Artists as Explorers

 

On a Friday afternoon last January, I had a chance encounter with an acting teacher of mine. It was around 2:00pm, and I was sitting on a bench in SoHo, basking in some rare winter sunlight. I ate a falafel sandwich and was trying not to spill—a doomed endeavor within the constraints of my puffy winter coat—when I spotted her emerging from a nearby restaurant.

            “Heidi!”

I waved in her direction. I stood up to say hello, but she took a seat next to me on the bench. Beyond class and a few coaching sessions, I didn’t know Heidi very well, and I was pleasantly surprised when she sat down to chat.

“Hey, congrats on your short film,” I said.

“Thank you!” She smiled.

“Short of the Week, that’s a really big deal.”

“Oh, thanks,” she replied, humbly dismissing it with a short wave of her hand. “Yeah, we didn’t even know what that was, we just submitted on a whim. After two years with it, that was the competition that stuck. Go figure.”

She shook her head and smiled and then looked out to the street.

“But now I’m onto the next,” she turned back to me, her eyes glowing with energy.

“Cool--another short? Or a feature?”

“Feature! We’ve been trying to get it funded for nearly 10 years, and now we’re almost there, so close! Securing funding can be such a challenge.”

I nodded. Her comment echoed the perennial problem my actor friends and I lament, but coming from Heidi, it struck a more uncomfortable chord. I looked down at my sandwich but thought twice about filling the silence by choking down dried out falafel. I looked up at her.

“We’re like explorers,” I offered.

“Hm.” She replied, nodding thoughtfully. I could tell she wasn’t entirely sure of what I was saying. Neither was I. But I continued with that privileged gall that’s recognizable in men of a certain type, myself included.

“Think about it—Columbus had to ask for money tons of times in order to fund his expedition. And he got rejected along the way, too. He even had a side job. He was a weaver!”

“Really?” She chuckled.

“Yeah! His father was a weaver and he was a weaver. He just had this hidden talent of being a wildly skilled sailor. No one knew he was that good, but he kept on persisting. It was way more delusional than anything we try to do.” 



*Disclaimer: For the record, I am not a closet Christopher Columbus freak. I do not have his poster in my room, nor three succulents named the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. I don’t even think Columbus Day is a legitimate holiday. Cool?*

 

“All of them: Hudson, Magellan, Marco Polo,” I was really rolling with the romance of the idea, “what do explorers do? They go around asking for money with zero guarantee of return, just so that they can venture into the unknown. They explore new frontiers and challenge boundaries. It’s what they do.”

A drop of tahini plopped onto a stone right under our bench. It made an audible splat and fanned out like a moment in a Jackson Pollack painting.

“Artists as explorers,” she mused, “I like that. You should write about it.”

Thanks, Heidi. Now look, my intention in writing this piece is not to make an academic rigmarole connecting the explorers of global history to today’s artists. As noted in my disclaimer, I don’t know much about the explorers except that my fifth grade explorers team, Team Magellan, lost to Team Hudson in our class-wide competition. I’m still salty about it. That being said, I do think it’s a romantic idea worth investigating. If nothing else, I appreciate you humoring me as I venture on this thought experiment in an attempt to assuage the fears that are prone to arise in the pursuit of lofty dreams. My pursuit formally began on a gray day in Denmark…

In August of 2014, I was on vacation with my family in Copenhagen. It was a “pre-real-life” vacation: I had just graduated from college and I was slated to start my job at an advertising firm that upcoming September. I had studied abroad in Denmark, and it is a country that I will always hold dear to my heart, so I was thrilled to be visiting with my family. At the same time, I was troubled. At the forefront of my mind was the reality that each passing moment brought me closer to my impending start date. Closer to a defined life with time constraints, a regulated salary, company happy hours and pension plans. Pension plans! While these things are nice and good and in the grand scheme of global issues very privileged concerns, I felt myself stalled and in fact fighting against the corporate momentum with a profound undercurrent that was drawing me to a life in the arts. I knew in my soul that I wanted to be an actor.

Acting was a latent passion that I discovered midway through my college experience. I had stumbled into an intro class in the spring of my sophomore year (taught by the unparalleled Dana Marks), and performed in my first show in the final semester of senior year. Sitting in the wings before I went on the first night, a thought percolated in my mind: I could make this craft my livelihood. Just before my cue came to go on, the idea consummated in my entire being with total clarity: I had to pursue a career as an actor. Any other course of action felt dishonest.

            A few months later, I was in Denmark and scheduled to start my account management rotational program in less than a month. My plan at that point was simple: do the normal job, take night classes at UCB, and then, when I’m 28 and facing an existential crisis, quit whatever job I’m at and go all-in with acting. Pretty straightforward, no?

            My mom, unaware of the forces tugging at my soul, elected that we visit Hamlet’s castle in Elsinore. I was revisiting the play at the time (when in Denmark…), and was thrilled to add concrete context to Shakespeare’s most epic play. As we walked the grounds, I was struck by the castle’s immense sense of isolation. It is in the middle of nowhere, and boasts a scene that is spectacular and eerie at the same time. The castle is encapsulated with massive walls made of gray stone that reverberate Hamlet’s haunted oppression. The sky blankets the scene with a ubiquitous gray as well. I would wager that the place is overcast all year around. “O that this too, too sullied flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew,” felt less like a written line and more like a local anthem. It presented the only course of action a person could take to escape this beautiful hell. After exploring the grounds for about an hour, my awe waned and was replaced by pangs of dissonance in my soul. Do I follow the path laid out for me and remain a tourist in life’s pre-determined attractions? Or do I find my own frontiers and risk everything in the pursuit of what is inherently unknown? Am I being entitled and ungrateful by pissing away the beautiful opportunities at my fingertips?  Or am I acting honestly and responsively to the universe’s call for me?



Who would fardels bear,

to grunt and sweat under a weary life,

but that the dread of something after death,

the undiscovered country from whose bourn

no traveler returns, puzzles the will

and makes us rather bear those ills we have

than fly to others that we know not of?

Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 1

 

Yeah. Shakespeare knew what he was doing. With those thoughts boiling inside, I promptly suggested to my family that we leave. As we walked back toward the train station, we saw signs for the Danish Maritime Museum. Given how far we’d come for what turned out to be a quick visit, we agreed to justify the commute with this arbitrary pit stop.

With zero sense of what expect from a maritime museum, I was quickly swept up in the visceral experience it offered. The museum exemplified the intertwinement of sparse beauty with profound function that defines Danish architecture. The museum’s perimeter was made of the remains of a grounded wooden ship, while its contents were all integrated below deck. Walking through, I was swept into the spirit of being a sailor and the thought of going out to sea. It was akin to Sleep No More, where you become absorbed in the environment and fancy yourself a character in the story you’re immersed in. There was lots of information about the history of Danish sailing, and I appreciated the distraction. Tucked behind an antechamber that featured a large glass display of old sailor’s uniforms was a quote painted alone on the wall. It was by Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, and it read:

Have I dared wrongly, ah well, then life will help me with the punishment. But have I not dared at all, who will help me then?

I stared at it for a long time. After perusing the museum further, I returned to look again. ‘If I don’t dare at all, who will help me then?’ I repeated in my mind.

            I did not share my feelings with my parents that day. A few days later after they had left, I was alone on the beach at Amåger Strand. Thoughts pop-corned in my head: I knew what my lustful heart desired, but my brain was running hard interference (what some would call, rationality), trying to negotiate with some sense. Circumstances dictated that I had to act, quickly. Either I needed to lock down a roommate and an apartment in time for work to start in a few weeks, or I had to quit my job and tell HR, fast.

            I tried to read more of Hamlet, but I couldn’t focus. I stood up and looked around. It was sunset and the beach was full, despite the wind and uncomfortable pebbles that constitute its shore (Denmark is not known for its beaches). I looked into the strikingly clear water and further out where six giant wind turbines spun rapidly. The waves approaching shore were being chopped by the wind, the ceaseless power of the ocean retarded by the invisible wind counteracting it, eventually winning the elemental arm wrestle.

            Suddenly, compelled by an impulse, I dropped the play on my towel and made a dash to the water. My legs propelled me forward, the soles of my feet slapping the uneven pebbles until I got to the shoreline. My first stride went ankle-deep and the next went calf-deep. Before I fully realized what I was doing, I launched myself headfirst toward the horizon. A few moments later, I emerged.

            I looked around. My limbs sliced the water erratically, trying to stave off the frigidity, but my head bobbed calmly above the water, absorbing the scenery. I looked back toward shore and saw the multitudes of people. They were sitting on the beach, talking with one another. Some groups had picnics set up with beer and white wine; another had their sneakers on and kicked a soccer ball amongst themselves. I stayed in for a few more moments until the cold finally caught up with my mind. I submerged myself entirely one last time and then free-styled back to shore. I trotted back to my towel and plopped down, trying to dry off. I was smiling. When I got back to my hostel, I FaceTimed the HR rep. “Sari,” I said, “I’m sorry. But I’m going in a different direction.”

            Four years later and here I am, still grappling with the decision I made. I’ve trained at conservatory, I’ve booked gigs, I’ve gotten reps, and I’ve been rejected more times than I can count. Literally-- I ran out of pages in my ‘audition journal.’ The highs of this life are super high, and the lows really suck. On days when I don’t have work, whether it’s an audition, a rehearsal, or a shoot, I think about quitting. The idle time kills me. Truth be told, I was on my way to Barnes & Noble today to look through a GRE book before remembering this encounter and opting to write this piece instead. When Heidi ran into me that Friday afternoon, I was enjoying the simple pleasure of sunlight during a cold NYC winter. Respite from the nagging doubts that often creep in.

            In the final scene of Hamlet, He says to Horatio, “Rashly—and praised be rashness for it; let us know, our indiscretion sometimes serves us well when our deep plots do pall; and that should learn us there’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.” In context, Hamlet is describing how he discovered his uncle’s plot to kill him. It is the final piece that leads him to his death. I find the line comforting. I think Hamlet does as well. There is a much deeper, much bigger force in the world that all artistic spirits are drawn to, regardless of creed, conscious belief system, or upbringing. And in a way, it matters not what measures we take to try and control or reign in our starry eyed impulses— they’ll still shape our destiny in the long run.

We are explorers. It is what we are. We grab all the hutzpah we can muster, find teams to man our ships and share our vision, appeal to investors whose funds we can never promise to return, and risk our emotional, spiritual, and artistic lives to venture out into open water. In today’s world, where nearly all topographical territory is accounted for, it is artists who take on the job of breaking boundaries, finding new frontiers, and venturing boldly into the unknown. Like our predecessors, we too need to appeal to institutionalized wealth and convince them to invest their money into projects with zero chance of recovery, let alone profit, on ideas that often fail in a great explosion of colors and sounds. We risk our reputations, our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing in blind, idealistic pursuits, driven by the desire to affect our fellow human in ways that we acknowledge are largely unforeseen.

It is a call that we respond to, a hunch that we follow, and a compulsion that we feel honored to house. We are fucking lunatics—whether you’re a burgeoning actor like myself, an established teacher/casting director/filmmaker like Heidi, or Reese Fucking Witherspoon—we all recognize that what we’re doing is a little nuts. But we honor the call by taking our big, non-gender-conforming, figurative BALLS and marching onward directly into the face of failure. We see it rear its ugly head and flip it the middle finger as we strip away every self-preserving mechanism we have and persist. Like Columbus across the Atlantic. Marco Polo through Asia. Or Magellan around the fucking world.  I don’t claim to have any answers, but if there’s one thing I know, it’s that I am hopelessly addicted to exploring life’s unanswered questions. Sail on, my dreaming friends.