This week I learned that the legendary Marta Becket passed away in January. I had no idea. I visited her opera house for the first time on Christmas Eve but her impact on my life hit back around 2009-2010.
I was divorced and had left my beloved Santa Monica for a studio in Koreatown with an actual paper-thin Murphy bed that folded down from the wall and was possibly the kind of bed you get in hell. I hated my new neighborhood, I was free but alone, I was nursing yet another heartbreak and creatively things couldn’t have been bleaker. I used to sit in the generic apartment-furnished armchair, staring out at the brick building next door, where people would literally scream out of their windows at all hours for reasons unknown. Because they could, I guess.
My mom told me about this amazing documentary she’d seen called Amargosa and I immediately ordered it from Netflix. On DVD. When I saw it, I was deeply moved by Marta’s story – one of a frustrated artist who took a giant leap into the unknown to create something that didn’t make any sense at the time. She left her metropolitan New York world behind to settle in Death Valley and refurbish a dilapidated performance hall, where she danced to a crowd that she literally painted on the walls – because there was no audience – until National Geographic discovered her.
The story of a woman without an opportunity to create the kind of work she wanted to, stepping off the grid to start living a different kind of story, spoke volumes to me. I felt the stirrings of something akin to that for myself or the idea, at least, that something else might be possible. As soon as I finished the documentary I rushed to find out if Marta was still alive and performing. She was, but she was heading into her final performances of the The Sitting Down Show because she could no longer dance and was ready to retire. I was determined to be there but a winter storm hit; those isolated Valley roads were flooded, nearly impassable, and phone lines were down. The Amargosa website warned of treacherous travel and I sadly abandoned the idea.
Several years passed. I sort of forgot about visiting the opera house although Marta remained an inspiration to me. I thought of her often, whenever I floundered around wondering what the hell I was doing in Hollywood. Every time the thought arose that I should create my own work, forge my own path, I would beat it down with resistance but then Marta would be there, like a beacon in the background. More time passed. I saw Diane Bell’s first film, Obselidia, and its scenes at the Amargosa Opera House reminded me that Marta’s legacy was still there…waiting.
Cut to December, 2016. Bone weary, shattered, burned out in every possible way…I’m in the middle of packing up my life in a limited number of boxes that I can snail-mail home to Boston. I’m finally calling it quits. A friend has come to stay and this is my camping/hiking/national park exploring friend. The one who will join me on any wilderness adventure. Each time we meet, we excitedly plan where to go next. We know we have a short window this time. We’re both exhausted. It needs to be a place we can drive to in a day and one that won’t be closed from all of the snow. Then it hits me: Death Valley. All those years in California and I still hadn’t been. They were at the tail end of a winter storm and about to get hit with some epic flooding but we had just the right amount of time to miss the worst.
We hit the road late on Christmas Eve day and drove like demons to make the show. The opera house had confirmed via e-mail and phone that there was a dancer who was going to perform that night. Then there wasn’t because she’d been injured. Then there was because they were mistaken or at any rate she was still going to perform. We didn’t have time for any pit stops. We ate snacks in the car. The two-lane road out to Death Valley Junction was pitch black with no cell service, my aging car was insistently fogging up in the rain and we’d hit huge pockets of flooding that were impossible to see ahead of time. We nearly missed the opera house because the valley was so dark but we swerved in and I jumped out to tell them we were there. There was no time for a bathroom or food or even to buy our tickets. Marta’s personal assistant was manning the door. She said to go over to the hotel afterwards to pay for our seats but, for now, to enjoy the show.
The opera house was toasty from the wood-burning stove and I couldn’t get over the rough wood floors or the detailed murals. It was beautiful. The assistant spoke to the small audience of tourists, telling us that Marta still lived on the grounds and that she was too ill to come over but that she knew we were there and that “she is happy” we were. A young Dominican dancer had been tapped by Marta to perform. She explained in broken English how grateful she was because, in her home country, the opportunity to dance was non-existent. She danced a short program from Marta’s past, including some of Marta’s own choreography. She wore Marta’s costumes – delightfully out-of-style – and there were long pauses while she changed. A little dog in the audience quietly growled whenever a new costume appeared. The ballerina danced in front of scenery that Marta painted. The faded red curtain opened and closed jerkily. The dancer’s pointe shoes were worn to shreds. The entire experience felt like pure anthropology and I held both joy and sorrow in my heart.
Afterwards we walked over to the hotel and someone opened a vacant room for me so I could finally use a bathroom. The room was scrubbed clean but old and in some disrepair. We wandered around the hotel filled with Marta’s photos and memorabilia. We were left to ourselves in the vacant gift shop. The lobby had a Christmas tree, a cat lounging on a desk, and a guy playing the guitar for his friends. Finally an employee appeared at the front desk and seemed pleasantly surprised that we had stuck around to pay for our tickets. We were starving but there was still no cell service. I asked the employee if she could give us directions to a restaurant somewhere and she told us that the hotel’s cafe was serving a complimentary Christmas Eve dinner, courtesy of Marta.
I think walking into that cafe on Christmas Eve was the moment when, on a micro level, I started to heal from the burn-out of the previous few years. People from all over the world were gathered at the counter and tables. The employees were warm and welcoming and explained the menu. When they found out we were Vegetarians they said, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.” Even now, I cry when I think of it. To be in a place that meant so much to me as an artist, to be exploring a part of our American wilderness, to be surrounded by fellow travelers on a holiday eve…it was pure gratitude. Pure joy. I was remembering the core of who I was – the things I actually care about, the values that actually mean something to me. It wasn’t about booking a guest star or walking the red carpet or getting the next audition. It was about being in the world. Being present. Being loved.
Marta Becket changed my life because she lived hers with full authenticity. She surrendered to her art and allowed it to move her where it wished instead of trying to control or resist the outcome. She taught me that it’s not only possible to forge my own path – it’s desirable. I am forever grateful for her life and work.
I feel like I’ve been writing this post in my head for a very long time. A week ago today, I left Los Angeles–my home for 11 years–and moved back to Boston. It was a decision I wrestled with for nearly two years…what to do, where to go, how to make sense of walking away from something I’ve wanted since I was old enough to think thoughts. To be clear, I wasn’t walking away from my dream, but I was walking away from the place where I thought it would come true. Few things in my life have been scarier, more stressful or fraught with confusion than this decision.
The hardest part of it all was–and is–feeling like a failure. I always promised myself that I would never be one of those actors who called it quits and left Hollywood before what could have been their big break. I felt smugly sorry for them…sorry that they couldn’t hang on and smug because it meant one less actor competing with me for roles. There was always something ahead of me to accomplish–better headshots, a new acting method to learn, membership in the union, casting directors to befriend, a theatre company to join, agents to lock down…I thought that I still had my 10,000 hours to put in, confidence to gain and techniques to hone.
But then I put in those 10,000 hours and honed those techniques. I studied with several amazing teachers. I had incredible artists see and affirm my work. I got the agent and the union membership. But nothing else happened. I rarely got to audition. I rarely got to work. I was one of thousands competing every day for a shot at two lines on a TV show and it was impossible for me to stand out. Even with determined allies who wanted me to work, who tried to get me work…it didn’t happen. For an actor, this is death. There is nowhere to put all of that training or desire or potential if you don’t have a role to play. Acting is one of the few artistic pursuits that simply doesn’t work alone in one’s living room; we need a vehicle and we need an audience.
And then I was about to turn 40 and started having meltdowns in public, like in the crowded lobby of my dentist’s office, where I suddenly started crying and couldn’t stop. I started thinking about how many sleeping pills would be enough to knock me out permanently and how, exactly, to phrase the note so that it wouldn’t destroy my mom. I took an emergency trip to Boston after another of my boss’s toxic tirades and one night cried uncontrollably on the sofa while my parents sat on either side and held me because there was nothing else to say or do. I wandered my apartment at all hours because sleep was elusive. I lost several close friends in succession for reasons that remain hazy but probably amount to each of us being lost in fighting our own battles.
Then, on one of those trips home, my beloved seven year-old nephew took longer than usual to warm to me. I left him alone but, finally, we were outside about to go on a bike ride. He was behind me and I heard him blurt out, “I love you, Auntie Dawn!” I turned around and he had clamped his hands over his mouth. Then he said, “I haven’t said that in a long time. I love you. Do you love me?” And I realized, in that moment, that I was not okay with missing yet another year of his childhood.
There is nothing like leaving your 30’s to make you take stock of where you are in life. I had given everything I had–made tremendous personal, emotional and financial sacrifices–to pursue my dream in Hollywoodland. And, for a long time, it was a land I loved. I loved the sunshine, the palm trees, the beach, the mountains, the sweet-smelling & blossoming trees, the flowers that bloomed all year round, the random run-ins with famous actors I admired, the famous actors who randomly saw my work, the dear friends I made, the cinematic history, the fact that everyone was doing the same thing and the thrilling experiences that just happened out of nowhere because I was in Hollywood and they couldn’t have happened anywhere else.
But the grind caught up with me. I got priced out of the part of town I adored and wound up commuting three to four hours a day just so I could stay at a job that let me audition and afford to live in a part of town I despised. The few auditions there were dried up completely once I hit 35. My marriage ended in L.A., as well as another serious relationship. Meaningful friendships dissipated and there was a heartbreak that left a scar that will probably never fade. La La Land started to resemble a ghost town. There is, literally, no corner of that city that doesn’t hold a memory for me of the people I lost.
I don’t know how that happens, especially when relationships mean so much to me, but I do know that it’s a town of competition and envy; a town of unequal fortunes; a town where people don’t return your messages or flake out of plans at the last minute; a town where everyone drives everywhere and no one wants to drive anywhere; a town where you’re up and down so many times that you’ve lost count and no one can be bothered to care anymore because they’re just trying to survive the same as you.
I realized that the last meaningful piece of work I’d done was to produce and act in my own short film…and that nearly every piece of meaningful work had originated with me and had not come from auditioning for someone else. I looked back over my life and saw that I was always creating opportunities for myself…because I had to…because there was no other way to live. One night I was re-watching La Vie En Rose for the millionth time and I thought, “I’m running out of time. What if I die without ever getting to play the kinds of roles I dream of?” In that moment I took full responsibility for my art because I knew it was never going to come to me the way I hoped it would for all those years.
I started down the road of developing a feature film for myself and that has turned into a beautiful partnership with a screenwriter. She wrote a script for me that, in my wildest dreams, would never have come into my life had I not actively willed it to happen. And then my old love for truly independent filmmaking began to surface. And then I found out my nephew was getting a baby sister. And then I began to think, maybe it’s time for a change of scene. Maybe I need to find a place where I can rest and not spend hours of my life in traffic and maybe I can actually get an audition and maybe I can live near my entire family for the first time since high school and watch my nephew and niece grow up and maybe I can make this film on my own terms and see if this dream can be fulfilled in ways I never saw coming.
So, that’s what I’m doing and so far it’s been great and surreal and I don’t know what’s going to happen. I still wake up in the middle of the night and wonder if I’ve made the right decision. I still get pangs of envy and disappointment when I hear about acting opportunities that friends have gotten instead of me. But I also get huge, uncontrollable smiles on my face when I encounter parts of this “real” city, like trains and tunnels and thick accents and winter weather. I feel like I’m meeting a part of myself I’d forgotten existed but it’s a part that feels like the real me. The constant anxiety and stress is gone; I revel in the moments I have to be with my family and can’t believe I was ever away from them for so long. I’ve left my home and friends and the industry behind but, as one of my acting teachers once said to me, I carry my dream with me. I have to believe that all of the people and places and work I love still surround me in some way and that, in time, we will find a way to meet again.