Josh and the City: Learning to Love the Ride on the Muggle Struggle Bus

TheMagicSchoolBus

If you were anything like me as a kid, then you watched one (or all) of the following shows: Captain Planet, Doug, Boy Meets World, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, Rugrats and The Magic School Bus. The latter has made a recent reappearance in my life, only not quite the way I remember it; nowadays, The Magic School Bus of life feels more like a Muggle Struggle Bus (special thanks to J. K. Rowling for supplying us with such a wonderfully descriptive word that feels more than accurate in these trying economic times).

An influx of good fortune often means that a harsher reality is just around the corner so that the circle of life can maintain the balance it craves. The same can be said of the ever-changing lives of artists. One day, an actor is cast as the title role in Macbeth; the next, he’s playing a tree in Into the Woods. Stanislavski would say that, “there are no small parts, only small actors,” but try telling that to a self-employed artist who needs that title role to pay the rent and put food on the table. (Unless, of course, he’s A-OK with living on the Bohemian edge and sticking it to the man, a plausible option explored by the characters in the musical Rent. See this month’s StageDoorDish Book Club selection, Without You by Anthony Rapp, for more information).

Now, while “struggling” often infers deeply melancholic periods of worry and woe, I think it is also crucial to note that challenging experiences often present “teachable moments” that can enable artists to steer the bus in a new direction, one that may be better paved than the road previously traveled. I make this assertion after hopping on the bandwagon myself back in January and traveling to New York City to pursue my dreams. And as anyone who’s ever ridden a school bus will tell you, there are often twists and turns in the road regardless of the destination.

Riding the Muggle Struggle Bus often prompts a contemplative internal dialogue over one’s life path. Let’s explore an example scenario between two performer friends, Honey Boo Bop and Justin Bumblebieb, to answer the many questions an artist can face in any given week:

HONEY: Justin! Guess what?

JUSTIN: What, Honey Boo Bop?

HONEY: I landed a walk-on role on Glee!

JUSTIN: No way! Congratulations!

HONEY: THANK YOU!

JUSTIN: [Internal dialogue.] I’m super happy for Honey, but why didn’t I land a role like that? I know I’m good enough…

HONEY: What are you working on these days, Justin?

JUSTIN: Well, since you asked, Honey, I’ve just been working my three part-time jobs. I haven’t been auditioning too much lately. Did you hear that Mariah is workshopping a new musical with an up-and-coming theatre group?

HONEY: No, that sounds like fun!

JUSTIN: Yeah, definitely.

HONEY: [Internal dialogue.] I would love to be working on a musical right now! Mariah is so lucky. And she probably has actual lines….I need to call her and find out how she landed that job.

JUSTIN. Did you hear that there’s an audition coming up for the Broadway production of James and the Giant Peach?

HONEY. I did hear about that! I was in a version of it when I was younger—I played the Ladybug and had a dance solo.

JUSTIN. [Internal dialogue.] I wish I could dance.

HONEY. When’s the audition?

JUSTIN. Next Tuesday.

HONEY. Awesome sauce! I’m totes going!

JUSTIN. [Internal dialogue.] Ugh, I wish I didn’t have to work. There goes another job opportunity…

HONEY. Well, I’m gonna go take a nap.

JUSTIN. I’m on my way to a monologue coaching that I wish I could actually afford.

HONEY. Catch ya later, Justin!

JUSTIN. Bye, Honey.

HONEY. [Internal dialogue.] Justin seems to have such a stable life. I wish I knew what the future held like he seems to. I need to become more organized. And pay my rent.

JUSTIN. [Internal dialogue.] I wish I was free like Honey. She’s probably having the time of her life.

And SCENE.

(Or is it “end scene”? Hmm….)

Silly thought it was, what did we learn from our friends Justin Bumblebieb and Honey Boo Bop? First of all, we have the conflicting feelings when learning good news about a fellow artist. Of course we’re excited for them; they’re making it! A small dream has come true! A foot has firmly been placed in the door, leaving room for that door to be kicked wide open so a career can begin. At the same time, there is that little voice buried deep inside asking that horrid question: “Why didn’t you book a job like that?” If you’re lucky, the voice goes away and is replaced by a fierce determination to work harder to achieve similar success, but if you’re human—a mere Muggle, if you will—then that question likely festers and mutates into additional questions such as, “You’re not as talented as your friend is,” and, “You’re not cut out for this industry. You should give up.” If you have experienced any such questions, I recommend making a phone call home to family or friends to re-boost your self-esteem and soak up any and all warm fuzzies that can put you back on the path of perseverance. There’s nothing wrong with filling your vessel with hope; there’s also nothing wrong with looking at your contemporaries’ successes and making comparisons. However, too much of this can result in severe self-deprecation, and don’t we feel enough of that already as actors and artists? I think we can all agree on that. It’s all about balance, just like the circle of life.

Justin and Honey go on to bring up another paradox of the starving artist lifestyle: working a day job sometimes having nothing to do with one’s field or college major that eventually overshadows the making of actual art. In other words, we spend our days auditioning to feed our souls and interviewing to survive another week only to settle into something “comfortable” or even “acceptable” since we need the money and thus don’t find time to pursue our art. We have to put food on the table, right? Chyeah! So the day job is a must. But isn’t the art a must as well? After all, that’s why we made the commitment to move to New York or spend four years pursuing an arts degree, right? So what are we to do when work limits us and keeps us from doing what we love? More on that later.

As Justin and Honey’s conversation continues, we notice that even though Honey has landed a small role on a hit television show, she’s jealous of the work another friend of theirs is doing. She wants to call Mariah to get more information on how she landed the job. I don’t know about you, but I’m always curious how friends landed the jobs they did—not because I want the same opportunity or I want to follow a similar path, but because I think that part of celebrating each other’s successes is learning about the processes we use to get where we end up. Why not try to lend a helping hand to pay it forward for the next person? Theatre is a team sport, after all.

Other topics are broached at the end of the conversation: the loss of audition opportunities to demanding work schedules; the decision to spend free time working on the craft or get much-needed rest; and, my favorite, the constant Ping-Pong match between reality and the fantastical future we dream about. Recently, I’ve become determined to help the driver of the Muggle Struggle Bus learn a thing or two about taking alternate routes to spice up the commute a bit. Having obtained a new day job, I have found that while it does detract from audition opportunities, it can also be rewarding if you choose one that you’re genuinely interested in. I currently love my place of work, as it happens to be my favorite store in the entire world. Sure, I’m working in the bittersweet, thankless realm of retail, but I enjoy the environment and my co-workers are a hoot and a half. I love it! Does it have to do with theatre? Not necessarily. Does it have to do with art, books and writing—three of my other interests? Yes, yes it does—and that is why I love it and will hold onto it as long as I can.

As for free time, the craft itself and the choice we must make to take that extra voice lesson or save our money for what society deems “a necessity,” I believe that those decisions lie completely in the hands of the artist. If April is congested with tax forms, work, deadlines, payments, and unrelenting chaos, then perhaps the voice lesson won’t work for that month. When May comes around, perhaps you get a random day off or don’t spend as much on groceries so you can buy a copy of The Great Gatsby to read before the film is released. It’s crucial to remember to feed one’s inner artist but it is also necessary to live within your means. Finding this balance can be tricky, but if you stay organized like Justin and seize opportunities like Honey, you’re sure to begin moving in the right direction.

And then there’s the preordained Ping-Pong Battle Royale that lives within each of us, the center of which is, “What is my life like now and how does it relate to my dream future?” All I can say about this is what I know from personal experience: you have more control over your future than you might think. Every day, we send messages out to the universe about what we like, what we want, and how we feel. I’m not going to promote any particular product or prophesy about what the power of positive thinking has done for me, but I can offer something that I believe is a surefire way to create the small changes we so desperately yearn for in our future: visualization. Visualizing your future may seem like a silly idea, but there is real power in it! Some go so far as to create a Vision Board filled with pictures, quotes and words of encouragement to keep one’s eyes firmly planted on the prize. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have one of these Boards myself. And I can tell you that not only did I move to New York to pursue acting because of it, but I also ended up working at my favorite store after realizing that I had a picture of it on my Board for years. When the Vision Board starts to become a Memory Board, you know you’ve steered the bus true north—your true north—and made a positive difference in your life.

Now that we’ve examined some of the questions that can plague us in everyday life, what can we do to experience art in our lives even on days when work consumes us or we’re too inundated by the pandemonium of life to appreciate the little things? I ask myself this question constantly.

As the brilliant and accomplished artist Julia Cameron has taught me, art does not need to be some daunting task that looms over us like the flying whales in Fantasia 2000’s “Pines of Rome.” It can be something as simple as meditating in the morning or jotting down some thoughts or feelings in a special notebook. Maybe it’s listening to music or imagining the backstory of the mother and her two bespectacled sons sitting across from you on the train. Or perhaps you simply get the urge to pick up a paintbrush one day and just go.

Whatever the case may be—however difficult, frustrating or downright infuriating life is—an artist’s life can be infinitely rewarding if a balance is found between what is necessary to survive and what is necessary to artistically survive. In my own quest to keep up with my art, I have spent extra bits of free time exploring new television shows featuring outstanding actors worthy of careful study (because, let’s face it, The Magic School Bus can only take me so far). My favorite life lesson so far comes from the theme song of my latest show obsession, United States of Tara, and is something I hope everyone can take a moment to consider:

“I know we’ll be just fine when we learn to love the ride.”

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4 Responses

  1. Something tells me you’ve read The Artist’s Way. It changed my life!

    • Me too!! It’s beyond amazing. Completely transformative. Have you read “The Right to Write”? It’s fantastic!!!

  2. I was almost surprised reading this to realize that I am not the only actor whose mind works that way–constantly thinking that everyone else has got it figured out and I just don’t have the talent to succeed. What excellent words of encouragement! I’ve never heard of a “Vision Board,” personally, but I think I’m going to go start one!

    • I guess we’re all a lot more alike than we realize! I think a Vision Board would be excellent for you, Rachel. It’s a great continuous project to work on that can truly keep you focused on what you want out of life. It comes in especially handy when you’re in those inevitable “I’m about to give up” moments. I had it with me all throughout college and now have it in NY. :)