From Stove to Studio

“That’s so interesting.  How did you get into acting?” is the usual comment and question I’m asked when people find out that I do voice over, tv commercials and the occasional film.  There is a long answer and a short answer.  Most people receive the short answer — I fell into it.

The long answer is the reason I write Anne on Fire.  It answers the question:  How does burning your leg on a stove at 2 years old lead one to the acting world?

From the research and interviews I’ve conducted, I learned that when my mother found me on the stove, sealed to it by the sole of my shoe and burning, I was in shock, unable to say a word or call out for help.  As time went on, my wounds healed and I was a normal kid in every respect.  Except that no one ever talked about the accident.  Without that context, I was left alone to create my own meaning for the event.

Everything might have gone on just fine, had my mother not asked me to make her two promises on her deathbed.  “Don’t fight with your sisters,” she implored, a request that seemed incredibly difficult to me as the youngest of three girls.  I reluctantly agreed.  “Use your talents.  Promise me,” she asked, as we pressed on the morphine drip that eased her pain in those final days.  That request seemed the easier of the two, especially since I’d always fancied myself as the creative one of her five children.

She passed.  Time passed.

Now and then, I would have the distinct impression that she was whispering to me from beyond.  Mostly I shrugged these moments off.  Raised as a traditional Catholic, I certainly believed in the after-life.  But the teachings were that we humans got just one shot at life, then pass on to our eternal future, where by all accounts, we  wait in joyful hope of the coming of the rest of our loved ones to the pearly gates.  There was no talk of secret messages passed along to those of us left behind.  Eternal life meant we each went along in our separate domains.  But what if she was trying to tell me something?

It was Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia, old as the country itself where my cousin got married.  He asked me to do a reading at the wedding and I’d read it over many times in preparation.  Since elementary school, I had a long history of being asked to read in church and it always exhilarated me.

I climbed up to the church’s pulpit and pressed the reading flat with my hand.  And then it happened.  I looked up and somehow, some way, time was frozen.  The people in the pews were frozen.  Everything was silent and un-moving.  I didn’t talk.  I couldn’t talk.  I felt as if I’d been in this place before.   A soft whisper in my ear and I heard her, “Use your talents.  You are not doing what I asked.”

Fumbling now and with shaky hands, I looked up to see the people moving, waiting for me to begin.  I did.  I read each word slowly and carefully, feeling a powerful surge as I ended the piece.

As I stepped back down to my seat, my legs wobbled and I noticed I was sweating.  I looked around for acknowledgement but the ceremony just continued on.  Something had happened and I needed to find out what it was.

I didn’t know it then but the acting career I never thought about before was about to begin.

NEXT:  Part 2

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Finding Your Voice…the Hard Way

A man and a woman performing a modern dance.

A man and a woman performing a modern dance. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I don’t feel you are committing to what you are doing,” the casting agent said to me at today’s audition.  “Mess it up more.  Make it more real.  Stop caring about it so much.”  Casting direction came at me all at once and flustered me.

Of all the different things I’ve done in life, acting is one of the most challenging.  Making something real isn’t just playing a part; it’s becoming part of it.  In so many things we do in life, we can “phone it in,” or “fake it ’til we make it.”  We play a part, whether it’s in the business world or somewhere else.  We become conditioned to follow someone or some institution’s many rules.  Do this.  Do that.  Follow what the sign says.  Fit in.  Understand the culture.  To go along, get along.

Rarely are we asked to “mess it up” and express our authentic self.  In fact, most of the time, we find ways to hide what’s real about our selves.  Some days I wonder about this.

So there I was.  As the casting director worked me over, I began to sweat.  “You’re doing it as if you were looking for my approval,” she said.  She was right.  At this point, I was looking for her approval.  “Don’t do that.  Just have fun and see what comes up.  If you go too over the top, I’ll pull you back.  And don’t worry.  We have lots of time.”

In the majority of acting and voice over jobs I do, there is specific but usually gentle direction.  Yes, I’ve even been ‘accused’, criticized if you will, for having ‘too pretty’ of a voice.  Now, once you get booked on a job, the client has every incentive to get you to do what envisioned and they certainly know that they catch more flies with honey than vinegar.  Plus, you are already booked and on the job, and part of the reality is that clients don’t want to squander their investment.   If you are moving the wrong way, they will tell you.  If they want you to have more of a ‘smile’ in your read, you’ll hear it.  If they want five extra takes even when they loved the first one, you’ll do them.

But today, I was face to face with a casting professional who seemed to read my mind and know my every insecurity.  “Do you do a lot of voice over?” she asked before I could complete the first take.  I nodded.  “I can tell.  Your voice is too perfect for this.  Make it more real.  Loosen up.”

Another take and finally I saw the casting assistant raise his arms in victory.  I must have done something good but I had no idea what I had done.  “I’m sweating,” I replied when she asked how that last take felt.  “Good,” she said.  “It means you finally showed up to the audition.”

As I left the office and walked out in to the bright sunshine, I was disoriented.  Not sure where I was and so I walked, unsure whether to laugh or cry.  I’d just eaten an audition and hadn’t felt this dejected in a while.  In a way it was no big deal.  Every actor knows that you have to eat a lot of auditions along the way.

But it made me think.  Why was it so hard to find my voice today? 

I wondered.  And wondered some more.  I thought about my voiceover friend Lynne and her thyroid cancer surgery.  What would it be like to physically lose your voice when you use it for some source of income?

In many senses, my blog and my exploration to understand my childhood burn accident is all about finding my voice.  I think a great deal about the story I learned on the day of the accident.  My mother was ironing in the basement when I slipped upstairs to grab a treat from the cabinet above the stove.  Call it intuition or just mothering, but my mom noticed I was missing and went to look for me.  When she found me stuck to the stove and burning, I was silent, unable or unwilling to call out for help.  I had lost my voice.

All these many years later, I am taking the time to find it.  It’s no coincidence that I wandered my way into acting, voiceover and writing.  When one door closes, a window opens.  The older I get, the more I think about those windows.

Back to that audition.  As much as I detested the moment, I am grateful to that casting agent for pushing me.  Just imagine if we were all reminded every day to work harder to find our true voice.  It’s certainly not easy but it is good.