I’ve been having a recurring dream for years now.
I’m outside a Barnes and Noble and it’s dark and cold. The deserted parking lot is wet from a short spell of rain and I’m waiting by the bronzed door handles with a mangy German Shepard. I’m nervous about something. I keep pacing back and forth – an action I only do while on the telephone. But I don’t have a phone in this dream; my hands are in my pockets.
I finally work up the nerve to go inside the store and immediately upon entering, I’m told the store is closing. I race towards the back of the store, where empty registers fill the wall. I stop. There next to me is a table in which, sprawled all over the top, sit hundreds of magazines. I never pick up a magazine from the top of the table. Instead, I kneel down and pick up the top magazine. Left hand pile. Bottom shelf. Each time there is someone different on the cover. But every time it’s a woman. I wake up.
These are some of the women I’ve seen on the covers.
After telling Kimberly time and time again about the details of this recurring dream, she told me to look up the meaning.
“The unconscious is clearly trying to tell you something, Ash. Go find out! Just make sure you get a reliable piece of literature on the subject.”
According to the kooldreammoodz.com, ‘to see a particular actor or actress in your dream, look at the role they are playing. Even though you may not know them on a personal level, how you perceive them or the characters they play can provide understanding in how it relates to you.’
By God, I’m gonna be an actress.
I understand the almost universal desire of wanting to be an actor. Personally, I want nothing more than to walk down the red carpet, my stomach queasy with butterflies, thinking I will only be hours away from hearing my name amongst others for the best actress category.
Even from a very early age it was clear. My mom would call my name throughout the house letting me know dinner was on the table, only to find me standing on a rocking chair in the basement, addressing the people of Argentina by song.
And if I wasn’t in the basement, I was in the garage tap dancing to the “Chicago” soundtrack with my mother’s black panty house on and one of my father’s dress socks wrapped around my chest. I was talking sex, crime, and heartache before I had any idea of their meanings.
But I never thought I’d simply be discovered, hand-picked out of a crowd of shoppers at the local mall, like so many people throughout the country – throughout the world! – believe.
I knew I had to work hard and this idea stemmed from a premature obsession with John Lipton and his damn stack of blue cards. Inside the Actor’s Studio talked of the craft often. Every actress or actor featured on the show had a unique way to describe his or her craft. But one thing remained certain- they all had a craft. (That’s how they would say it too. As if craft were in verbal italics)
This prompted drama class enrollment from middle school all through college taught by crazy, single ladies, ages 50 – 87, with cat hair all over their loose, black clothing.
“Get out of this damn car! Do you want to be an actress or not?” My mother gritted through her teeth while prying my cold, stone hands from the car’s leather seats.
“That is exactly what Patsy Ramsey said to JonBenet. I should probably be concerned.”
“I paid $500 dollars for you to memorize lines and play charades, you little brat. Now walk up those stairs and don’t even think about setting foot outside that classroom door.”
“You paid $500 dollars for the acting school that’s above Fins and Feathers pet store? Ma, you were ripped off.”
She screamed out of frustration.
“Okay, see you at eight. And if you come across any chords, please don’t bring them with you,” I said hopping out of the front seat.
Walking up the dimly lit staircase, covered with fraying red carpet, I began to shake. It’s always been a result of my anxiety. My knees wobble, my teeth clatter, and my fingers jiggle even when trying to hold them flat. As much as I wanted to be an actress, the thought of having to perform in front of a group of strangers – older strangers, thanks to my mother’s intermediate class sign up blunder – was petrifying.
“Hi, my name is Ashley Peter. Is this Drama 200?”
“Quick! Stand against the door,” a woman with bright red, man hair said to me, “You’ll be first in our exercise.”
“Great, I’ve always been athletic,” I replied.
She had her hands on my shoulders, pushing my back up to a poster of Stella Adler. As I watched her peer her head into the classroom, I tried talking myself out of the oncoming feeling of fear.
You can do this. There’s nothing to be afraid of here. You want this.
“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. You go in before me. They don’t know I’m the teacher. So I want you to pretend to be the teacher. It will be an improv assignment. But don’t say anything. You get it?”
“Good. Now get in there.”
I walked into the room and the crazy red head shut the door behind me. Suddenly, about twenty faces shot up to stare at me directly in the eyes. I thought my knees were going to give out.
My eyes rolled up to the ceiling as my fists stayed clenched to the sides of my body. I began repeating the exercise over in my head. ‘You’re a teacher. Show them you’re a teacher. But don’t say a word. How will they know you’re a teacher?’
At that self-proposed question, I immediately came to an answer. Of course! I’ll do what all teachers do!
I silently made my way over to a girl, who I would eventually attend high school with, and picked up her blank, yellow composition pad. I began ripping pages out and tearing them up into tinier pieces, letting them fall before her like a sorrier version of confetti at a Mexican parade.
“What the–,” she quizzically said.
I ignored her all together, keeping in mind the instructions given to me just a few minutes ago. ‘Don’t say anything’. I spotted my next victim. The guy trying to look misunderstood, with a floppy head of hair. I went up to him and put my face directly across from his, our noses practically touching. I then pointed to the desk, implying that he should concentrate on his work. Then I found the urge to run my fingers through his hair. I followed that urge.
“Get outta here,” he said while swatting away my hand.
Feeling more comfortable, I hopped onto the stage that was no more than an inch higher than the floor. I began waving to each of the students in the class, stretching my mouth to portray the largest smile, I could physically handle.
“Are we in the right class?” I heard someone in the back say.
Oh for the love of God, are you guys idiots? I started getting frustrated and disheartened. How could they not get it?
I cleared my throat and fixed my posture. I pulled out an imaginary book from my back pocket and started flipping through the air pages trying to read my students a story of triumph- a rabbit forced to hop with only one leg.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, sit down!” The lady with red hair shouted from the back of the room, “Just what do you think you’re doing?”
I pushed my finger into my chest and looked behind me.
“Yes, you. What the Hell are you doing?”
“You told me to pretend to be the teacher.”
“And that’s pretending to be a teacher?”
“Well I could have done better but you said not to say anything.”
“I meant not to give away the secret. What is this, acting school for mutes? American Drama School for Quasimodo?”
“Well that’s not fair. Quasimodo never lost his hearing.”
“You can step down from the stage now. Take a seat.”
I awkwardly walked past her towards an empty chair. I had to brush bits of yellow paper off the seat before getting in place.
“Welcome to Drama 200. My name is Sandy and I will be your teacher. What I was trying to show you, and which did not at all work, did not even nearly brush the surface of what I was looking for, what I’d consider the saddest attempt, was an improv exercise.”
I hated Sandy.
The next week, when my group was taking stage with a scene from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”, I was quietly confident. I had religiously rehearsed the Three Witches scene the moment it was first handed to me.
This was my time to shine. This was my time to prove to my classmates that preparation and talent can produce a true star.
“Enter the three witches…and action!” Sandy yelled from her director’s chair.
“Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn, and caldron bubble,” we all said in unison.
My monologue was up first. “In the poison’d entrails throw. Toad, that under cold stone, days and night has thirty-one -”
The three of us froze on stage. There was silence until Sandy cleared her throat.
“Ashley, why do you have a German accent?”
“Oh was that uncalled for? I was trying something.”
“Do you know anything about Shakespeare? Because I’m assuming you don’t. British, Ashley. This is a British play.”
“Very well,” I said while taking a deep breath, “Let me just take a moment to prepare.”
“Get off the stage. All of you.”
My scene partners looked at me and rolled their eyes. I recall one of them even saying, “Thanks a lot.”
The three of us walked off the stage. Two of my cast-mates took their seats while I continued to walk to the door.
“Where are you going?” Sandy asked.
“To the bathroom.”
I exited the room and never went back.
“Feeeel the energy, class. THIS, this right here, is DA-RAAAMMMA. You drop the peeee-low, you must drop this class!”
Laine Sutton, my high school drama teacher, was by far my craziest acting teacher. Her famous warm-up exercise consisted of making the class play catch with a small, decorative pillow.
I looked at my best friend, Carly, who had been enrolled in the same drama classes throughout the years. I shrugged my shoulders and then whipped the pillow at her face.
“Daaaaaa-raammaaa,” I yelled while the pillow made it’s way through the air.
From my perspective, it became clear to me that while I enjoyed acting, I was not the best actor in the class. Every time I concentrated on my emotions in hopes of successfully completing a dramatic exercise, I’d get laughs. For instance, in the exercise “I Hate It When…” a person stands alone, in front of the room, under a spotlight and completes the phrase. It’s intended to bring out raw hate and passion.
It was my turn to walk away from darkness and into the light. I remember feeling the heat from the light on the back of my neck. I cleared my throat while looking down at my shoes, concentrating. I picked up my head and squinted towards the back of the room. I could not see any of my peers.
“I Hate It When…I’m sitting on the toilet in one of the stalls and some floozy keeps talking to me while she’s fixing her make-up. When I pee, I need to concentrate.”
Silence. And then giggles. And then a roar of laughter.
I walked out of the spotlight back into the darkness where no one could see the total humiliation on my face.
I must be horrendous. Because I was dead serious in saying that it takes concentration for me to pee.
But Ms. Sutton could not have disagreed more with my assumption. Letters, sent from Laine to my parents’ home, gave me all the evidence I needed. Ashley should further her studies as an actress. Or Ashley has a special aptitude for this subject.
But what surprised me even more was when she cast me as the lead in our high school’s production of “Little Women”.
“Okay, Gleyce you’ll be playing “Beth” because she dies. Carly you’re the prettiest so prepare for the role of “Amy”. We really don’t need a “Meg”. She was always too boring. And finally, Ashley. Ashley, you’re going to be our lead. Our, Jo.”
“Is it because I’m the most suited for a boy’s name?”
“Just get to rehearsal,” Laine responded.
High school play rehearsals were a joke. Other actors would do next period’s homework, while some would take the opportunity to sleep. From what I remember, Carly and I would memorize our lines, block, and then fill the remaining time with small talk.
I felt prepared for the upcoming show. But I was nervous, extremely nervous.
The day of the show, I walked into school with my costume and my hair done-up to look the part of “Jo”. I never wore make-up during my time at high school save for this day, so walking past any sort of reflective surface made my confidence rise to a great amount.
This is going to be a great performance.
The entire school was called in for a preview of the play. Standing off stage, in one of the wings, my heart would not settle down from my throat. I caught a glimpse of the filled theatre. Towards the back, kids would throw things at each other. I saw one freshman jokingly punch the arm of his friend next to him. A teacher running down the aisle took my attention from the back of the room. She whispered something into the ear of the principal. Together, the two staff members walked back up the aisle; my eyes followed their every step until I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“You’re up,” Ms. Sutton said to Carly, Gleyce, and me.
The three of us stepped on stage behind the blue, weathered curtain. I could hear the voices of my classmates begin to hush. The rope was pulled back and instantly, nothing separated us from the audience.
The beginning of our scene was meant for the three of us to unwrap gifts. Gleyce had the first line.
But she never said anything. She just stared at Carly and me. For five minutes, the three of us unwrapped imaginary gifts.
Someone in the audience coughed, sparking me to repair the situation.
“Beth, weren’t you going to say something about how you didn’t want anything for Christmas? How you thought people shouldn’t spend money when so many men are suffering in the army?”
She just blinked.
Carly then tried to help.
“Beth. Beth, you were going to say something, right? Better yet. Beth. Beth you are going to say something, right?”
For the next ten minutes, Carly and I were posing questions to Gleyce, trying to get her to mutter out the phrase we needed in order to start the important action.
No such luck. From the wing, Ms. Sutton herself pulled the rope and the curtains saved us from anymore belittlement.
I later heard from a friend that she thought the performance seemed avant-garde, ‘like two neurotic women from the olden days just discovered crack and were searching for more.’
After “Little Women”, I was never cast in a play again.
I’m staring at the television monitor and I let out a sigh. I roll my eyes to the back of my head before looking around the room.
Oh, please. You people can’t be buying this.
The actress on the television monitor is the actress sitting five feet away from me in my Acting For Camera class at NYU. She’s a thicker girl but has the type of face some would find absolutely breathtaking.
To me, I could already tell I hated her.
She begins to cry. And Joan Horvath, the critically acclaimed acting teacher, puts her arthritic, gnarled hands over her heart.
As a young woman, Joan struggled to become an actress. She was taught by some of the better-known teachers in the history of film and theater. Sandy Meisner and Lee Strasberg were her mentors and two of the reasons why she decided to stop acting to teach others.
Because of the influence put on Joan, she only teaches Method Acting– a technique in which the actor creates thoughts and emotions for their character, hoping to develop lifelike performances.
Joan is terrifying. She hobbles about on a cane and has worn the same black turtleneck and sweatpants for 85 years now. She’s 87.
Now the actress is sobbing. Along with her tears, her mascara is also running down her face. She comes to a pause, causing me to think she’s finished.
I put my hands together for one loud clap.
“SH!” Joan hisses to me from over her shoulder.
I want to throw the television monitor against the ground. I tell myself, this is such a typical NYU actress. So pretentious, so boastful. I bet she isn’t even majoring in drama.
She finishes her monologue and the room erupts with applause. She carefully wipes the tears from under her eyes and the one tear that hung from her nose.
“Sweetie, are you a drama major?” Joan asks.
“Why, yes. Yes I am.” Mariah, the featured actress, replied breathlessly.
“You can absolutely tell. What a wonderful job, sweetheart.”
Mariah sat down in the front row. Classmates on either side of her patted her knees in congratulations.
“Ashley Peter. You’re up next.”
I took my feet off the seat in front of me and stood up, beginning to make me way to the stage from the back of the room.
My face popped up on the television monitor.
“Can we zoom out a bit?” Joan asked, “A little bit more. A little bit more. More. Okay, that ought to do it.”
I looked at myself in the monitor and saw an image of me no larger than a needle.
“From what piece of art are you taking your monologue from, Ashley?”
I sat up in my seat confidently.
“’When Harry Met Sally’.”
I saw Joan roll her eyes. “Well, take it away.”
“Mmmmm….Ahhhh…Yes. Yes. YES. YES!!!!!!—“
“Okay, thank you,” Joan said in the middle of my monologue.
“Step down from the stool, Ms. Peter.”
“But I haven’t finished.”
“I’ve seen enough.”
“Maybe it’s the way I attacked the scene. Let me try a different approach.”
“Ashley, if my cane were longer, I’d wrap it around your neck and yank you off that stool. Now step down.”
Feeling perplexed, I stepped down from the stool.
“What is your major, Ashley?”
“Oh, well currently I’m double majoring in Dramatic Writing and Film and Television.”
“You’re a writer?”
“Yes. I’m a writer.”
“That’s what I thought,” Joan said as she turned her head to face the class. “Lets take a 5-minute break.”
I immediately ran down the hall because I knew Kimmie was in her screenwriting class. I jumped up and down, in front of the small window etched out in the door. Kimmie and I made eye contact. She got up from her seat and she met me outside.
“What’s the matter?”
“I just did my monologue. And she stopped me before I could finish, and oh God, the whole thing was just so embarrassing.”
“What was your monologue?”
“A scene from ‘When Harry Met Sally’.”
“Oh, no. You did the orgasm scene, didn’t you?”
“Well of course I did the orgasm scene. It’s the best part!”
“Okay, I’m going to go back to class now.”
“Hey, now. Why the rush?”
“Because you don’t think. Actors want a meaty role, Ash. Your teacher wants you to pick a meaty role. To be taken seriously, you’re going to need a meaty role. The orgasm scene in ‘When Harry Met Sally’ is not a meaty.”
“All this talk about meat is really getting me hungry,” I joked.
Kimmie turned around and went back to her classroom.
I returned to Joan’s classroom only to be met by her outside. We stared at each other for a while.
“I’ll switch out?” I asked her.
She brought her cane up to her chin and rested her weight on the back of the door, never taking her eyes off mine.
“That would be best, wouldn’t it?”
And with that, I got my bag from the classroom and made my way to Registrar to sign up for another elective.
The next day, I walked into my new class, Writing the Screenplay, with professor, Josh Cohen. A blank composition pad and sharpened pencil occupied my hands. Josh closed the door behind the last student to enter.
“Okay, lets start writing,” he said.
And with those instructions, I had never felt more like a leading lady.