I went to a tiny college. My senior year, single and fancy free, I was on the hunt for a low key dating thing. I was on the prowl, not setting too terribly high a standard and yet there was not a single person I could find on campus that I remotely wanted to get involved with.
The problem was this: In such an insular community, I already knew everyone. And anyone I might have been interested in, I already had some fore-knowledge of. I likely knew all the people they’d dated, knew things about them, and had an opinion of who they are and what they were about. And ditto in the reverse for them knowing the same info about me. And having just gone through a two year LTR followed by a series of emotionally involved if less physically proximate entanglements, I was interested in meeting who didn’t already have an idea of who I was. And in return, I wanted to meet someone that was a surprise, that wouldn’t know me in the context of the other folks I’d been involved with or the specifics of my extra curriculars and major. In short, I wanted a bit of a fresh start.
Recently, after a week of incredibly and exciting productive work on a new project in its infancy, a collaborator of mine and I were reflecting and he said, “You don’t know me very well.”
My first impulse was to argue, to say, “That’s not true at all. I’ve seen a lot of you in rehearsals, learned the ways you think, what excites you and the kinds of things you want to say in your work.” And then I thought about that feeling I had in college. Why despite my desire to get involved, I simply didn’t want that to be with the folks I saw around me. Why I was had this negative sense of knowing everything about everyone’s business.
After a moment of thought I said to this person, “That’s true. I don’t know you very well.” Because I think the truth is that I don’t. And in some ways, it’s easier that way.
Growing up in an artistic community can be a tricky business.
I think about mistakes I’ve made in the past with more than a little bit of cringe-i-tude. I think about stuff I’ve said, challenges I’ve backed down from, people I’ve pissed off, and the painful artistic flubs I’ve brought on the world. Some of them I really wish I could change. Not all, surely, but in anything, in life, we’re bound to mess up a bit, and I am certainly no exception. And it’s a tough thing as we grow to try and negotiate that evolving self, the person you feel you are versus who others have defined you to be.
Growing up, my sister and I had very different personalities. We categorized ourselves (and were categorized) in pretty different boxes. Dale – the outgoing, far more socially fluent of the Mackeys – was known for her sensitivity, her ebulient wit and charm and her facility with language and words. I on the other hand – a bit more inwardly focused, a bit more guarded, focused and intense – was the science-minded Mackey. I associated myself with drive and passion but quietness and a tougher time communicating with those around me.
Dale was the socialite poet, I the mastermind thinker. And these labels felt awfully firm in their attachment.
So it’s funny to me now when I say to people that I’m a little socially awkward and they say, “Really? I don’t see that.” And it’s taken me a lot of those to realize that I’m still affixing a badge from an Adrienne that may not really exist any more. My sister and I realize now in our adulthood while we do have some differences, in the new contexts we’ve placed ourselves into we are far more similar than either of us realized. Indeed, part of the reason I started posting so often in this space is that I realized just how much I liked expressing myself through writing and just how long I’d been hesitant to do so because we already had a writer in the family. It was only just occurring to me that perhaps that was no longer true.
The creative identities and patterns we forge as young people in an artistic community can be hard to outgrow. Beyond type casting, the habits we entrench in our early workings can stick to us, and they can be difficult to shake. I have felt this keenly as I start to take collaborations with folks that scrappily began as friends just getting together and have to shift them into the “real deal” in terms of scope, money and professionalism. There have been times when I have found frustration that those people with whom I have only begun working seem to negotioate the personal/professional line easier than those that knew me at 23.
There are creators in this city who were once my teachers. There are people who have worked with me before I knew how to pay. There are folks that have seen me break down, lose steam and hope. But most of those things aren’t true anymore. And I don’t want those patterns that I don’t think are applicable to define who I am today. So rather than getting frustrated, I’m trying to see this as a kind of opportunity. A chance to learn a lesson in how to define oneself to others at every stage of one’s career. We do this a lot when we’re young. But maybe it’s still helpful at the midway point or even near the finishing line.
Almost every theater company I know in Philadelphia was founded in my lifetime. And that means that relatively recently almost every one of those institutions has been where I am now. That’s a comforting thought, no? To think even the monoliths were slogging to figure it out, just as much as we are now. To think that the largest and most impervious “institutions” were not gifted status and knowledge by the gods. That they built it over time (and not even that long a time). That they likely made mistakes (may still be making them), but above all, did so by changing and updating themselves as they grew.
Which means you don’t have to do everything right, right now. Which means that you can try and fail and figure out how to do better.
Which also means that your faults are yours to own and change. That no one is making you who you will become. You are. That it’s up to you to see your actions and look at how they are perceived and received and decide if it’s what you want. And if it isn’t, to change.
We must not be afraid of doing it.
You are never trapped by history. If you are in a pattern, be that in the way you make work, the area or title under which you do that, or the people with whom it happens, you can change it if you’re willing to put in a little elbow grease or speak up when speaking up is needed. And rather than seeing that as a burden, think of it as a chance to re-affirm, to re-assess and re-negotiate your sense of self and art in the world. Don’t assume that the people around you have grown alongside you. Rather take the time to re-state your hopes and desires and goals, even if you think that they must be obvious. You might find that a perfect fit from the past is chafing needs a little tending. Or you might just find that everyone else has also been hoping to shed the old habits as well and is happy to jump on your boat and float that way with you.
So be bold and brave enough to keep asking for the things you want and need.
The only thing you have to lose is the stuff you don’t want anyway.