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 don’t know how I missed this film last year when I wanted to see it so badly but there couldn’t be better timing for this story as we head into one of the most disturbing elections in history.
Directed by Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane, This Little Life) and written by Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady, Shame), SUFFRAGETTE follows the struggle of British women to obtain the vote in 1912 –something that wouldn’t be achieved until 1928.
We take voting so for granted in our country that people actually have the luxury to abstain. Watching what these women sacrificed and suffered through for so long–and knowing how many women in other parts of the world still don’t have a voice–I don’t think I could ever, in good conscience, fail to cast my own ballot.
This film is gripping and gut-wrenching from start to finish. It’s a wake-up call to all of us because, although we may enjoy a relative amount of freedom in the western world, we are still so behind in areas of equality. The more things change, the more they stay the same. I believe that our world will only reflect the values of its diverse populations when those populations rise up to demand that they be heard. We cannot rely on old white men or corrupt governments to do it for us because if we do we’ll be waiting forever.
Last night two agents sat in on my acting class and gave me quite a shift in perspective.
The past few years have been incredibly difficult for me career-wise. Each year I have made small, steady steps forward; I’ve trained consistently in my craft, I’ve produced work I’m proud of, I joined the union, I have theatrical and commercial agents who hustle for me, and yet I haven’t worked in a long time and I rarely audition. All around me I see men of my age and talent range working and auditioning constantly while the women in this age range, unless they already have a ton of credits, waste away waiting for crumbs.
It’s easy to take this personally and to let it drag me into a pit of despair, as I’ve written about so many times before. While I can’t compare the time I live in now with how it was before, I can understand how it must have felt for women who weren’t allowed to work outside the home. The feeling of being trapped, of desperation, of untapped energy and potential, is almost too much to deal with sometimes. I feel like a zombie in my own life–forced to earn money, forced to go through the motions every day, forced to be happy for everyone else, while none of it makes me come alive in any way.
Part of surviving in Los Angeles for as long as I have is pretending that the odds don’t matter. Yes, we actors know the stats; we know how unrealistic this industry is but we have to believe that we’ll make it anyway. And for me, “making it” doesn’t include great fame or wealth–it just means work. Somehow, though, the crap shoot we’re involved with doesn’t become real until suddenly it does.
We are addicts and junkies. Everyone we know outside of the industry has bought homes, raised families, taken vacations and accumulated nice furniture and retirement accounts. Meanwhile, we’re still living in crappy rentals in the crummy parts of town, we may never have wanted kids but either way we’ve sacrificed them, our furniture is from yard sales, we forego doctors appointments in favor of classes and headshots, we take shit from boys half our age at shit jobs because they let us leave work to audition. But every time we want to quit, every time we think about doing something else…we just can’t. Nothing else exists. As one 62 year-old female artist said to me: You just have to keep going. That’s all there is. If it’s a choice between clay and ice cream, I buy clay. It’s just a certain type of crazy.
So these agents…they were talking about how much the industry has changed over the past several years now that everything has gone digital. They said, for one breakdown of a mid-30’s female guest star, the casting directors will receive 4,600 submissions within the span of a few hours. Oh. It’s so easy to go into the head space of: I’m not good enough, I’m not young enough, I’m not pretty enough, I’m not skinny enough. And that may all be true. However…
The casting directors don’t really care about your headshots, they don’t open your submission to watch your reel and they may not even listen to your agent pitch. They’re scrolling through pages of actors to find a face they recognize. And they’re culling from lists of the 1,000 actors they already know who are trying to get work. So…yeah…as an average white woman in that age range–the odds are definitely not in my favor. And it isn’t personal.
Our class discussed what we can be doing to help ourselves and the agents feel that it all comes down to relationships. But I was sitting there with a light bulb going off over my head, thinking, This is why you create your own work. I’ve created my own work for years and years. My dream roles and peak artistic experiences have arisen almost exclusively from projects I originated or helped to develop. Again, it’s been easy for me think that I’ve had to create my own work because I’m not good enough for anyone else to hire. But that’s not really it. That’s not it at all. And I have to get over the hang-up of needing external validation for my work because it only gets in my way.
Right now I’m developing a dream feature film role for myself and everything about the process has been exciting and wonderful. It’s all coming together at a much more rapid pace than anything else in my life or career. This project has got to be as valuable to me as any little television one-liner I might beat the odds to book. I can’t get daunted by the uncertainty of how it’s going to get financed and I can’t believe that I’m “less than” because I had to cast myself in order to work.
I think about leaving Los Angeles all the time. But where would I go? It could be easier to survive somewhere else and if the odds really are this bleak, and I’m going to be creating my own work anyway, shouldn’t I seriously consider it? However, at this point, I’ve lived in Los Angeles longer than anywhere else in my life and as someone who grew up without a hometown, I guess this has come to mean something to me. I have roots here and maybe that’s just as important to me as staying in the game. It’s an open question that I continue to ponder.
Regardless, my place as an artist in this industry has started to crystallize. Self-generating work is a long, arduous process and it scares a lot of people away. But I just got a taste of the odds again and I gotta say that developing my own work makes me feel more like the casino owner than a desperate actor losing all my quarters at the slots.