beat Yourself Up
This is the biggest one, honestly. It’s so easy to feel like a quitter, and late capitalism makes walking away from anything feel like a moral failure. It’s not. Clarity is a positive, no matter where it comes from, and god knows we can use less misery wandering around in the world. It’s not a contest; you’re not a failure in pursuing the Dream — you’re a success at having the courage to move on. “But what if I’d kept at it for just one more year?” Screw that — you’ve been telling yourself that every year. If you’re unhappy, that’s reason enough to change — there’s no shame in it.
Take Your Time
“What’s next?” is a question we’ll all be answering for the rest of our lives, and that’s absolutely fine. Some people have solid creative Plan B’s in their pocket, but those are no more of a guarantee than Plan A was. Despite my eagerness to dive into drawing and design, shifting my mindset has been slow going. My whole life had been geared toward operating as a theater-making machine, and it’s taking a long time to switch out the instruments. So whatever you set out to try, leave open some time for exploring — be careful not to switch out one Dream for another.
Mind Your Friendships
A majority of our friends are still in the theater world, writing, directing and acting in plays. Unfortunately, I’m still feeling burnt-out, and, having spent years desperately trying to attract audience members, I rarely experience the desire to be one myself. This has led to a startling insight for me: For years, most of my friends were work friends. Sure, it wasn’t a “job” per se, but theater gave us all something in common, which I don’t feel as much any more. Now that I’m not as interested in talking shop or gossiping about the scene, it’s become clearer which friendships were fleeting and which are lasting. As you transition, be aware of how it affects your relationships, and be ready to work to hold onto what’s important to you.
Appreciate What’s Already There
You don’t spend 30 years pursuing something without accruing some neat stuff along the way. In my case, top amongst those things is a loving family — any discomforts I’ve slogged through are worth it for that alone. But beyond that, I’ve found that all those years of experience give me some interesting insights and skills that I’ve been able to translate into many different contexts. The truth is, my current day job as a creative strategist at a communications firm arose entirely from the perspectives I developed through producing theater, and what I’ve learned continues to inform every other part of my creative life. When you move on, you don’t destroy what came before — you build on top of it. Which is reason enough to have courage — everything that came before will always be with you.
Chances are, if you’ve read this far, it’s not because your Dream isn’t to be a crusader for the underprivileged or a Doctor Without Borders. Art is important to a society, but its effects are more indirect — you’re not denying anyone food or care if you change your creative focus. The world is crowded with catastrophe and grief, and your own frustrations, while very real, can be assuaged by a glance at the big picture. If you’ve had the freedom to spend years in your pursuit, you’re one of the world’s luckiest people. And you can still provide beauty to the world without buying into the Dream — in fact, by stepping out of your box, you might find better ways to do it than you previously imagined.