to be on the wire is life

to be on the wire is life


The author wishes to assert (or perhaps just wishes) that he is less unlikeable than the narrator of the following story 



“There is no place on earth that fosters narcissism like the theater, but by the same token, nowhere is it easier to believe that you are essentially empty…”1

I’m eleven, and I start going to a new dance studio. The one I went to before, when I was little, had mirrors on just one wall. There was something nice about having my reflection to keep me company. This new studio has mirrors on two walls. Facing each other, so all I can see whether I want or not is me and me and me, tossed back and forth between the mirrors in an endless arc, in my black leotard that kept picking up my cat’s hair and so it wasn’t perfectly black anymore. That’s too many of me to keep track of, too many to feel at home with. 

The new teacher demands to know why I keep squeezing my eyes shut when we dance in the center of the floor. 

I always had a problem with eye contact. In middle school, all my teachers thought I was sullen and disinterested, because I never looked right at them. It would have never occurred to them that I was shy, because I was in all these plays and talent shows. But up there, when the lights are bright enough, you don’t have to look anyone in the eyes. You don’t even have to see the audience if you don’t want to. You can sort of tune them out, refuse to do the work of making out individuals in the backlit gloom. They can stay a formless mass of silhouettes, radiating either unending love and approval. Or, like, glacial malice. Depending on the night. 



“[Bob Fosse who, not for nothing, is the only person to ever win an Emmy, and Oscar, and a Tony in one year] views show business, and the weird drive of show people, to be a dark thing. And you really look at all of his movies and they are [about] people who are burdened by the perception of their work… [w]ho also just fundamentally feel like ‘I’m probably unloveable. I’m desperate for love and I’m probably not worthy of it and I’m trying to replace it with my relationship to the audience.’”2

They say the composer Alexander Scriabin broke his own hands so they could cover a larger span on the piano. 

I would hope to get injured in the middle of the spring musical. Like clockwork, every year, I would imagine the sickening crack of some joint or bone with a jolt of some kind of glee. Not because I wanted an excuse to quit, but because I wanted to keep singing and dancing on a twisted ankle and have everyone look at me and say wow, he kept singing and dancing on a twisted ankle! 

You know, they also say Jo Jones, the legendary drummer, once threw a cymbal at the head of Charlie Parker, the even more legendary saxophonist. 

I could never get any of my directors to yell at me. In the movies, the brilliant tortured genius obsessive artist always gets yelled at. There was always someone clapping their hands and barking “Again!” They would tell the special obsessive genius character that they’d never make it in this industry. Where were all these drill sergeants in the real world? How prestigious of a program did you have to be in before they cared enough to do that to you?


At the end of the musical Pippin, the narrator offers the main character the opportunity to achieve fame and glory forever by lighting himself on fire. Then, in a triumph of the human spirit or whatever, Pippin chooses instead to live a quiet, anonymous life with his wife and kid. 

For the musical to have any dramatic tension at all, you have to believe for at least a moment that that’s a deal he would—or should—take. 

“I think you have to hate yourself at least a little to direct a good production of Pippin,” I text a friend, a fellow theatre kid. 

“Then when’s your production happening?” They text back, immediately. 

“Mine *would* be really good.”

Then, after reading the exchange to myself: “I’m glad we skipped over the part of this exchange where I pretend to be offended by your characterization of me.”



“Depending on how the [film] industry is treating you that hour, you either feel like a Mariah Carey sultan or a near-dead irrelevant possum, flashing people for change on the 405. Spend too long on either side, and you’re a terrible lunch partner.”3

There was a study that said the #1 fear among Americans is public speaking. At least, my high school public speaking unit with that supposed fact. The #2 fear was death. “Just imagine,” my teacher said. “At a funeral, most people would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy.” 

What does it mean for me if I’m afraid of literally everything else but that? 

(And is my asking that just a way to get you to say that it must mean I’m very, very special? Or, alternatively, to say that it must mean that I’m a total freak of nature, utterly unfit for polite human society? Which is really, of course, a socially acceptable way of implying that I am, in fact, very very special.)

I think maybe both of those stories are apocryphal. The ones I relayed earlier, about the broken hands and the cymbals, I mean. I think, also, that maybe I just heard them in movies. They’re just part of that showbiz self-mythologizing where Hollywood, like performers themselves, delight in confessing their wrongdoings because they just make the whole enterprise more glamorous. Scriabin broke his own hands and Jones almost decapitated Charlie Parker’s and they used to give Judy Garland drugs on the set of The Wizard of Oz.

That last one is true, though. When she was a child star, they would give her speed so she would never eat and never sleep and keep dancing for twelve hours straight without her smile ever faltering, all white teeth and red cheeks and thin arms, dancing forever.


It’s difficult to describe the texture of a full face of tv-ready makeup. It sits on your face like something dead. You can feel your pores being utterly clogged. It’s like wearing a very convincing plastic replica of a human face.

No, scratch that. That’s not quite right. It’s less like it sits on top and more like it sinks in. It feels like it re-forms your face– blurs it, melts it, into a pleasing, creamy sort of nothing.

It becomes sort of a letdown to see your face without this other face on top of it.



“As human beings we are presumably creatures of variable impulse with moods and energies that change from one moment to the next. As characters put on for an audience, however, we must not be subject to ups or downs. A certain bureaucratization of the spirit is expected so that we can be relied upon to give a perfectly homogenous performance at every appointed time.”4

When you are (and this is really sort of an awful word) a polymath, people love to ask you what is more rewarding. “Do you find writing or acting more rewarding?” they ask.

The difference between writing and acting is this: when you’re an actor, you’re a tool for the director. You are essentially a piece of furniture. A chair does not need to have any sense of itself other than the fact that someone can sit on it or move it across a room to adjust the feng shui or whatever. A writer needs all kinds of extra shit. Like a belief that whatever comes out of their head is for some reason worth reading. 

And in that show everyone likes, the sexy priest says to the sad girl, if you wanted someone to tell you what to do all your life, you’d become a priest. And I think no, she’d become an actress. Then people will tell you where to stand and then you’ll stand there and in case that is too complicated for you, they’ll put tape down on the exact spot, and your words will not be your own and your face will not even really be your face but a smoother, nicer facsimile of your face.



“From an early age, I tried to be funny for the adults. My mom said, ‘When you were a baby, you used to poke your head out of blankets.’ She said, ‘It was like you knew how to be cute.’ She didn’t say it, like, flattering: ‘It was weird. It was like you knew what you were doing.’ I think I thought, and feel still, that I have to provide that in order for people to like me. The idea of, would they like me just as me—without poking out of the blanket, metaphorically—is a real thought or concern.”5

There reaches a point in every conversation where I begin to feel like I’m tapdancing. And I never even studied tap dance. 

There is an on button somewhere, and someone forgot to switch it back off. I feel like a wind-up toy someone wound for about seven years straight. 

It’s not as if it doesn’t occur to me that attempting to entertain people all the time is incredibly grating. It does! In fact, there is a voice in my head about 50% of the time, earnestly attempting to impress upon me, at top volume, that I am the most annoying person who ever lived. You might think that would prevent me from speaking. Not so! I simply talk louder and faster to beat the voice to the punch. 



“…the audience loves me. And I love them, and they love me for loving them and I love them for loving me. And we love each other—and that’s because none of us got enough love in our childhoods. And that’s showbiz, kid.”6

I once met someone who said he hated wearing glasses, not because of how he looked in them, but because the world is really too sharp and too much when you can see it clearly. 

I think that’s why moving from the rehearsal studio to the stage is always such a relief. The reflection of yourself you get from the audience is so much more blurred than what you can see in that wall of mirrors. So much easier to live with.

  1.  Hornbacher, Marya. Wasted. HarperCollins, 1998.

  2. Newman, Griffin, host. “Cabaret (with Rachel Zegler)” Blank Check, Blank Check Productions, Accessed 12 December 2023. Brackets at beginning mine.
  3. Gilpin, Betty. “‘GLOW’ Star Betty Gilpin: Why Acting Is “A Seesaw of Death” (Guest Column)” The Hollywood Reporter. Accessed 12 December, 2023.
  4.   Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1956.

  5. Mulaney, John. Interview by Stephen Colbert. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. CBS. 23 January, 2020. Television.
  6. Zellweger, Renée, performer. Chicago. Miramax Films, 2002.

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