From the time I was a very little girl, I wanted to be an actress. I once heard Lauren Bacall say that she loved acting so much because every time she played a new character, she was able to step into a new identity and discover a new part of herself. Or I think of Edward Norton’s take on his craft, “I always felt that acting was an escape,” he said. “–– like having the secret key to every door and permission to go into any realm and soak it up. I enjoy that free pass.” I wanted to have that secret key too.
I was born with a birth defect called a unilateral cleft lip and palate. So instead of lip, teeth and gums, I had a giant gap on the upper left side of my mouth and lip. Part of my nose had to be constructed. When I first learned to talk, I sounded like Donald Duck. After more surgery people still mistakenly thought that I had a very bad cold.
My nose and lips were asymmetrical, smooshed and scarred from surgeries. I’d get on the school bus with dread, always wishing for an empty seat. Because if I had to sit next to someone, they’d yell that they didn’t want to catch what I had. “Don’t touch her,” they chanted to one another.
I’d come home completely defeated, look into the mirror, and rub my finger against the scars wishing they would disappear. Or what if I could disappear? What if I were an actress and could become Dorothy in theWizard of Oz. I’d imagine being Debbie Reynolds, playing Kathy in Singin’ in the Rain and dancing with Gene Kelly. Then I could step into someone else and be rescued from myself.
But how? No one in my family was an actor or even remotely trying to be an actor or even knew actors or knew people who knew actors. One day, my teacher announced that they were holding auditions for the school play and asked who wanted to try out. My hand shot up quickly. My big chance! She looked at my earnestly raised hand and fell silent. While everyone colored at their desks, she quietly led me to a corner, kneeled down, and gazed into my eyes. A forlorn expression fell over her, “You can’t audition, Jeryl. No one would understand you.”
Devastated but undeterred I held on to my dream. But I kept it hidden. It remained safely tucked away from schools and teachers. I worked on my speech, doing drills and enunciating. When I hit my teens, I went to a performing arts camp. That led to studying acting at HB Studios in Manhattan and ultimately auditioning for New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
I was accepted.
The stage was my refuge. I became Laura in the Glass Menagerie, Pookie in Sterile Cuckoo. The limits of my creativity were stretched and stretched. I felt alive and free stepping into these characters, honing my chops. In my senior year, two weeks before graduation, our teacher put us on film and had us do scenes. After, we each had a private critique.
During my session, my teacher bluntly blurted, “Your face is asymmetrical The camera picks that up so you can’t do TV or film. And your speech is too muffled to be on stage.” I was devastated. Sensing my sadness, he added, “You can write. Why don’t you write?”
My heart sank. This time I was too deflated to summon my inner will to carry on with acting. Like a piece of silk taken by gravity, Jeryl, the actress, was slipping through my fingers. Poof. She disappeared.
And suddenly I was in my forties. Every once in a while I performed with a group of young adults with craniofacial birth defects as we created theater pieces about our lives and performed them around New York City. In dance class my teacher would split our class in half and have us dance for each other. I loved it but it made me realize how much I missed acting.
So there I was in my late forties still thinking about my performing dream. I was making my living as a writer and reporter. While I loved writing and crafting stories, it wasn’t enough. Age 50 was fast approaching. If not now, I realized, then when –– if ever? Ever so slowly, I inched back to performing. I took a comedy writing class as the Comedy Cellar where I developed five minutes of material that I did in a few showcases. (Ah, the buzz of making people laugh.) Then I started improv classes and began performing in improv shows. No props — just my voice, my body, and I could be anyone, anything. It was transforming. And I am transforming.
I’m now writing material for myself to perform and continue to do improv shows. I craft my own characters for me to play. My joy is beyond measure. It is at these moments that I feel truly alive. As a fifty-year-old woman I am less inhibited, more care-free. I am willing to take risks.
Sometimes I grieve for all the years I missed. All the time that I didn’t honor my great passion. But then I realize that with my added years comes a certain maturity and knowingness that adds texture to my tapestry. And sometimes those critical voices pipe up and tell me it’s insane to be performing when my chops are so rusty –– that I’m wasting time and making a fool of myself. But these days, more often than not, I hear my voice the loudest. I can hear her at last. She tells me that I am finally home.
Jeryl Brunner is an author and journalist who has appeared in O, the Oprah Magazine, Parade, National Geographic Traveler, Travel + Leisure, and InStyle, where she was a staff correspondent for many years. While atInStyle, Jeryl contributed to nearly every section of the magazine. She is also the author of the books, My City, My New York: Famous New Yorkers Share Their Favorite Places and My City, My Los Angeles, where she interviewed hundreds of notables about their most treasured locales. Be sure to check her out in Paradeand NewYork.com.
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