Most days, I wake up a writer. I go about my day dreaming up stories in my head and attempting to get them out on the page.
Last weekend, though, I stepped back onstage for the first time in over a year. I starred as a (fictional) famous Hollywood actress who had been subpoenaed by HUAC in 1947. It was a great role. Sharp, distinct, meaty. As an added benefit, I got all dolled up with red lipstick and retro waves and a 1940s navy dress that screamed vintage glamour (a dress that had been hanging in my closet for just such an occasion).
I love being under the lights. The audience’s gaze makes me come alive. Backstage I may keep to myself, but I light up onstage. Theatre gives me a voice, in a way that is different from writing. It’s more raw and immediate, and thus, more authentic. I can feel the reactions of the audience; I can commune with them in a way I can’t with pen and paper. There’s a certain energy that pulses through me, a dose of adrenaline that I don’t feel anywhere but the stage.
After a glorious show, I walk offstage and wonder, am I a writer? Is theatre truly only a hobby for me?
Recently, I discovered that one of my favorite writers had had a similar struggle in her youth: Louisa May Alcott.
I grew up on L.M.A. An Old-Fashioned Girl. Little Women. Rose in Bloom. After writing four papers on her work in college, I started reading her journal, and have been surprised at how much I relate to her 19th-century, 20-something struggles. I was shocked to see that at 25 years old in June 1858, the prolific children’s author wrote: “Perhaps it is acting, and not writing, I’m meant for.”
I’ve uttered similar phrases, feeling like less of a writer and an actress because I can’t settle on either title. Instead of zeroing in on an all-encompassing passion, I keep “several irons in the fire…and try to keep ‘em all hot” as Louisa wrote in March 1857, for I know that “nature must have a vent, somehow.”
In the past, my love of acting has kept me from writing. I started writing stories at age 8. Not long after that, I discovered I could act out stories, too (and for an actual audience, rather than just dressing up with my friend and playacting in our bedrooms). My seventh grade year I took a drama class, which culminated in an end of the year play. I loved it. I stepped on that stage and was hooked. Baptized with my first waves of applause, I was further validated by a teacher who told me I had potential. From 7th grade through my sophomore year in college, I acted in a stream of plays and musicals, loving it a little more each time.
In choosing my college major, I decided that the (professional) actor’s life was not for me. I would instead focus on writing. However, I spent community college in every show possible. Even while at university, I couldn’t keep myself from driving 1.5 hours to play Cosette in my community college’s production of Les Miserables. After that show, brimming with compliments and flattering feedback, I had, as Louisa described it, “a stagestruck fit.”
It happens every time I’m in a show, or even when I watch one.
It happened this weekend.
Can I, like Louisa, work off “stage fever” by writing a story? Or is it harder for me to shake than that? In the height of my fever, I wrote this blog post, after all. But hours after I had completed the first draft, I went back onstage and performed.
L.M.A nearly became an actress. Her chance came when she was living in Boston in June 1858:
“Saw Charlotte Cushman, and had a stagestruck fit. Dr. Willis asked Barry to let me act at his theatre, and he agreed. I was to do Widow Pottle, as the dress was a good disguise and I knew the part well. It was all a secret, and I had hopes of trying a new life, the old one being so changed now, I felt as if I must find interest in something absorbing. But Mr. B broke his leg, so I had to give it up, and when it was known, the dear, respectable relations were horrified at the idea. I’ll try again by-and-by, and see if I have the gift.”
That summer, she seemed ready to leave writing behind if success could be found on the stage. How might her life have been different had the show worked out? If theatre had been as socially acceptable as it is now, would she still have kept writing?
In any case, by age 26, Louisa had settled into herself as a writer. She wrote in November 1858:
“I feel as if I could write better now, more truly of things I have felt and therefore truly know. I hope I shall yet do my great book, for that seems to be my work, and I am growing up to it.”
Perhaps therein lies the key. Louisa lived, and then felt as if she had something to write about. Her experiences in the theatre provided fodder. Her books are filled with amateur plays put on by the March girls, trips to the theatre like the one Polly and Fanny make in An Old Fashioned Girl, and even characters like Josie in Little Men who dream of becoming actresses. In the last book she wrote, Jo’s Boys, the middle-aged Jo (modeled after Louisa herself) writes and acts in a play that is performed for the community. Even though Louisa found much greater success in writing over theatre, it kept popping up in her stories.
I can be no different. Theatre feeds my creativity. It makes me a better writer. Writing, in turn, has made me a better actress. Creativity doesn’t have to be restricted into one channel, for they overlap, branch off each other and swell stronger as a result. I’m not going to pick between theatre and writing and cut the other off. I’m going to keep chasing after the things that fire me up. I’ll keep plugging away, working toward my dreams and “see if I have the gift,” as Louisa did. Maybe my passions will meld together in an unexpected way (playwriting, perhaps?). Or maybe one dream will be left behind as success comes in the other.
Regardless, I will continue to claim both titles and create on.
(Quotes taken from The Journals of Louisa May Alcott by Louisa May Alcott, edited by Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy, with Madeleine B. Stern.)