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Labels/Limits

When I was at KCACTF a few weeks ago, part of Stew’s keynote address was about labels. His argument was that we limit ourselves by labeling ourselves–that he thought of himself as a musician and not a writer and therefore shut himself off from opportunity until he took the label away. While I was listening to the keynote, part of me was too angry that one of his examples boiled down to “male singers have sex too” to process the thought. But. Setting aside the context and the fragile masculinity. It’s a good thought.

I’ve realized that, even as I roll my eyes at the idea of anyone being one thing–after all, we’re all vastly more than any one thing–I do label myself. In one sense, that’s something I welcome. I’m actually quite proud of being a playwright (and finally “out” as a playwright, embracing it as my primary occupation) and am very excited to label myself as such, introduce myself that way, hand out business cards that say that. I feel more myself. But what I’m starting to be concerned about is what I label myself as NOT. Mostly: “Oh, I’m not an actor.” And sometimes: “I’m not a teacher right now.” Etc.

Let me think about acting first. Well, I’m at a conservatory with a lot of people who are solely focusing on being actors right now, so it makes sense that I acknowledge their dedication to that by noting that I’m not doing that. But. I’ve acted a bit. I was in a Shakespeare acting company for four years in college. I like acting. It’s not my first priority right now, but that doesn’t mean I can’t own the fact that I have a basic talent for translating words from page to sound and action. So maybe I should stop inserting “Oh, but I’m not an actor” into the conversation whenever someone suggests I might be good at it.

But what also interests me is the slash in the “Playwright/Educator” phrasing on my business card. I’m both a playwright and an educator. That’s unmistakable. If you want to get logistical about it, I’m about to have graduate degrees in both subjects. I actually love the fact that I am (and have been, and will continue to be) both a playwright and an educator. But when I talk to people who knew me only as a teacher, I feel awkward introducing myself as a playwright. They’re startled that I’m in grad school for writing. (To be fair, this is only people who didn’t know me well, because I’ve been writing and staging plays for a while.) And when I tell fellow theater artists that I was a teacher before this MFA, I sometimes feel a subtle shift, a “oh, you’re actually that.

Why is it so hard to accept that we’re all more than one thing? Maybe part of it is the assumption that, to do any one thing, one has to dedicate one’s whole life to training in it. (That’s what a famous dancer said to me in college when, in my second year of dancing, I dared to call myself a “dancer.”) But although I think there’s validity and unmistakable value in dedicated training–after all, I’m in an MFA–I think we can’t shut ourselves off from more than one identity. Maybe “more than one aspect of an identity” is a better phrase. Every day, my teaching influences my playwriting influences my acting influences my being as a person influences my playwriting. And that’s more than okay. That’s wonderful.

Writing is and will always be my baseline. Even as I explain the glory of multiplicity, I feel the need to say that, to express what is most essential to my sense of self. But the other aspects of my being can harmonize with my writing, and that enriches me.

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