After more than 25 years of dramas, musicals, skits and improv, I'm over it. I've come to the not-so-difficult decision that I'm quitting performance. I'll continue to write this column, and seeing plays will always be one of my favorite things—but my name likely won't be in any more programs. Big declaration, yeah. But it feels reasonable.
But I don't expect you people to really care too much about that. For real. I know my place.
What I would like to plumb, however, is the idea of knowing when to quit; coming to terms with being done with something that used to be your favorite thing, or perhaps that you even felt defined your existence.
Last summer, I chatted with magician John Carney in advance of a show in Santa Fe (of which he's doing a couple more this weekend, by the way). I asked how his career in magic had changed over the decades. He said that he accepts fewer jobs than he did as a younger man; he doesn't want to burn out.
He referenced meeting a popular magician when he was a kid: "I'm just a pimply-faced teenager, like, 'Oh, jeez, it must be great to be a professional magician!'" Carney told me. "And he's like—'Oh yeah, great. You're on your feet all day, your feet are sore, you've gotta go out with the client afterward and drink or you don't get booked back, then you wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and your eyes are bloodshot and you say, 'I'm gonna do this trick 80 times today.'"
We all know that artist with the shitty attitude. They had the (mis)fortune of being very talented at something, and the bittersweet luck of being able to make a living from it—but then eventually they've been riding a unicycle or playing the trombone for five decades, jeered at like a dancing monkey at parties, having to be "on" all day every day for years, watched their paychecks only wane in a society that doesn't value their skill, and they're sick of it. They're over it. They hate it.
But—it's their job. They can't stop.
At the community theater in my hometown, I'll never forget the animosity of a few company members during my last show there. They didn't smile. They barked orders. They yelled at the children in the cast. The venomous hiss of whispered arguments in the wings was certainly audible in the audience. This was all volunteer work, by the way; no one was making a paycheck. No one needed to do that show.
I wanted to tell them to leave. The inconvenience of their absence would pale in comparison to their toxicity when they were present.
I don't want to be that person. Especially considering that acting has always been merely an extracurricular hobby for me. I'm able to say, "It's not fun anymore, so I'm gonna stop." Not everyone has that luxury.
So in February, as I neared performances as a cast member in Church & State at the Los Alamos Little Theatre, when I found myself stressed out, eating too much shitty food, crying about memorizing lines and whirling around like an unreasonably pissed-off community theater dervish, too full of irritation and frustration to enjoy the wonderful folks with whom I shared that stage, I knew that something had shifted.
And of course there are those people who love what they do until the day they die. There are those who will be buried with their unicycle, or arrange for a trombone quintet at their funeral. I hope to be one of them when it comes to my main gig, writing. I don't think I'll ever not love writing. And there are people who will never not love acting.
But it has to be okay to slough off bits of your identity when they no longer suit you. And, hey, time for some real talk: It's likely that the people around you want you to. When we force ourselves to do things that we don't want to do, we get unpleasant. People can tell when we are unhappy.
When I arrived at a dress rehearsal for Church & State half an hour late, on four hours of sleep, full of Wendy's chicken nuggets that I scarfed down in the car as I sped up 84/285, having forgotten my costume pants and digesting my stomach lining over remembering my monologues, I immediately burst into tears from stress. Blame it on a demanding day job, general anxiety, shifting from my Leo sun to my Pisces moon at my Saturn return—whatever. It was all too much. I ducked into a dressing room to compose myself.
Outside the curtain, I heard a kind, pitying voice sigh: "We like Charlotte."
After a brief pause, someone else, whom I'd never met before that crazy moment, said dryly: "… Why?"
That was when I knew I was done.
If my first impression with these kind people was one so unpleasant and scattered, if I no longer got happy butterflies as I waited for my entrance, if I had a hard time keeping tears at bay long enough to get my makeup applied—this was not fun anymore. Nor was it fun for the people around me. The graceful thing to do would be to bow out. (After the three weekends of performances, of course.)
So thanks, Kenny Rogers, you ol' gambler, for your eternal knowledge: "The secret to survivin' is knowin' what to throw away and knowin' what to keep." If you're on the edge of losing your mind about something that you don't have to do, just let it go. Art is amazing and beautiful and vital—but there's one form of it that, for me, just isn't getting the return on investment that it has for the last quarter of a century.
But what am I if not a theater kid?
Well, I'm a lot of other things. And turns out that at this point in my life, I'm a lot nicer when I'm out of the stage lights. Just look for me in the audience with my notebook, where I'm happiest.
And that is more than OK.