You are more than your accomplishments

Curled up in a cosy little huddle around the coffee table, we listened intently as Maggie chattered away, a sparkle in her eye and a genuine smile upon her face. When our director Tre told us that Margaret (Maggie) Edson had replied to his email and agreed to Skype with us all, I thought he was pulling our leg. Why would a Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright want to Skype with a group of random actors in Shenzhen, China? Well, probably because she is one of the kindest, most down-to-earth people I have ever had the chance to meet (if meeting over Skype counts). For some reason when we think of someone famous who has won prestigious awards we more often than not assume that they have no interest in speaking to the little people (us). Why would we think in this way? As I ran into the room and plopped down on the floor, cross-legged, Maggie immediately greeted me and it was with real interest that she asked me questions, not just out of nicety. She remembered all of our names and she listened to our questions and thoughts intently. She seemed as happy as we were to have this unique opportunity to discuss her play and the production we put on of it. It felt like talking to an old friend, someone we had known our whole lives. Everything she said, regarding both the play and real life, really hit me hard. This woman is wise I tell you. So wise. I couldn’t stop smiling and nodding along with everything she said. And she is funny! I may have laughed a lot during the ninety minutes that we all chatted. Now I feel more inspired than ever and I wanted to share a few things that she talked to us about because I feel that these are things we all need to acknowledge.

Firstly, we need to slow down. I mean, really slow down. This is particularly important in our modern-day technology-fueled ‘go go go’ lifestyle. We never stop. We wake up, go to work, work all day, go home, sleep, and then we do it all again. We say ‘yes’ to everything. We fill up our schedules until they are positively bursting at the seams with both work and social engagements. It’s almost like we’re scared to stop, scared to stop ticking things off a list of never-ending activities. Why must we do something every single night after work? What’s wrong with going home, cooking a delicious meal, climbing into bed and reading until we drift into sleep? Nothing. There is nothing wrong with that, and yet still we inject our lives with such chaos, until before we know it, we are having an absolute meltdown. This is very true for Shenzhen. Living in such a young city filled with budding entrepreneurs, this city is our playground. We are the generation that has been put in charge of creating and developing the image and future of this baby city. And we don’t know when to stop. We can’t stop. We are addicted to accomplishing things. We work full-time, we party full-time and still, we are hungry for more. One more business plan, one more TV commercial, one more drink.

Well, this past weekend I realised enough is enough. After a magically-inspiring but busy week of performing ‘Wit’ every night, I decided that this weekend was ‘my’ weekend. I told the TV commercial people I needed to rest. I sold my ticket for the music festival I’d been so excited to attend. I ran to the supermarket and stocked up on all my favourite foods. I lit my candles and pulled out my fairy lights to create a more Christmasy mood. I played relaxing music, watched movies, read a lot. I didn’t go anywhere until Sunday night when it was time to Skype Maggie and it was probably the most relaxing weekend I’ve had in a long time. But I need to admit something…

I felt guilty. Should I have gone to the music festival even though I was tired and it was raining heavily? What about the TV commercial people? Had I let them down? Maybe I should be writing instead of watching movies? I better go outside and exercise a bit.

Those were the thoughts than ran through my mind continually. Then it struck me. Have we actually forgotten how to slow down, how to relax? What happened to us that made us want to accomplish so much? All I accomplished this past weekend was some much-needed rest, and let me tell you, I feel happier than ever. I woke up smiling. My skin has a glow again. My head isn’t so fuzzy and my heart feels inspired. Maggie told us that she currently has an elderly relative staying with her at the moment and she was intrigued to watch this older lady just doing nothing. Just sitting in an armchair with the cat on her lap. And yet, she looked so content. Content doing nothing. I believe that is something our generation have no idea how to do. We do yoga. We meditate. We sleep in on the weekends. But do we really ever fully relax? Is there a way that we could somehow remind ourselves that it is totally OK to just lie on our beds and stare into space. To sit against a tree in the park and read our books without having to run to catch a bus, a train. To engage in a real conversation with someone without checking our phones or letting our minds drift. Seriously, we need to revert back to a slower-paced life if we want to strive for what we’re all really looking for- that of happiness. We think that if we fast-track that new business of ours we’ll be happy. If we drown ourselves in a decade of debt just so we can have the latest, fanciest car we’ll have found what it is we’re looking for. Goals are gold. We should have goals. But they should not consume us to the extent that they do. As Maggie so kindly reminded us all yesterday, “you are more than your accomplishments.”

She is right. You, me, we are so much more than the sum amount of all that we’ve achieved in our lives so far. I am so proud of all that I’ve accomplished in my mere 28 years on this planet, and yet do you know what I am more proud of, or at least should be more proud of? Who I am. For being a kind, caring, compassionate human being. For always being honest and never harming anyone else. For being able to feel and in return, express these feelings, and for that making me who I am. For all my flaws and quirks, because they are unique to me. When I die one day (sorry, but come on, we all will die eventually. Wit reminded me of that, and we shouldn’t be scared), noone is going to remember me for the things I’ve accomplished, the gifts I bought them, the houses I owned, the countries I travelled to, the bicycle I rode. They are going to hopefully remember me because of the relationships I created and allowed to flourish. For being a real friend, an ear that was always ready to listen, a shoulder that was ready for any tears or laughter that came its way. For loving unconditionally and making people smile. For inspiring, if only for a second. These are the things I hope I am remembered for and the things you may also hope to be remembered by. Achieving amazing things in one’s life is awesome, but loving other human beings, laughing so hard you snort, watching little humans you brought into the world grow and blossom into big kind human beings, that is what matters. Relationships, with both yourself and others, and of course the world around you. Nurture those, instead of your greedy little materialistic desires.

Wit. A play that at first glance seems so full of arrogance and an overwhelming urge to want more knowledge, more recognition, is actually a play about kindness, about the human touch. Once you push all that 17th century metaphysical poetry aside and really engage with what is going on under all those complicated big words, you will notice a vulnerability, a gentleness that is buried within all of us. And sometimes it takes something like dying to let that out. Vivian Bearing is a professor who spends her life buried knee-deep in a pile of John  Donne books. Then she gets cancer. And who is there to comfort her? Well, noone actually, because she spent so much time and energy on John Donne papers that she never truly formed a real relationship with another human being. Thank goodness for the character I played- Susie, the nurse, or we might have all left the theatre in an even bigger pile of tears. Susie brings that element of kindness back into Vivian’s world. It was always there, lurking in the shadows of all that poetry and philosophy, and yet she couldn’t quite see it. E.M Ashford (her professor in university, a wise, kind woman) tried to instil it in her, but in that moment all she cared about was gaining more knowledge.

Moral of the story? It’s perfectly OK to follow your path in life, to ignite that passion within you, but please never lose sight of who you really are- that of a human being with a heart made to love and spread kindness wherever it goes. When you’re on your death bed strive to spend your last days surrounded by the people you love and who love you back, because those thesis papers and contracts and business plans sure as hell won’t be keeping you company. That’s not to say that success in what you love isn’t important too, but it’s all about finding a balance. Sign that contract, but at the same time turn your phone off on sundays and take your kids out for ice-cream in the park. Hold meetings all day and write until your hands might fall off, but at night have dinner with your loved ones and really listen to what it is they’re saying. Slow down and enjoy all of those little moments because they are so much more meaningful than anything else will ever be. Those are the moments that will flash across your mind. The faces of your loved ones, the way they sounded when they laughed, the smell of lavender growing in your garden, the taste of birthday cake.

Thank you Maggie for not only writing an incredibly, insightful play that struck such a chord within us, that brought a diverse group of talented people together from all around the world, but also for reminding us that we are far more than our accomplishments add up to. We are human beings and we are capable of the most magical thing in the world- kindness.

Let’s all slow down, be kind and learn to really appreciate life again.




All the world’s a stage

The way your heart thumps in your chest, pumping blood through your veins so fast that you can feel it pulsing in your ears and prickling your eyes. Suddenly you have no saliva and every hair is standing on end. Your eyes are wide and bright and there are swarms of butterflies tickling every part of you. As you walk towards the stage every sense is heightened. Your heart beats so loud you imagine every audience member can hear it. But it doesn’t matter because you can’t see them. They are a blur. Then once you get on stage they disappear entirely. The thumping subsides and everything slows down and you are there. In the moment. In a parallel world, not so far from your normal world, and yet at the same time so, so far away. All those lines you thought you would forget, all the audience faces you imagined would distract you, all the bright lights you felt might blind you, all of this just dissolves and there you are, in a hospital, and you have a job to do. You are no longer Siobhan Lumsden or Joseph Lambert or whoever else. Who are those people anyway? Forget them. Now you are Susie Monahan and you have a very sick patient to care for. You are Mr Bearing and you have a very curious, intelligent daughter on your hands. You are Vivian Bearing and you are dying of cancer and it is one hell of a journey you are all about to undergo. Action!

It’s hard to explain how I first knew. I think I was nine years old, but it could have been earlier. I was in primary school and once a week a colourful-clad, bubbly old lady with wild white hair would come to our gym/ dining hall/ assembly room/ concert hall and teach us this thing called ‘drama’. I remember the first time she asked me to stand up with a boy in my class and ‘pretend’ to have an argument over who stole the football. Pretend? OK, I thought, I can do that. I do that all the time with my sister. We are always playing make believe games. And so I did it. I felt shy to stand up there in front of everyone but the minute the teacher said “OK, you can begin…”, I didn’t even hesitate. I forgot who I was and suddenly all I wanted to know was why this little boy had stolen the football and why did he think it was OK to do such a thing? From that day onwards, I was hooked. I joined private drama lessons after school. I told everyone that when I grow up I want to become an actress. My granny laughed at me. She said my imagination is too active, and I better not make it even more so. She told me to read books, become a nurse (oh, but granny, I am a nurse now…well, at least in the play!) or a lawyer, and forget this ‘drama malarky’.

But I couldn’t just forget.

I absolutely thrived from being up on stage. I wasn’t and still am not, one of those overly-loud, limelight seekers. I don’t crave attention. I’m actually quite shy and introverted. I abhor competition. But despite all of this, I still absolutely love acting. I think some people think to be an actor you need to be a show-off, someone who likes prancing about on stage or in front of a camera, ‘pretending’ to be someone you’re not. Well, as I soon came to discover, acting isn’t about ‘pretending’. It goes much deeper than that. Those raw emotions, those traits that make a character who he or she is, that takes work. You can’t just turn it on at the flick of a switch. Well you can, but not if you want to really ‘feel’ that character. You have to dig a lot deeper, create a life for this person who is in no way or shape ‘you’. It’s very intuitive work, especially if you want to create the most realistic, vivid portrayal of your character for the audience, which is of course what we should all be aiming to do. There is nothing like being in an audience and being swept along on the journey with the actor, where you forget that it’s your friend up there, and instead you float along with the flow of the action and sometimes forget where you are- in a plastic, yellow chair in a chilly theatre in Shenzhen, China. For a second there, you might have thought you really were right in the centre of a cancer centre.

That’s really what it’s all about, for both the audience and the actors, for everyone involved. Creating another world that is so realistic that you actually forget for a little while that it’s not real. Or is it real? It’s a blurry line. A space where emotions jump from actor to audience and are fully absorbed, inspiring within both a chance to learn something, to feel something they might never have felt before or to acknowledge a part of them that they didn’t know existed. It’s about putting yourself out there, flying that flag of vulnerability and hopping out of your comfort zone. Simultaneously, it’s about feeling safe, knowing that no one is there to judge you. It’s a very intimate moment- the one between an actor and their audience. If you’re not breaking the fourth wall, you want to blur them out, but you also want to soak up their energy and spread yours, fueling the performance into the most ultimate experience.

There’s a difference between performing and being. Which do you want it to be? The one where you pop a stethoscope around your neck and perform as a doctor. Or the one where you pop a stethoscope around your neck and become a doctor. Nine times out of ten, it’s the latter of course. If you don’t believe you’re a doctor, how can you expect a theatre full of people to believe you. That applies to life in general too. You have to believe in yourself first and foremost if you expect to have other people believe in you too.

When we first began this journey of ‘Wit’ written by Margaret Edson, directed by Tre Tennyson, Tre invited us over to his apartment for a first read-through of the play. High above the city in his New York style apartment, we sat in a circle around his coffee table and we read the play out loud from start to finish. Afterwards we started working independently on developing our characters where we embarked on answering a series of questions set by Tre. These ranged from talk about a memory your character will never forget about his or her parents, to when was the last time your character made love? Was it a remarkable experience? So, here, you see what I’m talking about. It’s not as simple as just reading a script, memorising a bunch of lines, walking on stage and reciting these lines and robotically going through a series of actions. It is SO much more! It is about creating an entire past for your character, including his or her deepest secrets and desires- from what they are most scared of to what they daydream about when they are sitting on the train. It is everything. Of course, if you don’t want to do so much work, you don’t have to. But then what are you really getting from the experience? If, like me, you get a thrill from fully embodying another personality and making it come alive on stage, then you will want to do your homework. If I enter the stage with any remnants of ‘myself’ still lingering, it’ll be extremely obvious. There will be a sort of glaze across my eyes and my lines will sound like lines, as opposed to the real, natural dialogue between another human being that it should sound like. I might stumble or I might just be blank. That isn’t acting. When it’s real, you know. You can feel it in your very core, but also you can’t feel it, because it feels so real that you don’t even ponder for a second that it’s not.

It’s a special feeling, and it’s one that I haven’t felt for a long time. It’s not the kind of feeling that fades when you exit the stage. It stays. I can still feel it today, even though last night’s performance ended almost 24 hours ago. It’s the greatest form of adrenaline that inspires and ignites everything within you. I want to act every single day now. I am lucky to have a job that involves acting but it’s not quite the same without a live audience. There is nothing quite like that. And it’s absolutely not about the elation I feel after being on stage. It’s about how the audience feel. It’s about knowing that the world you just created tapped into something in the audience’s hearts and minds. That maybe, just maybe, the feelings and lives you just embodied may have seeped out and echoed around the room, entering the audience and giving them something to think about. That’s what theatre is. And literature, and films, and art, and everything really. It’s about giving, teaching, and ultimately feeling. If you felt something, even if it was just discomfort or a light relief, then we, as actors, as directors, as stage managers, as lighting designers, as sound guys, did our job.

I sometimes feel that my chosen path in this world is actually just about living. I chose acting, or maybe it chose me? But either way acting is just living. It’s about highlighting aspects of our lives that we might choose to hide from because it makes us feel uncomfortable or intimidates us or scares us. It’s about facing up to those things. It’s also about making people smile and cry and laugh and shift in their seats. It’s about feeling ALL the feelings. It is teaching and learning and reflecting and observing and being. It is life. That’s all it is. It is quite simply just living.

To Tre, our director, thank you. Thank you for choosing us to undergo this incredible, transformative journey with you. For trusting us and believing in us and allowing us to have the freedom to create these characters for ourselves. I will miss the rehearsals, even the ones in my tiny apartment where I’m pretty sure the neighbours thought I was murdering someone with all that yelling (haha!). From a beautifully written script by Margaret Edson, to intimate moments shared between the actors, to actually ending up in hospital in the process (oh, the irony!), to riding the metro and sharing taxi rides with you all after our late-night sessions, and of course actually ‘living’ up there on stage with you, I will miss those moments. I am so grateful to have this chance to work with you all and to be reminded that acting is what makes me who I am. It’s not about being the best or competing with other actors, it’s just about being. Being ‘me’, being a character in a play and blurring the lines. It’s the most rewarding process, truly. You get to have fun, whilst learning- about both yourself and your character and the worlds you both belong to. You get to teach, to spread a profound, meaningful message. Sometimes though, you just want to laugh and make someone else laugh. It’s the middleground- somewhere between striking a fine balance, of entertaining but also moving someone so much that they leave the theatre thinking. Their minds open a little, their hearts beat faster, the hairs on their arms stand on end (and not just because the theatre air conditioner is blasting freezing air, haha!). They felt something. You felt something. That is theatre, and finally, life.

Here’s to life, both on and off stage. It’s a sweet, precious thing. Let’s enjoy every moment.