#LivingtheDream: Reflections on Living an Actor’s Life, Being Myself, and Following my Bliss

I have always wanted to be an actor. Always. I came to the realization that it was an actual profession at the age of 11, after having been acting since the age of 7. I saw kids on TV and wanted to work. I saw character actors who I still admire today guest starring on shows and wanted to work. I didn’t want to wait until I was adult. I knew what I wanted to do.

After I had my surgery to correct my leg at 13, it took me about two years to really learn how to walk again. This impacted my gait as I walked, and how I moved in the world. I’ve always had a special relationship with my own body and physicality. Whether it was the way I moved, or realizing that others saw me in a certain way, I was always acutely aware I didn’t fit the mold of perfection and normalcy. To put it mildly, I wasn’t very graceful. I tried, but gracefully moving around has always been a challenge.

My characters, whatever I am playing, are going to move certain ways. All of them. There are going to be very few times when I actually change the way my body naturally moves when walking or running to where it will be noticeable. I can make my walk more exaggerated or “worse”  but very very rarely will I be walking with a completely different gait to the point of perfection. It’s what’s normal for me, and that’s okay.

I knew from a very young age that I was a character actor. Ever since I had learned the definition of the term, I knew that I was one.

A character actor or character actress is a supporting actor who plays unusual, interesting, or eccentric characters. The term, often contrasted with that of leading actor, is somewhat abstract and open to interpretation. In a literal sense, all actors can be considered character actors since they all play “characters”, but in the usual sense it is an actor who plays a distinctive and important supporting role.

When I was looking at colleges about sixteen years ago, I had it in my mind that if I majored in theater, or if the school had a theater department, that it was dangerous for me, because I would be following my dream, and that was frightening. At the time, there were so many nay-sayers with me on my journey to becoming an actor. I think part of me wanted to please my parents by picking the sensible thing to major in and not studying what truly wanted to which was acting. I also listened far too much to those nay-sayers that said acting would be even more difficult for me since I wasn’t a leading lady, I was “different,” and that there just weren’t parts for people like me. “What? Really?” Fortunately, my parents have never been nay-sayers and always encouraged me in whatever I was passionate about.

I majored in English at college even though I had gotten accepted to major in theater at several schools. I specifically went to a college with no actual theater major (they had acting classes and I took them all). Although, they had a music minor (certificate) and various extra curricular activities including drama. I remember when I went to look at the college I ended up attending. I remember standing in the library of what would become my college, and thinking, “This is a good place. Sensible. They don’t have an acting program so I won’t be tempted to do the unreasonable thing.”

Now, there is no such thing as an unreasonable interest. Your interests and your passions are just that. Yours. The fact that I was deliberately denying myself the thing that made me truly happy took me a long time to come to terms with. I didn’t realize that I had deliberately done anything like that until this past year. This past year provided the greatest growth I have felt as a professional working actor. It also helped me reflect on how far I’ve come. It was within this reflection that I realized I had given value to too many opinions of those around me. I did it so much that it drowned out my own thoughts and feelings about my own life and where I wanted it to lead. I’m not blaming anyone for having an opinion, but there comes a point where listening to too many people, and taking their advice as the be all, end all, was unhealthy to my happiness.

I feel like my life is split up in to three sections (so far at least): My childhood before my surgery at 13 to correct my leg, my adolescence from high school through college, and the present day living in New York City. When I moved to NYC almost 11 years ago, I was just about to turn 23. I felt like this is where I was meant to be all my life and I finally got here. When I went to theater school, I finally felt like I could truly be myself without hiding behind the fact that my true passion, what made me the most blissfully happy, and what brought me to the most complete understanding of who I am as a person was acting.

It has been an uphill journey for the past 11 years, and that’s okay. Only in the past 3 have I truly made peace with who I truly am as a performer, and acknowledged that I had a form of cerebral palsy as an actor. It has never hindered me, but before that time, it was never on my resume. I was afraid. I was a afraid of losing roles, of being judged, but mostly, I think I was afraid to be myself. Having CP doesn’t define me, but it will always be a part of me. In not acknowledging it, I was denying part of who I am both emotionally and physically. That’s not to say I didn’t know where I stood in the industry. I’ve always known I was a supporting player. I am a character actor, and to be honest, it took me about 10 years to grow into my “type.” But, I did it. Over the past year, I’ve worked on several TV shows, including the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon, and an upcoming season of a popular show in a recurring role. I remember talking with the writer and producer of my second episode who said that she loved my work, and had to have me back for a second time. At the end of the day, she came up to me and thanked me, and I did the same. Then, I stated how much it meant to me to work with her because I was an actor with a mild form of cerebral palsy. It was a joy to work with everyone, really. We were both teary-eyed and hugged, and she said it was a pleasure to work with me regardless. She still loved the work. That meant a lot. She didn’t notice anything “wrong” or different. It was, in her mind, just unique, and she even said that. My work is unique.

My mentor, and director of a play I performed in 10 years ago, Eileen Galindo, said to me, “Having CP is a gift for you. It’s an asset. It makes you so unique. No one is going to bring to the table what you bring. You are who you are, and that’s amazing.” She’s right. It has taken me 33 years to realize it, but I am finally at peace with who I am as a person which in turn has helped me blossom as an actor. Go figure. #FollowYourDreams #LiveYourDream

10 Years Later… #NYC #Career #WorkingActor

10 years ago, my father and I drove to NYC from Massachusetts. The Tom Tom GPS in my father’s car took us to the opposite side of the city, but we eventually made it to the apartment that I sublet-ted for 3 months, unpacked my weird luggage that I managed to fit into about 5 Spacebags within 2 suitcases, and said goodbye. I thought I was only going to be in the city for the duration of the summer program at Circle in the Square Theater School. I was wrong. Boy, was I wrong.

I started with small projects, background work, independent, low-budget, non-union work for no-pay and long hours. I got a survival job that provided health insurance, flexible hours, and place that has supported me to this day (although, let’s change that soon, shall we?) I paid my initial “scraping at the bottom of the barrel” dues. Unlike some people who seem to find a trajectory and aim high fast and early, my pounding the pavement has taken literally 10 years (almost to the day).

Before I moved to NYC, I got my first headshots back when they used both color AND black & white. And while the color one was usable, the black & white one was all sorts of wrong and will probably end up on some weird website of actors horrible headshots or something. I was trying to fit into a box that wasn’t meant for me. I was trying to be someone I thought the industry wanted me to be.

For years after moving to the city, I went to every single open call, and worked on every single independent thing I could get my hands on, whether it was for theater or film. I did background work on TV as a human prop, and I’ve learned from all of it. I’ve watched Oscar winners prep for scenes, I’ve watched background actors ruin shots that took far too long to set up. I’ve learned from every weird, what would seem silly experience I’ve had. Does that mean I won’t have weird and silly experiences to come? No. But, I finally feel like I’m at a place in my career that isn’t stagnant. I’m not dead in the water. I feel like I’m finally going somewhere and it feels good, and I am forever grateful.

It took me almost 10 years to secure representation. I heard so many “No’s” and “You’re too weird” that I was beginning to believe that I didn’t belong at all. I started freelancing with my manager and my agent around the same time for about a year and half before I officially signed with each of them. 10 YEARS. Now, let me preface this by saying, I’m an odd duck. I don’t fit into that mold I was trying to cram myself into for all those years. I’m just me. I needed to find the right people who accepted me for the quirky gal that I am. Thank goodness that my manager and agent saw something. I am so grateful. Over the past year and a half, I have been slowly stepping up my game, auditioning for bigger and bigger projects, casting directors, etc. I wrote a solo show, performed said solo show, and can’t believe I actually told my story.

I have been a member of SAG-AFTRA since 2009 and a member of AEA since 2010. For years, I felt like a fraud because I felt like I wasn’t worthy of it. I don’t know why, but within this past year, I finally feel like I can proudly say I am in the unions. I’m a working actor. I’m auditioning, and I have a good relationship with my reps. I did a job back in April that is my biggest credit to date. I can’t talk about it yet, but I will say, that my weird, quirky self was what the director needed for the part. He even said to me on set, “I need to see that awesome smile. Look up, kid. You got this.” At the end of the take, the director of a Golden Globe winning show put two thumbs up, and shouted to me, “That was great, Steph!” Last Monday, I signed with agent Gail at KMR, five minutes later, my manager, Brandon called me with an audition for the next day. I have an audition on Thursday for a project I think is really awesome too.

Today, I finally feel at peace with the weird voices of doubt. I’ve persisted for so long, and the dream I had of moving to NYC and being a full-time working actor finally starting to come true. Here’s to more auditions, more bookings, and a whole lot more gratitude.

Why I Tell My Story: Theater & Raising Awareness #disabilityawareness #cerebralpalsy

When I first started writing my solo show, “Walk With Me” about growing up with cerebral palsy and learning to walk again at 13, it wasn’t even a one-woman show. In all honesty, I was avoiding the elephant in the room. I was writing characters who resembled myself and my parents; I was trying to be “creative.” However, as the writing process continued, I began to realize that I had to do this one alone. I had to tell my own story, use my own voice, and, no matter how painful, share my own memories.

I first got involved in theater around the age of 7 or 8 because my mother thought it would be a good thing to do and enhance my social skills. I obviously fell in love with acting, and here we are. Growing up, my perception of why people act, whether in theater, film or television, had been a self-serving one. Actors want to be in the spotlight. We want to show our talent. We want to win the coveted Oscar. The End. It took me a while to realize that theater, film, and television could be more than just a self-indulgent vehicle for people who want to be in the spotlight. It could be more than just a money game.

It wasn’t until I was in college when I realized that theater could really help people. Theater education can help those of all ages relate to one another. The reason humans tell stories and fables, recite poetry, is to help each other relate to the world around us. The reason I finished writing my show is to help others understand another perspective. I was born with cerebral palsy, and while I still question on a daily basis why,  I am slowly coming to an answer. I was born with a disability, with the health issues I still deal with, and am using those struggles to help bring awareness to others. I am using my love of theater, my acting ability, and training, to tell my story.

Last week, I performed my show in the most unlikely of places: a hospital. My neurologist from when I was a baby had come to see my show when it premiered in November at the People Improv Theater. The next day, I received an email about doing the show at Boston Medical Center as part of their Grand Rounds. For those who may not know,

Grand rounds are an important teaching tool and ritual of medical education and inpatient care, consisting of presenting the medical problems and treatment of a particular patient to an audience consisting of doctors, residents and medical students. The patient was traditionally present for the round and would answer questions; grand rounds have evolved with most sessions now rarely having a patient present and being more like lectures. An actor portrays the patient in some instances.

Grand rounds help doctors and other healthcare professionals keep up to date in important evolving areas which may be outside of their core practice.

So, for the first time I performed my show for a room full of doctors and medical students. In a way, I helped bring the patient perspective to the forefront. There was a Q&A afterwards with myself and my parents, questions varied, but the most common one was “How did you come out so normal?” Well, I think that the “normal” part is still up for debate. But, I am thankful that my parents didn’t restrict what I could and couldn’t do based on my physicality. I loved theater and dancing, and I did it, despite being told I wasn’t “normal” by some. Last week, I was able to help doctors understand that the preemie babies they care for now will turn out just fine. They will lead lives, they will be human. In the end, that’s all we are: human.

I am fortunate enough to be given a gift of cerebral palsy. It’s an unlikely gift, but it’s mine. I was given the different-ability of seeing the world around me, of moving, of being on this earth. Everyone has a story, we just have to be open enough to listen.

My show will be at the PIT again in March, April, and May. Tickets are available now:

http://thepit-nyc.com/event/2017-03-07-walk-with-me