We sat rapt, letting the words wash over us like the steady whine of the old truck engine in his story. As he recounted the details of a dark night on a highway hauling chickens from Missouri to Arkansas, my father reminded us about the counterintuitive need for speed on the downhill to counteract the ice and snow on the uphill. After all, he had to make good time before the chickens froze, and they lost their cargo. Truck driving in the 1930s across rural America was dangerous work, and these stories sounded to me more like the adventures of a pirate telling tales of a ship laden heavy with gold outrunning a Navy frigate. My father was, as were many of my relatives, a master storyteller. After a large family dinner, followed by an enormous array of desserts (it’s a Southern thing), it was our family’s custom to enjoy our dessert platters and share stories. On this evening, the audience – a patio full of extended family – included aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, my mother, brother and me.
By the time I was eight, I was already familiar with this story, but it thrilled me nonetheless, because with each telling, the road got a little more treacherous, and the ice blacker, and the collective we understood the embellishments as nuance; they made the telling better. This is where it began, I think, on my grandmother’s patio with the summer breeze kissing our cheeks and the sound of ice clinking in glasses of sweet tea; this is where I learned that a story is like magic bringing other worlds and experiences to life for a moment in time. The magic of storytelling came to live in my heart and mind, and like a succulent in my grandmother’s garden, it rooted, took hold and made its home in my heart.
Of course, it is only in hindsight I realize that the unifying thread of my life’s creative tapestry began to weave its magic on my grandmother’s patio. I like the term “creative” for its expansiveness and inclusivity. I consider myself well rounded, versed in the arts, sciences and public speaking. To use the term “renaissance” feels antiquated, but I like it. It makes me think of Shakespeare, and I like the company. I act, sing, dance, write. I write poetry, song lyrics, prose for pleasure and purpose, copy and technical for trade, plays and screenplays, and even make up words for fun. “Does your project use words? I’m in.” “Do I write them, say them or sing them? I’m in!” Was there a definitive moment where I said to myself, “All I want to do is play with words”? Not until recently did my penchant for writing “emerge with verve.” (See, that’s just silly, but I like it.) My journey as a creative didn’t start here, with words. They start when I am four.
At four, my joy is in performing. At four, all I know is that I love movies, and I love to perform, and the attention I get when I perform well. At four, it was my honest to goodness calling to memorize the words to all the songs on a Walt Disney album. I would lip sync and act out each to the cheers and amazement of my parents, my not-so-amused, not-so-amazed brother, Paul, and anyone else who would indulge a very precocious 4-year old. “I want to be an actress,” I thought. Actually, I wanted to be a movie star. I remember watching old black and white movies with my mother on our old console television set. In Top Hat, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were glamour personified. Then, Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable stole my heart, and I knew – I dreamed of a future as grandly poetic as the love story set against the Civil War in Gone with the Wind. (What? Me dramatic?) Like my father’s audience, I was enrapt with the story in its entirety: the set, the costumes, the actors and actresses, (yes, back then, most jobs were gender-fied, including their off-duty roles of waiter and waitress) and I wanted the glamour, the adoration, the attention that only movie stars garner to such a degree. In short, my desire to be loved and adored had no bounds.
As I write this, it is revelatory on so many levels. It sounds ridiculous to me now, but if I am honest, that is what I wanted. That kind of situation would have been addictive, and there would never have been enough. I have thought about this many times, and I am grateful that I never found the kind of glory I sought in my youth; it would have destroyed me.
Now, I simply thrive on ideas and their expression. I thrill in putting on a character, like I put on makeup or costume, and become someone, or something else, something I am not in real life. Now, that is a funny expression, “in real life.” Science tells us that our subconscious mind doesn’t discern between real or imagined, whether in dream or waking state, when it reacts to stimuli. Your heart races, brow sweats, tears flow all in response to the bear that chases you in a dream. It is the same when we are face to face with our lover and they break up with us. Fear is fear is fear, whether it be real or imagined; our brain doesn’t differentiate, much. At four, I understood (as does every other sub-seven human) that when I played pretend, I simply believed more. I remember deftly lying to get out of trouble, and if I told the story enough times with conviction, I really did begin to believe my own fabrication. I don’t condone lying. I’m saying that my brain allowed me to enter into an alternate reality when the stakes were high, and it still does. Only now, I control the stakes, and channel that ability into acting.
I did not grow up an only child, but brother Paul is five years my senior, and while we were growing up, he never much cared for hanging out with his snotty little sister. Who could blame him? I was obnoxious and made it my life’s mission to antagonize him. Needless to say, we were at odds a great deal, which created a glut of playtime by myself. My very rich imagination, coupled with this excessive amount of “alone” time, generated the fodder for my natural ability to step into imaginary situations at will. For example, I would become Queen, and give speeches to “my people” while walking up and down our driveway, circumnavigating the car as if on a balcony. (I was a natural Eva Peron without the need for a military takeover). It was about this time, when I was eight, that I began to dream in filmic language. In my dreams, I would control the image in my mind as if it were a movie screen – creating the mise en scène by zooming in or out, dolling up or down – you could say directing is my “dream” job. (Too much?) It is rare when my mind’s eye isn’t viewing my life from the POV of a camera
Around this time (third grade-ish), I was cast as the narrator in the school play, “The Littlest Angel,” a children’s Christmas play about a little orphan girl who freezes to death during a snow storm. Charming. I was cast as the narrator because I could read well and, well, wasn’t ingénue material. In junior high, I was cast as a dancing mannequin for the same reason: not ingénue. By the time high school rolled around, I had grown out of the predominantly ugly duckling awkward tweens, and started getting some decent roles. It was here I found the first example of what a real actress looked like, and it was here I actually began learning the craft. I learned how a professional actor behaved: always act professionally, honor the profession, be dedicated to the craft, and show up ready to work each and every time. Whenever I set foot onstage or wait in the wings, I remain present to the task at hand, in large part because of my high school drama teacher, Leslie Túche Jones.
As a founding member of South Coast Repertory, Leslie embodied professionalism, and she was a damn good actor. As a class, we had the privilege to see her perform her craft on SCR’s original LORT stage in Tartuffe; she was magnificent. That same season, we also saw the 1970’s iconic musical, Godspell. These superlative productions were my introduction to professional theatre. Spellbound, I knew this profession had to be a part of my life.
Like a fish out of water in this era of specialization, I resonate with being a Renaissance woman, a Jacqueline-of-all-trades, a creative. I act; I direct; I write. In my younger years, I sang up a storm and danced up the wazoo (look it up, it’s a word.) The use of past tense here does not reflect a sense of defeat, more a lack of practice. After all, a garden gate beautifully adorned and trellised with roses, still gets creaky with disuse.
Film and theatre embody what I love about the craft: individual work combined with collaboration to create something that is unique in its mixture of talents. The collaboration and ensuing camaraderie can be sublime. Like sex, when its good, there’s no other place you’d rather be.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” The blessing of my life is in realizing the joy in operating from this convergence. I returned to school to honor that which has been a part of me from the beginning, the most authentic part of me: the creative.
I am Empress. I am Goddess. I am Muse. I am hungry, let's eat!
© 2018-2020 by Colleen Dunn Saftler all rights reserved