Presence and Propriety: The Quandary of a Semi-Retired(?) Actress

“I think the issue is that you’re at war with yourself; battling between what you think you’re supposed to be doing and what you actually want.”

…well, shoot. How have I not avoided this plight? I so cautiously crafted my trajectory from a young age: no, I would not go to college in Texas where my 26 relatives had. I would live in the Northeast. I did not need or want to get married. I would be a publisher (certainly for the best that dream waned quickly), a writer (again, good thing), an arts administrator (because I was afraid to be a performer), an actress (temporarily, I acknowledged), a UX designer, a personal trainer, an entrepreneur. I fancy myself independent, focused, determined to a fault. I’m Katharine Gentsch. I make things happen. I am a devastatingly typical millennial. I have a raging case of special snowflake syndrome — which may be more due to my personal makeup than conditioning I’ve received as a 20-something (or maybe it’s a product of both?). I say ‘no’ to things I don’t want and aggressively pursue those I do.

Why, then, has this gorgeous little 6 week theater contract — affectionately referred to as my ‘theatrical swan song’ — thrown my psyche for such a loop? I’ve spent the past year and a half building a business, weaning myself from dayjobs as I build out new careers, becoming increasingly stable and independent. I’ve attended conferences, taken classes, relentlessly studied a whole pocketful of new skills. I applied and interviewed for MBA programs (partially as an experiment? I can’t even articulate the massive quantity of spaghetti I’ve thrown against the wall over the last year to see what sticks because goodness knows I have no idea). I haven’t auditioned. I’ve said ‘no’ to more theater gigs than I have ‘yes.’ I’ve fallen in love with New York as a resident rather than a tourist or as a disillusioned newcomer. I’ve been creatively satisfied. I’ve got a lot of new dreams. I’ve been happy.

But this snow globe of a theatrical experience has been such a dreamy respite from adulting. From reality. It’s ephemeral and transient and wild and wonderful. Here are a handful of strangers in a city and a home that is yours — for the next 6 weeks: work with them, live with them, play their family, their partner, their friend. Find a compelling reason for your character to spontaneously burst into song or dance. Forget about who our next president is, or how sad (and indeed real) real life can be, or how cold New York City is about to get. Listen. Smile. And then have an audience of several hundred applaud this bizarre, gratuitous, joyful, temporary product you’ve all created and shared together. And after 6 weeks, you leave. It ends. And that’s it. If you’re lucky, you had a wonderful time. If you’re the luckiest, you’ve scooped up a new real-life friend or two that’ll stick and become a part of your actual, non-transient world. (But truly: can we acknowledge what a bizarre-yet-wonderful business this is? And then can we take a second to wonder how sustainable it is for someone who feels they lucked into it in the first place? Hint: that person is me.)

I’m performing in White Christmas. I’m playing Judy Haynes. I get to sing a trio with fiercely talented women, tap dance on a piano, enjoy the company of a talented, brilliant group of humans, dance with a fantastic partner. I love this theater. I love this city. And the housing. And the costuming. And sets. And the director/choreographer. And music director. And role. And show.

I had a year to condition my soul to be satisfied with this as my final theatrical adventure — a task made considerably easier by a couple less-than-inspiring recent experiences and a creeping sense that both this career had outgrown me and that I had outgrown it. I could continue doing theater — just as a hobby, not as a career. (I still suspect this may be the answer to how I approach the multiple lives I’m leading.) But so many questions still loom: Should I pursue (finally) joining the union? Is now a decidedly stupid time to do so? Do I continue taking class (justifying it as simply personally satisfying as opposed to continuing to hone a craft? Or make connections?) How do I fully delve into these transient experiences seriously and fully while maintaining the rest of my life and balance reality? Do I audition on occasion? If ever? Will my heart ache the way it does now every time one of these snow globe experiences happen? Will it continue to prove nearly impossible to juggle my various careers (voiceovers, web design, online fitness membership program, dance captain, performer)— and a personal life? I’m a sucker for a good challenge (never tell me I can’t do something — game on, pal), but even I can acknowledge this may be a stretch.

I’ve had time for the first time in so long to check in with…well, feelings. It is, in fact, part of my job. This career — the theatrical one — is built on a foundation of listening, discovery, staying present, being acutely aware of your body, your grounding, your breath, your brain, what you want. How you’re going to get it. Weirdly, adults in the real world (outside of snow globes) are so diligent in outputting product that it seems they forget to take inventory of the toll it may be taking on them personally (so much ‘what’ and so little ‘why?’). And New York City is the mothership of this ambition machine. Everyone is behind in the City. No one is doing enough. You’re never enough. But it’s okay: you’re in good company with the 8.4 million fellow denizens chipping away at their fights and plans and dreams. It feels noble and worthwhile: fighting the good fight. Striving to achieve and become better.

I haven’t outgrown a desire for a pensieve — those magical basins of thoughts and memories in Harry Potter (yep, #millennial — but truly: wouldn’t that be a lovely repository for excess brain baggage?)…or a time turner for that matter…or a pet owl. BUT I DIGRESS. When my brain and soul get too cloudy (and because unfortunately pensieves don’t actually exist), I write. (Well, full disclosure: I usually dance or play piano or pour the feelings into someone else’s work until it’s time to reckon with them on my own.) And, because #millennial and #specialsnowflake, I blog. So, here we are.

If there’s one thing my 5 measly years of adulting have taught me, it’s that — unfortunately — no one will come up with any of these answers for me. You may have thoughts. You may have empathy. I welcome both. But unfortunately: I have to clamber through this mess of late-twenties myself. (#ThingsYouDon’tLearninSchool) I have to figure out my priorities. Reckon with what I want, and what seems sensible (or proper), and sustainable. I don’t think my proposed solution (theater = hobby, other stuff = real world and learn how to balance better) is a bad one. It just happens to smart a bit at the moment. But I acknowledge that it’s rarely (if ever) this good. And that audition season is indeed soul sucking. And the process of getting these jobs (tricks, showing off for 30 seconds at a time, not coming off desperate, and zoning out in holding rooms, and letting all personal grievances slip away, and keeping your makeup on in the cold as you travel to the audition studio, and affording and keeping up with taking class, and hurrying up and waiting, and dealing with the demon of despair, and avoiding letting your own personal value hang on the opinion of someone else) is so devastatingly unlike the actual process once you have the job (alive, and discovery-centered, and all in the interest of everyone’s best work and — ideally — serving a gorgeous little story).

So we keep on keeping on. And check in. And prioritize. And practice patience. And presence. And listen to our generous, smart friends and peers and loved ones. And amble through, doing the best we can, enjoying the little snow globe moments when we are lucky enough to have them.