The Undeniable Yes

bradleywhitfordpaulandjoanne1  lauralinney

Ever since I was seven, I’d dreamt of being an actress. Now, here I was, 22 years old,  assisting at my first legit reading for a teleplay. To top that, my favorite acting professor  had gathered all of us players at the home of Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman! The script was written as a vehicle for Ms. Woodward, but as I looked around the room I recognized other famous faces and tried to keep my cool. At a break I stood with Joanne Woodward and Laura Linney and Ms. Woodward admitted “When I first debuted in Picnic on Broadway I felt so awkward. I had no idea what to do with my hands.” I laughed on cue and stuck my own hands deep inside virtual pockets. I had no idea what to do with my entire self in that rarefied space, let alone my hands.

As we took a break I approached Bradley Whitford of West Wing fame (though this event took place several year before the series began.) Whitford had attended Wesleyan University as I had. He was infamous as both a student and also as an acting instructor. Still, I could not resist asking him for advice. After all we’d attended the same school. Maybe my timing was bad, maybe he was in a bad mood, or maybe he really meant it.  He looked at me closely and my bright shining face. “Don’t be an actress,” he told me. “They only cast the mom or the babe — and you are neither.”

Shocked, I retreated to the bathroom where Mr. Newman had framed a happy letter from a fan of his spaghetti sauce. Why did Whitford say that? Am I that unattractive? Why didn’t I talk back to him? Where did my voice go? Does an alma mater mean so very little? My mind kept spinning with questions, trying to process his dismissal.

I returned to the room where I delighted in reading stage directions and a few bit parts. I was still in heaven, though the edges of my skirt were tinged with my brush with hellfire. We finished the reading. There was a subsequent reading for the same project a few weeks later. Mr. Whitford was not invited to the other reading, so I never got the chance to challenge him about his comment. I tried to focus on what was most important: it was an honor to participate and to have met Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman. I still consider that event one of the most magical and elevated moments of my life.

My mind, however, had hooked onto that awful pronouncement. “Don’t be an actress.” I continued to roll it over in my mind while I attended acting class, while I starred in a short play off-Broadway, while I worked with an acting coach who told me I wasn’t pretty. I kept thinking about this awful message. I couldn’t shake it until one day a friend of a friend of mine told me there was an opening at the Samuel Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row and asked if I knew of anyone who would want to rent it out?

This sparked me. I moved into high gear, gathering together pieces I had worked on at P.S. 122 and at the Dia Center for the Arts. I cobbled together an evening of work. I had it recorded by a client of mine that often shot for the PBS channel. In essence I created my first one-woman show in 1995, despite not having a clear plan or totally knowing what I was doing, and I was not a babe, and not yet a mother!

We can use the worst things people say to us as fuel. It’s not just the good things that inspire, but the challenges we face that can actually create a fire in our bellies to launch us into our bigger selves. Artistically, I don’t know if I would have been quite as desperate and as dissatisfied as I needed to be to take the leap of creating my first one-woman show had it not been for Bradley Whitford and what he said. I am now grateful for his comment (though still perplexed). Sometimes when people tell us no, but there is a stronger yes inside us, it does not matter who they are. Our undeniable yes overrides the background noise and becomes the most sacred roadmap to follow.


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5 responses to “The Undeniable Yes

  1. Marge Blaine

    Lookin’ Good Good looking!

  2. Yes! I’m thinking of various typecasting remarks that have been reported to me. And, I believe it is a commonly accepted truth, the truncated casting comment of Bradley Whitford (whoever he is). The fiction acting biz is awash with typecasting. I know a fine actor of German descent who will only ever get offered Nazi roles.
    Typecasting exists, sort of like the fashion biz, where if we aren’t the Western type (etc.)we can’t wear that stuff. Or think of Renee Fleming trying to sing Pop.
    One person I know, actually a graduate of your alma mater, can’t stand the fiction side of the biz and produces only documentaries…far more interesting characters. And then there is Shondaland, where Shonda seems to make her own way in the fiction world, in part defying the characterizations of which Bradley was just one example of jerk (typecasting, haha).
    So, Yes, go for it, why not? There is overt “type” characterization and it will most likely stop us from doing work inside the caricature types-we-are-not…and there is a lot more to the world than that old stupidity.
    As always, IMHO.

  3. Tamara Arbeter

    Allan Arbeter writing. Just read your blog that talks about earlier experiences with Woodward, Newman, and Whitford. How lucky for us that you had the drive, determination and developing self esteem to move forward. I had a similar experience that I have used and repeated to my students and residents. The result has been ” never accept a no, but re-evaluate, re-structure, and re-submit, if you believe in what you are doing.” I have never failed when I took those steps. Allan

  4. Allan, I absolutely love that. Thanks so much for sharing this. Miss and love you both!

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