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Were you born with it?

“SAFE. SOFT. (147/365)” by Tim Pierce is licensed under CC by 2.0

I’m six years old, first grade, PE. We’re trying softball for the first time and I want to swing that bat so badly I can barely stand it. I’m obsessed, like some mouth-breathing drunk across the room who can’t stop staring. But I’ve never swung a bat, and even at six, I don’t want to look like I don’t know how, so I quietly blend into the background. I don’t even try.

Why would admitting you don’t know how to do something feel like failure? To a six year old? It’s not like you’re born knowing how to swing a bat.

This is something I end up doing, over and over, for most of my life. I don’t want to admit I don’t know how to do something because I can’t stand the thought of making myself that vulnerable. And for most of my life I let that get in the way of doing some of the things I want to do most.

Maybe it’s the family of artists who raised you to believe that you’re either born with it or you’re not – although they’re talking about talent. And they never do clue you in as to whether you were, in fact, born with it.

Maybe it’s the hyper-competitive schools where admitting you don’t know how to do something is a ticket to eye rolls and ostracization.

“You don’t know how to do that? What are you, a baby?” You might as well be the kid who wet yourself in home room.

Or, maybe it’s your first work environment where if you don’t know how to do something some other intern gunning for a salary is willing to lie and say they do.

“Me? I know how to do everything. I was born that way.”

I was not born that way, but I’m only just willing to admit that now. And this is between us, so keep it to yourself.

Although, lately I’ve had to admit not knowing how to do things because I need help from my friends who do. And I’m sure you’re thinking, if you can’t be vulnerable with your friends, who can you be?

No one. I can be vulnerable with no one. Unless I’m on stage, and that’s an entirely different thing, and the subject of this story [LINK].

So what’s bringing on this sudden and masochistic thirst for knowledge?

Getting your first show ready for Edinburgh Fringe has that effect. You encounter a litany of things you don’t know how to do, at least if you’re me. You’re on very real deadlines to produce very good work or you have the potential to fail in a very big way. It’s unsettling in a way that encourages you to try new things.

Like real world vulnerability.

So you don’t ask yourself, how could I have reached middle age and not know how to do these things? You already know the answer to that question.

But just as an example, when I’m 20 years old, I’m in a play in New York City. I’ve made my way in with the cool crowd, which is both awesome and high maintenance. You know them: the hot theater girl with legs from floor to ceiling, the super-talented, triple-threat guy, the cool, British, my-dad-is-a-West-End-producer guy.

Then there’s the other crowd, who is really just one person: the enthusiastic, wants-to-learn-everything-about-theater geeky guy.

Geeky guy says, “I can’t wait to graduate and go to a really good acting school.”

Triple-threat guy and hot theater girl whisper in unison  –  and out of earshot of geeky guy  –  ”Ugh, acting school. You’re either born with it or you’re not.”

Twenty-year-old Dean quietly makes note to self: “Acting school = not born with it.”

And 23-year-old Dean gives up on acting because he has no idea how to make something like that work in the real world, but he isn’t going to admit that out loud. So he doesn’t go to class and he doesn’t learn those things that would probably be extremely valuable when getting a show ready for Edinburgh.

That much-younger Dean has a luxury that I do not. Time. So I get over myself and ask my friends for help. Help with writing. Help with acting. Help with promotion. Help with all of it because I basically know nothing.

This week I ask a friend to help me understand why I’m doing this. Why this show? Why now? Why Edinburgh?

I aim high because I think that will push me that much harder. This friend is a reporter who has interviewed some of the most prominent artists of the past 100 years. Household names, assuming yours is a house with an interest in art. She’s reluctant because she knows what this means, how hard she’ll have to be on me. She’s one of the toughest people I know, so I won’t get away with any bullshit.

As someone who never wanted to admit not knowing how to do something, bullshit became my greatest skill. And I am very good at it. As someone who reads my work, you might already know this about me.

But no one is good enough to bullshit an old school, tough-as-balls reporter with no patience for it like my friend. That’s apparent from the moment we sit down.

“That’s bullshit,” is the very first thing she says. “You’re telling me the same tired thing that everyone says. I hear that and I’m moving on to the next person because there’s nothing to see here. What makes you worth my time?”

Up to this point of my life, I haven’t been able or willing to answer tough questions about who I am or what I want. It’s too vulnerable, and I’ve been too afraid to discover once and for all whether I was born with it.

Going there hurts, but I’m realizing that hurt is a growing pain. And while I didn’t expect growing pains in middle age, the urgency of time passing me by makes them a lot more tolerable.

I’m also realizing that when you admit you don’t know something, people who do become surprisingly generous with their knowledge. To think of all the things I could have learned in all those years. But this piece isn’t about regrets. It’s about avoiding them.

Why this show? Why now? Why Edinburgh?

Because if I don’t do this now, then I never will. Because I created this show to take to Edinburgh. Because, this show isn’t an end, it’s the start of what I wanted but gave up at 23. Because Edinburgh is the greatest performing arts festival in the world and I need to prove myself there.

And because I couldn’t tell this story when it happened. I would have been humiliated and ostracized. But telling it now isn’t embarrassing for me. I’m over it. Although it might just be embarrassing for the US Department of Justice.

So I’m coming out of the closet as someone who doesn’t know how to do this. And I’m learning that’s how you get it done.

Dean Temple’s comedy solo show Voice of Authority, a true story
 about getting sued by the US Dept of Justice for $19 million and saved
 by the choreographer of the Metropolitan Opera, will be at 59E59 Theaters in NYC Jul 17–21, and at Surgeon’s Hall at Edinburgh Fringe Aug 2–24. Follow him on Twitter
@deantemple, Instagram @thatdeantemple, and follow the show on facebook.com/deantemplevoa

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90 miles from stardom

(Pictured, left to right, my grandfather, Baba, great grandfather, and great aunt, and me, center, the disappointing, lazy three year old who has yet to compose his first opera)

It’s a two-hour long train ride into the city to perform for five minutes, and after you’ve finished your dinner – a much-too-salty bag of cashews from the Rite Aid because it’s the only place open at Grand Central at midnight – you hop the train home and become the guy sleeping across three seats of some stranger’s Instagram, generating outrage from a couple hundred of their followers over all that privilege you have.

It’s probably not the right time to ask them to buy tickets to your show, although at the moment I’ll try anything because I have hundreds of seats to fill, and nobody else knows who I am.

If you know me, I’ve already let you know how each one of those seats is generating another layer of panic, and that’s why a friend texts me: “It’s hard to be a star.”

It just so happens to be my birthday when she does, and the magic of Facebook’s database has me on one of those social-media-induced narcissist spin cycles.

So many people remembering my birthday? I am a star!

That lasts a blissful 15, maybe 20 seconds. Then I start to come down and the voice in my head kicks in, the one I named my show after, the voice of authority: you are in no way a star.

That’s why you’re on the train at 2am, you schmuck.

No social-media ego fix can change that reality. And my friend’s text takes on another layer. It’s hard to be a star. I feel that acutely in this moment. Maybe you know that feeling of being confounded by finding, and keeping, an audience. It’s hardly exclusive to acting, every business has to do the same thing, and it’s fundamental to success. There is no stardom without an audience. And no cash flow either.

Maybe that’s obvious, maybe I’m just thick, but at no point in my life as a developing artist has anyone ever explained this to me. Not in the arts in high school. Not at Columbia. Not in any of the study I’ve done since I graduated.

But my friend, she just got her MFA from Brown. Maybe they taught her something no one taught me. Not even my family. I grew up in a family of artists. No one mentioned this. The only thing they ever talked about was that I should do something else because I didn’t have the work ethic to make it in this business.

I work 14-hour days. Often. Often four of them are on the train.

To my family the development of craft is everything. My Ukrainian grandmother, Baba, for instance, was a concert pianist who studied at the Vienna Conservatory. In my childhood she’s at the piano from the time I wake in the morning until the end of the day. And what she sees in me she calls лінивий, the Ukie word for lazy. Give me a break, Baba, I’m six years old and it’s summer vacation.

Baba may have been intense, but I miss her every day.

She comes to see me in a play in NYC when I’m 20. Afterwards she takes me aside and says: “Everything else that you’re doing is the wrong thing. This is what you’re meant to do.”

As an influential member of the Ukrainian diaspora, Baba had a ready-made audience. If she did something, the Ukrainian community showed up. In droves.

I never really thought about it, but I suppose Baba built that audience. She contributed to that community enormously. She taught lessons, organized a festival that just passed its 50th year, fought to preserve the Ukrainian culture and language, and helped create an 11-volume encyclopedia on Ukrainian music defined by region. She gave, and they gave back.

I’ve never found a community like that for myself. Maybe my grandmother is right, maybe I don’t work hard enough. Or rather, I haven’t worked hard enough at some things because I’ve never understood until now how important they are.

When you look at people who succeed today, who build these massive social media followings, it’s easy to dismiss what they do. You can call it dumb, or shallow, or pandering to the masses, but then you’re selling them short for how hard it is to be star. Each one of those people has found and kept an audience. They’ve learned how to communicate in a way that makes people feel like they are a part of something, like my grandmother’s Ukrainian community. And they do the work required to sustain that on a daily basis.

That’s really hard. Now that I’m struggling to learn that myself, I’m awed by how hard it is. But I can find solace in my friend’s text, because I can hear in it how much she believes in me. And I can hear my grandmother’s voice through her, pushing me to work harder because this is what I was meant to do.

Dean Temple’s comedy solo show Voice of Authority, a true story about getting sued by the US Dept of Justice for $19 million and saved by the choreographer of the Metropolitan Opera, will be at the Kraine Theater in NYC Feb 21-Mar 9 (Tickets»), at 59E59 Theaters in NYC Jul 17-21, and at Surgeon’s Hall at Edinburgh Fringe Aug 2-24. Follow him on Twitter @deantemple and follow the show on facebook.com/deantemplevoa

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Reviews

Voice of Authority delivers a good helping of comedy and masterful solo performance. An entertaining and thought-provoking show. – Fringe Review UK

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About Dean

Dean is an actor, writer, and creative director based in NYC and the Hudson Valley. His solo show, Voice of Authority, will be at the Phoenicia Playhouse, July 5, at 59E59 Theaters, July 17-21, and at Edinburgh Fringe, Aug 2-24, in 2019.

He has appeared on the stage at Carnegie Hall (Mr. Richard in Fannie Lou the Musical), as well as designed installations there for VDAY through his company, Drake Creative Collaborative.

He also serves as board president for The Art Effect, a nonprofit where youth learn to explore, experience, and excel in the arts and arts-related fields.