The conundrum of being ourselves

During my second term at drama school, we had to face Shakespeare. All the students were frantic as agents from the RSC would be in the audience, scouting for new talent. There were tears after rehearsals. The toilets stank with the remnants of our nervous stomachs.

I was cast as Hermione in The Winter’s Tale. Here I am, entertaining my husband’s best friend, who I feel at ease with: he is jovial, whereas my husband is serious. I am pregnant and suddenly my husband gets it into his head that the baby isn’t his, but his friend’s. I’m put on trial.

My lord you are mistaken, I say.

Each time in rehearsals, the director would shout: stop, stop, you’re being too cautious. Be innocent, not defensive!

But I didn’t know what it was to conduct yourself on the conviction of your heart in the face of an accusation. My whole life I’d been pursued by teachers, headmasters, headmistresses – told I wasn’t working hard enough, or that I was being wilfully disruptive. I had no power against these charges. It never crossed my mind, as a ten year old, to say – but this is me, not naughty, not wayward, simply how I am, trying as best I can.

Instead, I nodded, said I was sorry: I would try harder. When the scolding finished, I staggered away, the muscles in my body, tightening to contain whatever was wrong inside me. I didn’t know how to work harder, or concentrate more. All I could do was to stop being myself.

 Gabriela Blandy

All through rehearsals of The Winter’s Tale, I can’t get it right.

Wait! the director says, her nostrils wide and dark. The friend of your husband is someone you feel comfortable with – relax with him.

I try again.

But don’t flirt! comes the next instruction – you have to simply show great ease and hosting skills.

A deep, historic anger is growing inside me. I begin to hate the director – simply to look at her makes me livid. I want to perform the final show appallingly – even though this is my one chance to act in front of representatives from the RSC.

 Gabriela Blandy

Guiltless! the director shouts, the skin on the underside of her chin, quivering.

Stop trying! she hisses, and I stare at a drop of spit, which has settled on her lip.

Read the speech again! she says, clicking her fingers and I imagine walking right up to her and slapping her across the face, slapping the world for putting me in a box I didn’t belong for so much of my childhood so that now I’m unable to be who I want.

 Gabriela Blandy

The other week, I was bending down to get something out of my rucksack when my back went into spasm. This is often the way it is for me – shaking my hair after a shower, lying down on a picnic rug, suddenly feeling a sharp twinge in the lower part of my spine, above my right butt cheek. It’s like a pod of fear.

What’s wrong with me? it wants to know.

It came at university as deadlines loomed and I feared my coursework wouldn’t be good enough. Suddenly the pressure on the base of my spine becomes too much – it is not simply my upper body that I am supporting, but expectations that are beyond me.

The stage was a place I felt free – a source of happiness.

But at drama school this was shattered.

I had to be true if I was to become a great actress, but I was too caught up in the notion of being something I wasn’t – something more. Once again, I was getting it wrong, but the way I had survived in the past, wasn’t working. I had to be myself, but this was a person I hadn’t visited for so long, I didn’t know how to find my way back.

I tried, as if playing a game, fitting shapes into slots, hoping to find something that fit. This great conundrum.

Hard to understand that being ourselves – which should be the most natural thing in the world, simply a case of opening our eyes, breathing, being – is so difficult. What is it that gets in the way?

For me, I’d grown up burdened with expectations – those of my parents, my teachers. They saw something in my future, but they never noticed the girl in front of them. Only I could see that. But I was unable to decipher what I observed.

Each day at drama school, I was followed by an echo. I took a step, delivered a line, followed an instruction, and the echo was the same: am I doing it right?

I became desperate because of my inability to answer the question. It’s only now that I know the echo is not the real me talking, and doesn’t need answering. Maybe one day it will fade entirely. Though, I suspect that to actively strive for that silence is to follow a wrong path – that of struggling, rather than simply allowing. For now, when the question comes, I remind myself words are not important, only the feeling beneath them, which is where my true self lies.

Gabriela Blandy

When the day of the performance arrived, I finally became Hermione. I felt the audience – their energy, their thoughts, their emotion. It was all in the atmosphere. And just like guiding a seed-head through the air with your hands, I held their attention in my pauses, my gestures. There was this tiny moment where I felt my fear, because the part was so challenging – and the director’s voice was in my head: no, stop, again! but I felt my impulse to open myself up so that I came from my belly, unimpeded.

I was chosen by the RSC scout to come and audition for them.

My head floated up high above my body in a way I never thought it would – feeling for so long that I had been failing at drama school, that I wasn’t the actress I’d been made to believe I was.

Then I discovered that I had to sing a solo for the audition.

I couldn’t sing and already I knew I wouldn’t be chosen.

Gabriela Blandy

When my lower spine went into spasm, I stood up from my rucksack and undressed to my underwear as I was sweating badly. I lay some cushions on my deck outside and tried to relax.

After an hour, I decided to get up, but the pain was so acute I couldn’t even sit. I tried turning onto my side. Fire rushed through my pelvis and I flopped back down, staring at the sky. This bright blue summer we’re having, which has changed the mood of everything. I looked at the branches of the eucalyptus, bowing in the breeze, and I thought to myself: can I really not get up – is it really so painful? For a moment I wasn’t sure who was making the decisions – the real me or the frightened child. Eventually, I began to need the toilet so I tried again. That’s when I knew. Despite really having to get somewhere, I still couldn’t move.

I thought about what I tell my students in my public speaking workshops – all you have to do is breathe. So, that’s what I did. I took deep, long breaths. The pain was there – catastrophic, but I just tried to focus on the breath. I managed to make it onto all fours, but I knew I wasn’t going to be able to stand. I crawled to the bathroom, and at this stage I was fairly desperate. In the last few moments I dragged myself up, onto the seat, and just about managed to slide my pants to the side so I could pee.

Afterwards, my breath came in shudders, in and out – flames at the base of my spine, in my pelvis, my legs shaking – my chest full of emotion, the ache of tears in my cheeks. Still, I asked myself: is it really this painful?

I moved just an inch to try to stand up – but the pain was so bad I made a long sound, wailing.

I tipped back, holding the toilet seat, supporting my upper body weight. I sat there. Staring at myself in the mirror. Several minutes went by. I thought about the hurt that started in my back when I was at drama school, which contained one word.


Why can’t I do this?

Beneath that was a whole life of blame – blame for everyone who hadn’t allowed me to be myself, for everyone who had misunderstood my actions. Who interpreted my love of life, adventure, my need to explore, for wilful disobedience. I was so busy blaming and asking why, I didn’t realise that the only way to be myself is to be myself. Nobody is stopping me, but my own misconception.

 Gabriela Blandy

As I sit on the toilet, unable to move, staring at myself in the mirror, I remember the song from that audition – how hard I tried to ignore the fear I wasn’t good enough.

With my pelvis as tense as it is, my belly hardly moves. When I try to breathe, my diaphragm only shifts in miniscule increments so that my lungs barely fill. I pant in short bursts. But I sing. The sound comes out weak, quivering, but I don’t hear what’s wrong. All I hear is the truth, which is that I’m in great pain. Singing like this isn’t about being excellent, it’s about expressing something: agony, the edge of tears, home alone, stuck on the toilet.

If I’d gone to that audition and embraced how I truly felt it wouldn’t have mattered how I sang, because they would have seen someone who knew themselves – able to connect to whatever it is inside them, good or bad, perfect or imperfect. Maybe then I would have got the part.

I was so busy trying to get it right that I never gave myself a chance to say: but who am I really?

I was acting like all those teachers had acted my whole life, expecting something, rather than seeing what was actually there – trusting that would be better than anything.

This is all I am, just this.

I am no more than this.

 Gabriela Blandy

About gabrielablandy

Some history, a bit of fiction, with me in there somewhere.
This entry was posted in Essay, Memoir and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

44 Responses to The conundrum of being ourselves

  1. mrkelly2u says:

    Hi Gabriela. Enjoyed this post, really emotive and I like how you have used the present tense in some sections to increase the drama. Very well written.

    Having had a stab at acting in my late teens/early twenties I can definitely relate to that feeling of not quite being able to hit the right emotional notes. For me, it was all about a lack of maturity and real world experience. I had a DREADFUL experience when I auditioned at RADA, and one day (if I can bring myself to open the wound) I may write a post about it!

    • Thanks for your comment – apologies for my slow response, the back pain has meant very limited work at my desk recently! You should write about your experience at RADA – I certainly agree that maturity and experience in the world has improved my acting skills, and that the main reason I struggled so much when I was training is that I hadn’t spent enough of my life observing the world.

  2. Gabs – tears – and for once I do not know how to respond to you. I envisaged a tree standing tall as you seem to be, to me, in all facets of your life. A tree whose branches reached far and beyond and capable of the strongest winds that blow, but then storms are overpowering and striving to keep boughs and limbs tall and straight instead of bending like a willow…. does this make sense? I too know of your pain in your back, I suffered badly after the birth of my first daughter that I army crawled along the floor to the bathroom and needed an ambulance and traction and morphine shots to correct it. You know who you are – with your writing. I felt your pain through this, you are the tall tree but you are also allowed to be the willow. {{hugs}} xxx

    • Aw, Jen, thanks for your words here. I like your images of those two trees – my boughs are drooping, but in a way it seems like a braver thing to allow that to happen, rather than struggle to keep them up. Slow progress with the back. Lots of time, lying on the floor, contemplating life. I did appreciate your hug! xx

      • Hello gorgeous. It was a gentle hug so not too hurt your back 🙂 Get better soon so I can read and marvel at your posts once again xx

      • It was a perfect hug! Have just managed to get something new online about Jane Austen, as everyone is talking about her at the moment because she is going to be on our new £10. I hope you are well. I’ve got a doctor’s appointment now (hoping to get a referral for an MRI scan) and then i shall come home and catch up on some of my favourite bloggers!

      • Really Jane? If only she knew…. 🙂 Hope you get the MRI and get your back worked out..I know back pain…ugh bloody terrible…be well lovely and will wait for your return 🙂 xx

  3. Judith Marriott says:

    I hadn’t realised HOW bad the pain was when you were unable to come to Salisbury – I am SO sorry – it sounded frightening. I would so love to talk to you about this blog – I often feel very protective of you when you are SO open and reveal your innermost feelings – I just want to wrap you up and tell you that you are very much more than OK!!!!!!!!! Hopefully we will meet soon. much love Ju xx

    • Hi Ju – thanks for your sympathy. Yes, it was rather bad. It had improved, but I’m still very much out of action, which is hard for me, being as active as I am. But I also think these challenges come for a reason. So, I am trying to accept my limited mobility and process everything in the abundance of quiet time I now have. g xx

  4. Love the words, and the images….brilliant!

  5. diannegray says:

    This is another beautifully written piece, Gabriela. What an inspiration you are!

  6. Letizia says:

    What a touching piece, Gabriela. I like what you write about finally becoming Hermione, about it happening when you felt the audience’s energy and the atmosphere of the theatre. So often we feel most ourselves when in the moment, rather than in anticipation.

    I hope you are feeling better or at least in less pain – I’m sending good energy your way!

    • Yes, you are so right Letizia about the difference between being in the moment and the half reality of anticipation. Thanks for the energy! I am certainly a little more mobile – now able to sit at my desk and tend to my blog – but it’s slow progress.

  7. laurasmess says:

    Gabriela, you always bare everything in your memoirs. I can feel your pain, the sweat dripping down your brow, the psychological stress, tears and pressure. You write so darn well. Sorry to hear that playing Hermione was such a trying experience. I went to drama school for a while as well, and directors can be well-intentioned but cruel at times. I guess the continued ‘pushing’ leads us to strive for perfection, but… well, when it causes so much personal stress I question whether it’s worth it. I hope you’re not experiencing the pain in your back any more. I would’ve called an ambulance if I found you wincing in the toilet stall! Sending you hugs. Brilliant, brilliant work. I guess the redeeming aspect of this experience is that it’s wonderful fuel for honest, raw prose. Love xx

    • Hey Laura – thanks so much for this feedback. You’ve pointed out a cycle I often wonder about, which is the pushing, striving and then wondering whether it is worth it when that all turns to stress! Your compliments about my writing so make me think that some of this ordeal is worth it, but it’s hard not being as mobile as I would like.

  8. candidkay says:

    Odd how our bodies always give us away, isn’t it? I’ve been reading up on EMDR and it seems to help immensely for those with chronic stress responses. Amazing the brain/body connection.

    • I’d never heard of EMDR – but after googling it I’ve found it very interesting. The brain/body connection is truly amazing! I’ve taken this back pain as a sign that I clearly need to spend some quiet time, relaxing. I find it interesting that it has coincided with the end of my teaching year so I have plenty of time to heal.

  9. “It came at university as deadlines loomed and I feared my coursework wouldn’t be good enough. Suddenly the pressure on the base of my spine becomes too much – it is not simply my upper body that I am supporting, but expectations that are beyond me.”

    I always believed in excelling /overachieving, without questioning my motives. I’ve recently come to realize a great part of it has to do with distancing myself from any possible criticism. A defense mechanism. The downside being … if I cannot do it well I won’t do it at all.

    For the last six months I’ve gotten into a morning exercise routine that has enabled me to stay on top of life the majority of the time. Now that I have this swollen knee I miss the relaxing effect of a morning swim to start off each day.

    Hope you recover soon Gabriela.

    P.S. Today I discovered a comfortable sitting position that enables me to use my laptop without putting too much strain on my legs or back area. Each victory no matter how small is still a victory.

    • That idea of distancing oneself from criticism really resonated with me, Vincenzo. I am also intrigued about your sitting position. I am only now venturing back to my desk, planning to try a little each day – not too much as I don’t want to end up where I was a few weeks ago!!

      • Last week I felt a sense of despair/helplessness as we as teachers have to face a numerical quantitative evaluation as teachers at the end of each year from one to 4. The feeling of being observed and graded goes against ever fiber of my being. I struggle in an ongoing way with feeling never quite good enough. It used to be one of the recurring themes in my dreams.

      • Just when you published this post, the institution I work for has adopted a way of grading teacher performance as a way of maintaining quality. Personally, I believe it promotes performancism more than quality. It feels as if teachers are now evaluated like students and each year the difference between the two seems more blurred.

  10. So much. So warm. So heavy. So straight up.

  11. I read every word with the same intensity that you always evoke in me….
    Truth always hit the spot !
    But to get to you… do you find it helps with the pain to make a noise, and groan it out.?.. after all you/we have been suppressing our pain all our lives… it’s time the pain was given its voice…it’s always been smothered before…do hope you do find a way through… there is a lovely whacky thing called NSA which I love – Neuro spinal adjustment , which entails energy. not physical adjustment…

    • You’re right about truth, Valerie. I also agree with the whole sound thing. I’ve always included a period of sound making in my meditation practice, which I find both healing and a way to keep all the right muscles worked for the workshops on voice that I teach. I’ve not heard of NSA, but I do have Sacro Cranial therapy, which also works with energy. It has been amazing with my back, and although I am not back to total fitness, I am getting there. Thanks for your visit 😉

  12. Gorgeous! And, then you just brought us all home at the end with…”This is all I am, just this. I am no more than this.”

    • I’m glad you liked that end bit, Britt. I wasn’t sure if it was too much, but I just had to put it in. It’s funny, people are always saying – but your posts are so honest, how do you bear it? But the fact is, unless I write the total truth I feel uncomfortable about it because it’s not real, and therefore feels trivial in some way.

  13. gotasté says:

    There is this saying in Chinese that “the world is a stage, and everyone of us are actors”. I think that happens to everyone until we realize who we really are, then we won’t have to act anymore. And when I am in the army, my commanders will always say “no pain, no gain” “it’s all in your mind”. Now I do realize it does not only apply during army but very much in life. Your writing always touch me from within. My comments may not be relevant like others but I am just being myself. 🙂 Thank you Gabriela.

    • Danny – your comments are completely relevant!! I always love hearing from you. You are so right when you say that the moment you realise who you are there is no need to act anymore. I also suspect that much of this back problem is in my mind – I certainly find that although i can take painkillers, which ease the pain, after a bit of time spent meditating and calming my mind I have the same effect. Thanks for stopping by – always love seeing you here 😉

  14. I could feel the pain of this post – not only the physical, but the mental anguish of your ‘why’? I do hate the way others’ expectations of us can change the course of our lives and who we are meant to be. But then, perhaps who we’re meant to be is shaped by who we have to become because of those, until we eventually come back to our true selves.

    • Lovely thoughts, Andrea. I suspect that the expectations of others is a test to see how badly we want to be our own selves. I have to say, in terms of the pain you felt in this post, it certainly helped eased some of my discomfort to write it!

  15. Chris Edgar says:

    I appreciated the irony of a ten-year-old who has never had the experience of making an autonomous choice being asked to act as if she is making one in a play. I think I had a similar experience significantly later in life, when it came time to graduate from college and make a career choice. I had excelled at anticipating my professors’ expectations and following them to the letter, and my school rewarded me for this. I was praised for never making an autonomous choice and for being a chameleon — how could I be reasonably expected to decide upon “work,” my “relationship,” my “lifestyle”? I think I’m only now discovering what that really means.

    • I’m glad you’re another ‘late starter’! I wonder if others like us – who were good at following others’ expectations – are mostly artists, where our impulses are more unconventional, so it takes time to understand them to then be able to act on them. They certainly don’t teach you how to follow your heart or imagination at school, it’s something you have to work out on your own. I’m slowly getting there!!

  16. Excellent as always, I love how you can jump about between different times without losing us, we know where you are and what you’re going through. I’ve always struggled a lot with acting, I get so hung up on how I’m going to be perceived that I can’t get myself out of the way and just be. I’m so sorry about your back pain, I’ve packaged up some virtual healing within this message, it’s coming to you as soon as I hit ‘Post Comment’ ready? Here it comes…

    • I’m glad you manage to stay with the bouncing narrative – each time I post I always wonder if it’s going to work! I forgot that you were an actor. Yes, the idea of being trapped in that state of where you can’t stop worrying about how you will be perceived is one I can relate to in my acting. So liberating when you finally break free of that. I remember they used to talk about it as ‘status’ as drama school – as in you should never worry about lowering your status for a part. Thanks for the virtual healing! I am not able to spend a little time at my desk, catching up on all the gorgeous comments such as yours.

  17. I always love your posts. They are always deliciously full of content but as I read I just started to get worried about your back and hoping that everything was Ok. As for the drama teacher. What an idiot. I’ve come across a few people like that in my time, and I always wonder if the fates put certain people in authority just to exercise their sense of humour: there seems to be no other function in it.

    • Thanks for the ‘deliciously full of content’ – that really made me smile. As for the back – well these things happen, and usually for a reason. It’s slow progress, and not easy, but I am learning some good lessons in acceptance! I like your theory on why some certain idiotic people get to positions of authority!!

  18. Beautifully painful, moving and very present all at once. Well expressed!

    • Eileen, thanks for much for your kind words. I am now just spending a little time back at my desk, and it has been very heartwarming to read kind messages such as yours. I am glad to have my writing appreciated on this level.

  19. Mayumi-H says:

    This story of a girl’s broken spirit rising and falling again – how do you manage to look right inside to the heart of me, every time, Gabriela? I’m sitting here in tears because your words bring back all that pain of not knowing who was the good student, who was the fast runner, who was the little performer, and who was just *me*. Are we all these wonderful, beautiful, terrified and terrifying creatures, both omnipotent gods and wretched monsters of our own creation? When do we finally know it’s safe to let go and not try to act but simply be? Does it ever happen? I hope so.

    It’s so damned easy to let our characters be themselves. “To your own self, be true,” we tell them, and use them to show our readers the value of self-honesty, even when one is not a hero. Yet, we put down that pen and immediately try to be something we’re not. Maybe you don’t. I do. I know I do. Why is it so hard to learn the lesson of forgiveness and understanding of ourselves? Why can’t we just buck up and go to that audition even though we know the notes won’t hit on-key. It’s about truth, right? Connection through performance is just as much about honesty as it is about quality. Or, I guess, quality can come from honesty. I’m rambling.

    There’s so much for me to think about, here. I’m glad that girl waved that performance in her director’s face, but I can’t help feeling a bit lost at how human she was to fear that next audition. Maybe what I need to take away from this right now is that there’s a balance between expectations and triumphs. Big expectations, like ladders to heaven. Little triumphs, each one a climbed rung. Just keep climbing, I guess.

    • Mayumi – thanks for your lovely words here. I’m glad that this post provided so much! I think letting go and simply being is one of the hardest things. Firstly, you have to be self-aware enough to realise the difference between trying and allowing – then you have to go through the pain of discovering that being yourself is very difficult and that you have to slay all the demons that are preventing you from being yourself. As I say in the post, getting caught up in the blame game will not move your forward. So although we can point the finger at what is stopping us being ourselves, we have to be honest and take the ultimate responsibility. It’s a hard journey. For me, I find that I can touch my true self on my out breaths. I breath in, and then as I let the air go I try to investigate how I feel, or how the mechanics feels. There’s a point when there is no air left, but you continue to imagine breathing out, and then in that moment – before taking another breath – I feel the art of letting go. Takes a bit of practice, but it’s worth it 😉

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