Creative types see or hear it every day: just be yourself. But what if you don’t know who that is? Since moving to a new city a year ago (add in Covid-19 for a little spice), I’ve had a lot of time alone in my own head. And I’ve come to a conclusion that I’d like to try to put into words.
I’m an extra.
Let’s begin at the beginning. I was a dorky kid. I hated wearing dresses and doing what the other girls did. I preferred playing with boys at recess and when I wasn’t in school, I built sandcastles with tar and rocks from the street. I pretended I was a witch and could travel to alternate dimensions. All this I did by myself. There were two neighbour girls on my street. One older than me by a few years and one younger. These two girls seemed to come from more affluent households. And I spent as much of my time with them as I could. Every day until their parents called them in for supper at 5 every evening. But I always did what they wanted. We played “house” and cared for baby dolls. What did I really want to do with those dolls? Cut them open and perform surgery. I got pretty good at “stitches” as a kid. Really good. I even learned to make my own costumes based on the characters from the novel I still haven’t written.
I also became a very proficient jumping roper. One day at the local volunteer fire department, there was a jump rope team performing. They invited kids to come up and try it at the end. It was easy. It came naturally to me. From then on, I spend every moment when I wasn’t playing with the neighbour girls making up jump rope tricks and pretending to be some kind of jump rope dancer. I did interviews for all the late night shows where I explained how certain tricks got their names.
Eventually I joined a competitive and exhibition team and competed in and placed well in tournaments with people from all over the country. More on that later.
At school I never had real friends. Certainly nobody I still talk to today. I’d say I had some good acquaintances, but never good enough to be go to a birthday party. I was invited to one once in third grade. I think I took the blame for decorating her camper with stickers. Her guardians yelled at me, I must have yelled back. I probably said “fuck”. I don’t remember. I was real edgy in 3rd grade thanks to all the “third grade jokes” my dad and brother used to tell. All I know for sure is the next day, one of her friends said to me “She told me to tell you that you’re not to come to her party.” Yeah. This girl was well-spoken in 3rd grade.
Throughout middle and high school, I had two or three of aforementioned acquaintances that kept me on rotation. We would hang out for a while, and then after a bit I’d get dumped without explanation. Once I thought I found a group of true friends who accepted me for what I was. We had a zine and everything! We all adopted Powerfuff Girl personas. I had never seen the show. My family could afford cable. But I pretended to identify with the little green one because I’m dark-haired. One day the leader of our clique stopped talking to me. She refused to even acknowledge me. After a while the other of our trio told me that the other girl’s mom thought I was gay, so she wasn’t allowed to talk to me anymore. I had a best friend from my jump rope team. I took on a new name to match hers. We told everyone we were twins. I still don’t know what made her start to hate me.
When I lamented my loneliness and boredom to my mother, she told me stories of her own childhood and how she had to make her own fun and be her own friend. She also used to tell me that she was my mother and not my friend. But once I got to high school, she was my best friend whether she wanted to be or not. But even at home, I wasn’t myself. I had a brother to contend with. He expended a lot of parental energy. There was a lot of anger in our house. That left me scared and to myself a lot. I kept a lot of things to myself. I didn’t want to pile on. I was hella Christian. I believed Halloween was evil. I only listened to Christian music. At church camp one year, I was lonely and joined all the cool kids who received their calls to ministry. I didn’t have to make myself cry. Tears came naturally because of how badly I wanted to belong to the group. I did all this to fit in with my own family.
I went to kindergarten through tenth grade with the same 60 kids. Some of them were nice to me. Most of them completely ignored my existence. But there were a few who said things like “You’re fat. Ew.” And “She would be so bad if it wasn’t for her hair.” And “Why don’t you talk? Do you speak English?”
I was an athlete by the time I got to high school. Jump rope, gymnastics, martial arts… All my frustrations would disappear while I jumped rope in the street or learned back hand springs in the yard. I tried cheerleading for a little while. I loved it. It was like singing and gymnastics combined. Very athletic. And I was really good at it. I could throw a brilliant basket toss. I was the only one who was willing to tumble on the gym floor. One time, I landed a back layout on my chest in the middle of a game. But I was also an accomplished breakdancer, and just did the worm. It’s a fond memory. I can still do a killer toe touch. But nobody told me that small town cheerleading isn’t about athleticism or how well you can turn a disastrous tumbling pass into the coolest thing anyone’s ever seen. It’s about being a perfect girly girl. They wore make up and did cute curly things with their hair. They talked about boys. I wasn’t allowed to wear make up. And boys had never really interested me. I pretended to be want various of them to be my boyfriend. Oh how I pretended! I just wanted to fit in. I tried so hard, but I was never anything other than what I could do for the squad. I was a walking backflip. I was a muscle made only for throwing. If they did involve me in conversation, it was just to get me to say something embarrassing to one of the popular boys. See, the other cheerleaders figured it out long before I did. I would do anything to feel included.
In 6th grade, I embraced the fact that I couldn’t understand spoken English for shit. I started learning sign language from books and a substitute who filled in for my teacher when she had a baby. I taught myself to read, write, and speak Japanese after reading Memoirs of a Geisha in 9th or 10th grade. I’ll tell you, katakana was great for cheating on history tests. My school was too small to have any languages other than French and Latin. So I took up French. But I wanted desperately to learn Japanese for real.
I applied for an exchange trip in 10th grade. I wrote my personal essay in Japanese. I still don’t know how my family paid for that trip. In the summer after my 10th grade year, I went on a two week exchange in Shizuoka Japan.
When I returned the the US, my mum took a job at McDonald’s so they could pay my tuition to a public high school in another district. This school offered Japanese. I tested into second year.
While I was at this school, I kept up with my French and also started learning Spanish. I remember vividly the moment when I was first able to think in French. I couldn’t think of the English for “église”. I still bombed the AP exam though.
In addition to the extra languages, this school had an after school drama club. My previous school didn’t offer any theatre classes except for seniors. But I knew I had the performance bug. Jackie Chan movies and jumping rope at shows for appreciative crowds were my gateways to acting. Well, the first time I tried it was a community theatre production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. My mum took me to audition and ended up auditioning with me. She got a role. I got to fill out the scenery.
But maybe at this new school I’d get another chance! And I did. I actually got cast in a play! It got cancelled. They put on Nunsense instead. I was not cast.
It was about this time that I became obsessed with the internet. I joined forums for the Wheel of Time fans. I taught myself HTML and CSS by viewing source codes. I built websites on Expage and Angelfire for cats, ghosts, and Jackie Chan (numberonechanfan). I also had a deviantart page. I think that still exists, actually. I posted my poems and sketches. I thought I was real deep. But I still hadn’t read any Shakespeare.
Meanwhile, I was kicking butt as a jump roper. National tournaments, staffing at camps, training new jumpers.
Until I was kicked off my team.
I still don’t know why. But everything I had worked for for 11 years and all my friends were gone in a single evening. I still wonder what was so wrong with me that they couldn’t stand to try to talk to me. This is probably one reason why I’m very forthcoming a when it comes to my expectations and feelings. I don’t think anyone should not be given a chance to fix their mistakes. And nobody should live their whole lives wondering how they’re broken.
Then it was time for college. Despite having a “little voice” and no acting experience, I decided to study theatre. Several times I tried to join the acting major. I never got in. Acting is one of those things that you have to already be good at before you can learn how to do it. And I was nervous. I’m sure my auditions were dreadful to watch. They saw somebody so eager to fit in and be included. They didn’t see any acting from me. I didn’t know how to audition or what plays I was supposed to have read. I quickly realised just how behind I was. Every one of my cohorts had gone to theatre camps, played the lead in South Pacific, or done some commercials as kids. And then there was me. I loved Kung Fu films and the Princess Diaries. You know, the one where the frizzy headed girl with glasses gets a makeover and suddenly people love her? I wonder why I was into that…
So I studied film production and technical theatre until I couldn’t get my last two classes: Shakespeare and vocal performance (acting students got priority). So I went on an exchange in France and got my BA in French instead. That was one of the best times of my life. I went to classes on Ancient Egypt and Breton history. I took four-day weekends every week. I probably walked a couple thousand miles. And I met two people who I still plan on going back to Rennes with someday. I found out I would be graded on the journal I kept and not on the grades I received in the classes I took. So I did my best to make sure that journal was overflowing with ticket stubs, stories, receipts, and little doodles of the places I went on my weekend excursions. And while I was in class, I focused on trying to learn the language.
I was 3 credit hours from a theatre studies degree, but I couldn’t put off graduation. I had joined the army when all of my friends got jobs at a rich kid summer camp. Some of my favourite authors at the time had done military service, so I figured I’d give it a try. So I had to graduate on time. One such friend was a tall blonde dancer. Beautiful like an elf. But nerdy. Rich nerdy. Well educated nerdy. Expensive sports and theatre camps nerdy. And I wanted to be her. I started wearing make-up because of her. Another friend was absolutely hilarious. I still think if she wanted a career in stand-up, she could have it. And she was the effortlessly beautiful type. The kind of gorgeous that made me want to dye and straighten my hair. I remember going to “Yay Jesus” with her a few times in an effort to pretend like I cared about religion as much as she seemed to. Our other core friend was a gaming nerd. She was also hilarious and didn’t act like she gave a shit about what people thought about her. I started playing World of Warcraft because of her. Gods I must have been annoying. Several years later, one of these friends told me that the reason everyone stopped talking to me was because I was too negative and sad.
I wish they would have told me before completely forgetting I exist.
I had pretty well sworn off friendships by the time I went on active duty. They caused nothing but trouble. And then my whole world changed when I became disabled and met John, my husband. Two things I never even had on my radar, and they both happened in quick succession.
I talked to my therapist about him in the early stages of our relationship. I asked him what I should do about this guy who wants to come take care of me after a procedure. He said, “Let him.” So I did.
The next thing I knew, I was getting discharged from the Army and headed to Knoxville so that John could pursue his PhD. I had nothing in Knoxville or even in the south at all. My original post-army plan was to go to Vancouver and work as an extra in all those CW and Sci-fi shows. Plans never survive first contact, and my first contact took me to Knoxville.
I worked in bridal stores. I loved dresses. Being surrounded by all that fabric reminded me of sewing costumes when I was a kid and working in the costume shop while studying theatre. But I just didn’t fit in. I didn’t wear the right clothes. I had tattoos. I didn’t have the right accent. I was to the point in a world where everyone wants to talk about the weather. I had leadership experience, which is the downfall of many vets as they reintegrate into the civilian world. And when I asked for leadership roles, I was told I didn’t have the look or personality.
So I went back to school. This time, I was going to be a teacher. Did I really want to be a teacher? No. I didn’t want to fight with the VA to convince them to pay for an advanced degree in linguistics or creative writing. But in hindsight, I should have stuck with computers.
As an army vet and world-traveller, I went to college this time with a lot fewer damns to give. I wasn’t there to make friends. I was there to study. I accidentally did both.
I saw the theatre department was having auditions for a play called Macbeth is the New Black. I knew a monologue for the play, so I auditioned with it. And I was given my first speaking role in a play. From there, I performed in two other shows put on by the college and about ten other community and local professional plays. Once again, I became once again obsessed with performing. I found my way into got the local burlesque and drag scenes. I got together with some folks who signed and made some ASL music videos.
But Shakespeare became my passion. Every play was a string of little language and history puzzles. Learning a play and a character made me feel like a heroic anthropologist and linguist. I knew if I wanted to be really good, I’d need to take a class (because I couldn’t take the Shakespeare class while studying for my theatre degree). So I applied to the British American Drama Academy in Oxford and the Stella Adler Shakespeare intensive in NYC in the summer of 2017. I got into both. Remember how I was so bad at acting while studying theatre? Well, what happens after you’ve survived living in a foreign country and the army is a bit of a confidence boost. Turns out, you have to have some confidence. I chose BADA because they actually sent me my acceptance letter. Also because England has always been a grounding homeland as I’ve been a wanderer.
One of the masterclasses at BADA was from a guy who told us that the best Shakespeare is done in the actor’s own voice. I think about that lecture a lot and wonder if there’s any truth in my voice.
Recently, a fellow linguist (Oh capital!) I met at BADA posted about 200 pictures of everybody in the opening party at Oxford. I’m not in a single one. Why is that? I’m background talent. I spent a lot of time watching others interact, but not interacting myself. They had fun in the pub together as a group. I had fun in the pub watching them. I had fun imagining the worlds win which I felt comfortable in a group like that. I found a cute club with delicious mixed drinks and live jazz. I walked the six mile round trip to Wolvercote Cemetary to see Tolkien. I ate and drank alone at the Bird and Baby. I cried at Shakespeare’s grave. I almost missed a masterclass because I got stuck at a cycling event in Wallingford. Yes, I made some friends. But the the adventures I had on my own were far more numerous and comfortable.
When I’m with other people, I never quite feel I belong. I’m too weird, too quiet, too loud…
When I moved to Knoxville, I tried to ignore those insecurities and get involved. And once you establish yourself in a community, leaving it sucks. For years, I had tried to be as out of touch with people as possible, because I knew I would leave. And I did. And all was well. But in Knoxville, I made the mistake of making friends. I was heavily involved in the theatre community. And from that involvement, I gained a sister. And there’s two other people who still talk to me from time to time.
Now I find myself in a new city with no contacts or connections. The friends that I have here are ghosts. The people I admired so much I forced myself into their perceptions of who I should be. Just those ghosts and the movies in my memories. I think about them every day. Sometimes we text and laugh at cat videos together. But mostly, their lives have gone on. They have distractions. I have none. I think about them constantly.
Other people have always been the main characters in my memories. I’ve been an extra in my own story. The story always continues without me. I wonder if the people who have real estate in my mind have me in theirs. I wonder if all of my own history is tied to other people, how can I be anything other than the not too short, not too ugly, not too deaf, not too white, not too tan, grey shape in the background of their memories.
I feel like my whole life has been spent trying to be what I’m supposed to be, but not who I am. And most of those people I followed stranded me alone.
So these few who have stuck around for me, I wonder if they know me. Or do they know the ghost of who I could have been if I’d have let myself?
Which me did my husband fall in love with?
Can these people tell me who I am? Can they tell me how to be myself?
All the pros tell you that’s the key to a successful audition, novel, painting… Just be yourself. Who can tell me what that is?
I think of my actions when nobody’s watching. When I was lonely as a kid, what did I do? I dug in the dirt. I built websites. I wrote stories and poems. I jumped rope. I learned languages.
When I was lonely in college, what did I do? I played the system and had a brilliant time trying to survive in France. I learned to love whiskey. I walked for hours at a time. By myself. At night. I took incredible risks.
What did I do in Knoxville, when I should have kept to myself? I turned again to art. I went out. I joined a community. I started a theatre company. I went back to school. I got in touch with the deaf community.
What did I do when I was lonely in Oxford? I walked a lot. I studied. I watched.
What do I do when I’m lonely in my new city? I walk. I write. I make sign language videos. I swing a sword around. I talk to the toad who lives in my yard. I snuggle my fluffbabies.
Who am I? (<- That’s a good film. Jackie Chan.)
I’m quiet. I hate speaking. But if you learn my language, I’ll never shut up. I want you to love me as much as I love you. I’m studious. I’m brave. I’m crude. I’m no-nonsense. I’m confused. I’m insecure. I’m weird. I love animals more than people.
I’m not gay. I’m not straight. I’m not a hyper feminine person. I’m not an extremely masculine person either. To hearing people, I’m deaf. To deaf people, I’m hearing. I’m not the greatest actor or artist, but I’m not the worst either. I’ve carved out my place in a lot of grey areas.
Do these traits make a compelling and memorable protagonist? I may not be cut out for more than background talent as an actor, but can I play the lead role in my own life yet?
And I also wonder, do those people I used to cling to so desperately feel the same way about themselves? Are the people who seem so sure of their identities faking it? Are we all background friends?
I think I’m on a path now, toward figuring out who I am and what I’m supposed to be doing. But the path I’m on has taken more than thirty years. I may never know. And maybe that’s who I am. Maybe I’m just a questioner of existence. And maybe in the end that’ll be good enough.