A young lady in a loge gazing to right. Mary Cassatt. 1880. Private collection.
Two years ago this time I stood on a New York stage and performed the epilogue from The Tempest. The evening was a showcase of Shakespearean scenes presented for casting directors, family, and friends. That kind of event is quite common here and is a way that aspiring actors hope for notice from area theatres. But that was not why I was on stage. My performance that night was about something altogether different.
About eight weeks earlier, I had asked the director to select a scene from the canon that centered around farewell. I explained that, after two decades of professional theatre, I was choosing to leave it behind for a while and, if possible, it felt important to mark the event in some small way. He expressed his desire to help me make that happen and asked for a week to come up with the right material.
A little background. My life in the theatre has been deeply meaningful to me. I invested most of my adult life in the profession, even returning to graduate school in my thirties for further training. It was a lifelong dream. Yet I walked away. Why? Because there was a new dream and the new dream was to write. However, I lacked the courage to really commit to it. Quite simply, for about two or three years I was straddling worlds. My heart, my intuition, my gut -- whatever name you like -- insisted that an either/or choice was necessary.
I didn't find the determination to make the choice easily or quickly. For one thing, my life had been through so much change that I doubted my own inner voice. One step toward trying to figure it all out was re-enrolling in acting classes and focusing on what I love best about it: Shakespeare. I found a director here in New York who is an extremely gifted teacher and a perfect fit for my approach to the craft. It was during my training with him that I believe some of my very finest work happened. Nevertheless, during my third and last workshop with him, it was clear that theatre no longer served the same purpose in my life.
An acting coach once advised me: "When a director asks you to change what you are doing on stage -- cancel, commit, continue." In other words, cancel what you were doing; commit completely to the new direction; continue and see what changes. Over the years that advice has served me well on both sides of the footlights and a year ago that's what I did.
This past year much has changed in my life. New possibilities have emerged, possibilities that I believe could happen only because I let go of an old way of being. At this cusp between an old year and a new year, my thoughts quite naturally return to that evening and the lesson it taught. It reminds me of an old Jewish tradition that holds: At the beginning of time, God withdrew and created a void, in order that a world could come into being. When we allow for emptiness, and when we do not rush to fill it, something new will be born. This I know is the gift of farewell.