culture theatre & dance

The Virtue of Selfishness

February 10, 2011

I borrowed the title of this post from the title of an Ayn Rand collection of essays on objectivism. Ayn Rand advocated an ethics of rational self-interest in which the idea of “selfishness” has no moral implications. “Selfishness” is just as the dictionary defines it: concern with one’s own interests. She saw the ethics of altruism, which still permeates our society, as . . . well, the downfall of man, and ultimately mankind, to put it briefly. However, I am certainly not an expert on objectivism, and I would like to refer you to The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged to get a better sense of what I’m talking about. I only mention it because of another article I read today.

Earlier today, I received an e-mail pointing me to a featured web article in Classical Singer magazine that asked a simple question, “Are you selfish enough to be a professional singer? Especially a professional singer with a family?” (I should add that when she says “professional” performer she is referring to career performers who are making a living solely through performing. These singers and actors are  performers who have reached the top level of their respective fields.) The author, Cindy Sandler, does not mean to imply that successful singers are mean, uncaring, or cruel individuals. Rather, in the vein of Ayn Rand, she is asking if you are willing to give up everything else in your life (your relationships, family holidays, loved ones’ funerals, friends’ weddings, and such) for your own self-interest because you do, in fact, have to give those things up. After reading the article, I had an answer, which surprised me. It surprised not because it was something that I didn’t know about myself, but because I have known it all along and was simply lying to myself (and the rest of the world) about it. No. I am not selfish enough to be a professional performer.

If you had asked me this question two years ago, I would have said, “Yes, I am willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to make it.” But even as I answered you, there would have been a little voice in the back of my head saying, “Really? Really, Melissa? You’re willing to give up whatever it takes to make it? No, you’re not.” I would have justified myself to that little voice by saying, “Well, I can have it all. I can still have a family and a house and a normal life.” I am certain that there are professional performers out there who do have it all, but they are the exception, certainly not the rule.

The two years I spent living in New York City were two of the least artistically fulfilling years of my life. I spent all of my time and energy living. At the end of any given day, I had no energy, let alone creativity, left because I was schlepping burgers in Times Square or answering phones on Wall Street to pay for my life in New York City. I was working to live. Now, this was in large part due to the fact that I was working to live well. I was not willing to live in a dark, damp, 100-square foot railroad apartment and eat ramen noodles three times a day. I was not willing to live the type of lifestyle that many actors live in order to make it to auditions. I simply wasn’t. So what was I willing to give up? Auditioning. (The irony is not lost on me.) I spent a year working at Goldman Sachs, and I have to tell you, I actually liked it. I met some really great people, some truly amazing women, and I was very happy. I don’t believe that I would have been happy working in finance for the rest of my life, but I very much enjoyed my time there, and I am incredibly thankful that I had the job because it afforded me health insurance during my pregnancy. Yes, health insurance! Something that so many actors sacrifice, myself included. Something that should never have to be sacrificed, but perhaps that’s for another post.

The moment I found out I was pregnant, many things became clear to me, the clearest of which was that I would do whatever it took to be home with my baby as much as possible. I had always thought that if I should have kids, I would be a career mom. Well, we all have the ability to surprise ourselves, and I surprised myself with that one. I realized that I was willing to give up my life in New York City, where I worked to live, to move back to the suburbs, where the cost of living is a bit more reasonable, so that I could work less and be with Scarlett more. I realized that I was willing to stop pursuing a career as a professional performer, since it’s just not a realistic possibility outside of the major markets, and be “the local talent.” I realized that I was no longer lying to myself about my willingness to sacrifice my personal life for my professional life.

When I answered, “No, I am not selfish enough to be a professional performer,” and found myself surprised that I hadn’t recognized this lack of “selfishness” in myself years before, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Have I been on the wrong path all this time?” I consider myself moderately successful as an actor. I have worked consistently in theatre over the past 10 years, have forged wonderful relationships, made life-long friends, but I have plateaued at a level just shy of “successful.”  I consider myself to be a professional actor in the sense that I am paid for my work, but I am not a member of Actors’ Equity, which means I am not a “professional” actor, according to some.  Each time I have come close to getting my card, something has happened (or not happened), and it just didn’t work out.  Now, I understand that being a professional actor is not for the faint of heart, but should it really be this hard? I don’t think so. I believe that when life is working so hard against you, you have to question if you’re going the right direction. On the right path, doors should be opening, not closing. So, if I knew deep inside my heart that I wasn’t willing to sacrifice everything and everyone in my life to be an actor, didn’t I also know that I wasn’t ever really going to be truly successful at it?

I am currently working after school as an actor at a small, professional theatre in Akron called Actors’ Summit, and I am so, so happy to be a part of their theatre family. (You didn’t think this was a post on quitting the business entirely, did you? Please. I do have an ego to feed.) Unlike many regional theatres who only hire actors out of New York City, Actors’ Summit is a staunch advocate of celebrating “the local talent,” many of whom are former New York City- or Chicago-based actors who left the big city for one reason or another, some Equity and some not. Actors’ Summit is a theatre in Ohio who employs actors in Ohio. Remarkable, eh? Not to mention that they are some of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever met. No, not just in theatre. In my life. And although I am not a Broadway star, and probably never will be, I feel happier and more artistically fulfilled than I have in a long, long time as a member of their company. You know, maybe with just a little compromise, you can have it all.

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  • Reply Louisa February 11, 2011 at 5:46 AM

    Oh, Melissa, I loved this post. I'm so happy to hear that all the brave decisions you have made have brought you down exactly the right path for you. I struggle all the time with whether the career/life I thought I wanted truly is what I still want, and reading about your journey is inspiring. xoxo

  • Reply MK February 11, 2011 at 3:50 PM

    I adored this.

  • Reply AKB February 11, 2011 at 11:19 PM

    This is great post. I felt the same way in NYC. But, I consider my time there another step in my "failing up" life plan.

  • Reply Melissa April 27, 2011 at 1:39 PM

    From a friend who couldn't get this to post . . ."One of the best cellists I have come across (and not just in MY opinion, Elton John thinks she's good too) couldn't give a rat's ass about playing cello. She'd be thinking about anything and everything else while up there on stage playing.This is why it's always funny to me when people try to report on art and artists. This same gal now makes patterns at a textile company, somewhat skilled, but certainly less 'fulfilling' work. She loves it more than anything." -Brandon

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