The Beauty of Broken Dreams

Several years ago, I sat in the back row of the Bernard Jacobs Theatre taking in the Broadway-hit, Frost Nixon. The entire auditorium sat in silence, gripped during the play’s most compelling monologue. Just as the speech ended, I heard an elderly woman in front of me whisper, “Beautiful,” under her breath. I want to make people feel that way, I thought — so moved by a piece of expression they literally can’t keep it to themselves.

I followed the blueprint for someone hoping to tell stories for a living. I moved to New York, went to a fancy drama school, and in no time was auditioning for big television, film, and theater productions. I was convinced it’d only be a matter of time before audiences were falling over my Hamlet, or tuning in to my hit series. Since the age of 11, all I ever cared to be was a storyteller. And for the first time, it all seemed within reach.

My self-assurance was not misplaced. I spent years improving my craft. Each morning I arrived at the theater, so early I’d have to quietly tiptoe past a sleeping guard before practicing monologues and studying plays hours before class even started. I was maniacal about the work, even at a bully at times, reluctant to share warm-up space or end a rehearsal a minute early. There was work to be done and I wanted the dream too much to take any chances.

By the time I’d reached my mid-30s, I’d racked up some nice TV appearances, performed in some notable regional theaters, and appeared in a handful of commercials. I even worked as a casting reader, performing opposite the very actors that inspired me to someday grace the stages of the Broadway houses that lined mid-town Manhattan.

But soon it became clear my dreams were falling apart. Nothing was unfolding the way I’d dreamt as a boy, or planned in drama school. Yes, I’d made some progress, even gone further than most, but the harder I worked the more I felt like I was spinning my wheels. So at the age of 37, I decided with a heavy heart it was time to pack it all in.

I moved back to California and spent the next year living in the small guest room of a close friend. Being a good roommate was at times a delicate two-step. I tried desperately to respect his space while longing for my own. I’d often sit in my car for hours writing, or listening to music because it was the only place I could find any solitude.

For the first few months, I struggled to find my footing in my old hometown. I had trouble finding work, feeling a sense of purpose, and grappling with the feeling I’d let down the friends and family who’d supported my dreams all those years. But by far the greatest hurdle was dealing with the loss of identity. If I was no longer an actor then who was I? I spent a lot of time wondering if returning home was the biggest mistake of my life.

Then a shift began to take shape around the time I became more serious about writing. I needed a creative outlet so I swapped the stage for a pen. I wrote every day, sometimes terribly, other times boldly. I jotted down my thoughts in a daily blog, wrote screenplays, published articles, and even put the finishing touches on a book I’d been working on.

As the year went on I also tried to be of service to my community. I volunteered as a writing coach at a middle school, landed a summer teaching job, started a website devoted to promoting only positive news out of my hometown, and even delivered a TEDx Talk based on the discoveries I made returning home.

I also found time to visit new corners of the globe, read great books, and rekindle old friendships and spend time with my family. Most importantly, I was able to be around my aunt whose health had been fading.

The distance from the bright lights of Times Square had helped me realize acting was not who I was but simply something I did. My self-worth wasn’t defined by the credits on my resume or the number of commercials I’d booked. For the first time in a long time, I understood there was more to life than appearing on Law & Order or getting the perfect headshot. And in time, my goals became less about achieving more, and rather about becoming more.

In the end, failure saved me. I found grace in my broken dreams and deepened my understanding of the “bigger picture.” I learned I could have high standards and still be kind to myself, that no award or notoriety can fill a void, and that the quality of our lives depends on the quality of our philosophies – how we choose to “show up.”

But most importantly, I was reminded that all those years I spent in voice, movement, and scene study classes had little to do with becoming a big successful actor. Instead, we were being taught to speak our minds, take bold risks, do something kind to others, and be lifelong learners. If we were fortunate, we might become great actors along the way. The point was to be open to where life might take us.