I think the first time I was aware of the demon that is daydreaming (with nothing, such as plans, to back it up) was while sitting on the music room floor, side-saddle, as it were, because of the skirt, my right hand pressed hard onto the cold asbestos tile, holding me up, one day in fifth grade. Mr. Hart’s class—that was mine—was in charge of putting on the school talent show. We helped produce it (make programs, usher), light it (overhead projectors and lighting gels), and some of us might even perform in it, if we passed Mr. Hart’s auditions. When imitating Judy Garland in my bedroom, I was pretty sure I would have been a big star in 1939, but this being 1975, probably I was too late. Still, a girl can dream about being discovered and given her big break, and that’s what I was waiting for Mr. Hart to do while Brenda Naylor was singing “Have You Never Been Mellow?” along to the record by Olivia Newton John. Brenda was a very nice, quiet girl, largely built, of indeterminate ethnicity, with the smallest mouth I’d ever seen. She had a lisp. She swayed while singing, sang off-key, very hoarsely, and looked around at us uncertainly. She was just awful. Mr. Hart, though, treated her like a star. “Wasn’t that great, guys?” He made all over her, never noticing that a real star was sitting right there on the floor. Oh, I never bothered to sing, dance, speak, or in any other was actually audition—but if I really had talent, and I was sure I had, wouldn’t someone as bright as Mr. Hart just know it?
I was never afraid of being bad. I was fearless in my heart. What I was afraid of was looking like a show-off. I would watch amazed as the super-talented dancer Terri Trelinski (who is now an elementary school music teacher) performed this original robot dance to Queen’s “Killer Queen,” music I loved but was also afraid of because I didn’t understand what their songs meant. (The only movie musical lyric I didn’t understand up to that point was, “And you’ll find that you’re in the Rotogravure”, and that was totally forgivable.) I didn’t think of her as a show-off. So what was I doing sitting there on that floor, smiling mysteriously to myself while all the other kids did the actual work of performing an audition and got parts in the show?
It turns out I was becoming addicted to my first taste of a powerful drug called Holding the Space. So powerful did my addiction to this become, I didn’t even realize that in Holding the Space I was Holding Myself Back. In fact, I never even thought about this tendency in myself until some 30 years later at a space down on White Street below Canal, a fifth floor walk-up loft where I found myself as assistant director in an experimental theatre company in New York. (Note: The late great actress no one ever heard of, Ruth Maleczech (whom I met once, and really scary in her power), who dedicated her creative life to Mabou Mines, the legendary experimental theater company based in NYC, said, “Don’t call it experimental, because people will say the experiment has failed. Just call it your work.”) Herewith, Demon #4 in Miss O’s Summer Series:
Miss O’ Reflects
LISA HOLDS THE SPACE. She has to be there. She holds the space: Hear this like an echo chamber moment in Spellbound. The weight of the responsibility is enormous, in that unlike, say, being an actor there, my attention could not sway/falter/shift for an instant; I could not miss any single particulate of a moment if I was to do my job. More or less, that is my nature, and my students back in my teaching days found this unnerving. (“How do you remember all this?”) I also became aware that too many times I wasn’t remotely “holding the space” in my classroom when I learned later how much I actually missed—kids’ sense of confusion, being lost, feeling left out, etc., however much my awareness of life seemed heightened. (“I don’t see why you don’t think to help me just because I behave.”)
Holding the space made me well-suited to teaching and directing, professions as mysterious as they are obvious: Everyone knows directors make shows and movies, and that teachers teach school, but no one outside of it really knows how it gets done, how the work happens. Teachers and directors shoulder all the responsibility and accept all the blame, but are very often given no credit for successes. To the actor go the spoils. And for someone of my temperament—patient, a natural listener, given to life lived in the present (in what acting teacher Patsy Rodenburg calls “the second circle”)—holding the space or creating a place where people feel safe to be who THEY are, to create what they want, is a natural fit.
So this got me thinking: Is that who I am? A “space-holder”? And if so, is that a defeat for me as a creative person? Does this mean that in and of myself, I have nothing to offer to the world beyond my presence, my place in the audience, my payment for the purchase of your book, your art, your show ticket, and all the good wishes (truly heartfelt) that attend those purchases?
A few years ago, when I was at a low point—I would say nadir is not too strong a word—of my romantic life, a friend said to me, “You are a Rorschach. Like Marilyn Monroe, not physically, but in that way of hers. You have that something. People project onto you’re their fantasies, hopes, dreams, and expect you to reflect back to them exactly what they want everybody to see. And when you don’t respond the right way, they turn.” While not exactly comforting, the observation nonetheless made a lot of things clearer to me—mostly in the form of behaviors, turnabouts, and so forth. It also helped explain the sudden and deep criticism I might get from a friend I had known as supportive if I moved into a new creative area, or moved, say, to New York City. And it made me learn to stay away from Rorschach projectors. Here’s ink in your eye.
The connection between Holding the Space and Being a Rorschach has mostly to do with serving the needs of others. I’m very good at maintaining friendships, checking in on people or being there when they need me to. Sometimes I fail. But this thing that nags at me is, “Is there anything else I can contribute?” or maybe more than that, “Is there anything that I have to say for myself that others might want to hear?”
The Open Theater
In my junior year of college I was assigned to act in a directing student’s final project. The student, who went on to appear in a few films and in theater before giving it up (and happily) to be married and a mom, was given the task of creating an original piece in the style of Joseph Chaikin. Chaikin is all about emotional honesty, and I suspect she was assigned this style to help “grow” her professionally. It’s what taking classes is for. As we began the rehearsals, one thing that cropped up as a topic among all of us was daydreaming. I don’t know how we arrived there, but we all talked about our fantasies, and I shared mine, which was of “being discovered,” just like in fifth grade. And the director herself began turning around like an Oscar, and we developed my whole scene in a short time. Although it exposed my shallow dream for all to see, it was honest, and it was funny. When we went on to create her daydream—of being swept up by a knight in shining armor, to the strains of the soundtrack from On Golden Pond, the honesty nearly destroyed her. She returned to the next rehearsal saying we had to scrap the whole idea, that it was too close to the bone, and find a new idea to build a show around. We slapped together something, though it really didn’t have anything like the intended outcome of honesty and deep connection to the material, and I’ve always thought the loss of that show was a shame.
The consequences of this pulling back, pulling away from truth, though, has always stayed with me. It put me on the alert—looking to see when I did that to myself. And slowly, slowly, I have been working out this demon.
In graduate school—five summers at a the Bread Loaf School of English—I came to the summer before my senior one, and at a cocktail party the fiction professor (who had taught three of my closest friends there) asked, “Are you finally going to take my fiction workshop next summer?” He and I were both from Virginia and had bonded over that through the summers; I shook my head. “Oh, no, David, I’m not a writer. I teach and coach drama, theater is my thing.” And he eyed me over his gin and tonic and spoke in a way I had never heard, and it shocked me: “Is the baby afwaid to take my workshop?” I glared at him. “Fuck you. I’m taking your workshop.” He smiled, pleased with himself, and sipped his drink.
The following summer, as I was well into my second story in the workshop, I chanced upon Professor David as he left the tennis court. “And how is your writing life today?” he asked. My writing life. MY creative life. As a writer.
Whenever I feel lost, or untalented, or useless, I think I need to remember to ask myself that question.
I count it as the happiest question I have ever been asked.