I am sitting on a bench outside a coffee shop in the East Village. How did I get here? This isn’t some kind of a how did I choose this particular bench outside this particular café- that’s easy, I live a few blocks away and I hate making my own coffee.* This isn’t some bullshit, philosophical why am I here? Why are any of us here? kind of wondering either. This is me, minding my own business while people watching and looking back to almost exactly one year ago, bemused that I fucking survived another three hundred and sixty five days.
But, let’s not get too dramatic too soon- “survived” makes it sound like I did something dumb like break my legs while mountain climbing or popped a brain vein thinking too hard. “Survived” makes me sound like a hero. If there is one thing I learned this past year it’s this:
I am no hero.
Not even close.
Shit, I’m so non-hero-like I can’t even portray a hero in the background of a TV show. What I can appear as is a 1950’s wedding guest, Mom with a baby stroller, a protestor (both violent and non), punk rock groupie, professional poker player, ballroom dancer, hippie cult member, 1920’s flapper, 1930’s this, 1940’s that, 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s- basically any decade where women would wear stockings and have their hair curled, which is really all of them before the 1990’s, and the list goes on- some things more interesting than they sound and some less. Which is what these stories are all about- how these various personas have affected who I am today, how I’m different now than when I first started.
In June 2016 I was fucking exhausted. I had finished going through festivals with a feature film I had written and directed the year before. It was my first feature and a good example of ignorance being productive because if I knew how hard it is to make a film I can’t be sure I would even have attempted it. I needed a job, something where I could take my weary brain out of my head, my sore heart from behind my ribs (there is a reason why it’s called a ribcage) and tuck them safely into my purse and leave that purse behind.
I wanted to be on set, I had been missing that life while I was in the dark caves of post-production. It’s a rare thing that there is any kind of position on film or TV sets that doesn’t require a huge amount of effort, skill, and responsibility. The hours are long enough to make business executives cringe and the physical effort sometimes so great that most doctors in the U.S. would advise against them. There is only one job on sets where all you have to do is show up on time, bring what you are asked to bring, and listen to what people tell you do (laughing, clapping, smiling are all generally things most people don’t need training for). You spend a lot of time sitting in a room (usually the basement of a church) and waiting while you read a book, play games on your phone, and other activities similar to what you’d see in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. You don’t need to be responsible for anyone but yourself, and it’s usually not the kind of responsibility that will ruin everything if errors are made. This is what I wanted. I wanted to be a background actor. Background for short. BG for shorter.
For some actors and aspiring actors, BG work is a good introduction, a good way to learn how sets work and gain experience. I love learning and I’m all for exciting experiences but that’s not what I wanted, at least not in the beginning. I wanted an escape from my life as a director, from my responsibilities, from myself. I wanted to be required but unimportant, somewhat needed but unobserved.
I’ve heard many different ways of how BG is described- one way is that being a background actor is like being a moving set piece. Another is that for directors BG is like painting with people. For me, the only way I could describe doing BG work is by describing how it made me feel, how at that time in my life it was the only thing I could feel, the only thing I could be:
A beautiful blur.
*That’s a whole other story, or two, or three.