Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Universe In My Backyard

At her father's funeral, my friend, Aushra, spoke of their shared love of science fiction and how her father never lost his sense of wonder. In particular, she mentioned how they had an agreement that if the aliens ever happened to land in the backyard or the TARDIS should materialize in the kitchen, get on that ship and go see the universe. Don't wait to ask permission or say goodbye. All would be understood.

When I was younger, the Chicago Tribune Magazine had this section where they published a profile of an actor/musician/writer/politician who had been given the same set of questions to answer. The questions tended to be information based (date of birth, place of birth, what they are working on now, what is in their refrigerator, etc.) However, there was one which stood out for me. It was: "If I couldn't be an actor/musician/writer/politician I would be blank." It probably goes without saying that I expected I would one day be asked to fill one of these profiles out and, just as I had already practiced my speech which began with the words "I would like to thank the Academy...", I had most of my answers planned. Obviously it was impossible to know exactly what I would be "working on now" when the time came, or, for that matter, what would be in my refrigerator. However, I had decided that in my profile would say "If I couldn't be an actor, I would be a: Time Lord."

I would be embarrassed to admit that except, well, it pretty much tells you everything you need to know about what I was like at fifteen. Ambitious and incredibly geeky. I truly believed this was an extremely clever answer. I can only hope that, in the parallel universe(s) where I did become a supremely successful actress (oh, they exist don't you tell me they don't) I either wised up or one of my many handlers stopped me from supplying this answer. (Of course, I think the Tribune Magazine stopped running those profiles when I was in college so, quantum physics aside, this is probably a moot point.)

Also, in all honesty, I never actually wanted to be the Time Lord who owned the TARDIS, I wanted to be a companion. A companion like Romana who looked like Lynda Carter and was a Time Lord in her own right, but a companion nevertheless.

In retrospect, that is far more embarrassing than the Time Lord answer because, as an adult, I have always prided myself on not being the companion to greatness, but on striving to be greatness itself. I wrote a whole play (which languishes in the second draft state in which I left it six years ago) about how completely unfulfilling it must be to be "just the girlfriend." So what possible appeal did being the companion to The Doctor have for me then (and, for that matter, now?)

Well, the obvious answer is that I am not from a planet of time travelers, I am a human being from planet Earth. Regardless of what science may achieve in my lifetime, it is technically impossible for me to ever be a Time Lord. Not to mention that Doctor Who is fiction. So, really, when I say that I wanted to be a companion, it is a little like saying I wanted to be a Bond Girl; I am saying that I wanted to be cast as a companion to The Doctor on the television show. And, not unlike James Bond, The Doctor was by definition male, which meant the role available for me was that of companion. (For the sake of clarity, those of you who are unfamiliar with Doctor Who should probably just imagine he is a time traveling James Bond. What they both have in common: British, saving the world from imminent destruction, cute girls. Except, as far as we know, James Bond has a lot more sex, but then, he isn't 900 years old. Yet.) Since the companions changed, I could fantasize about the character I would play. Of course, I would be beautiful, but that wouldn't be my character's central feature. I would be strong and smart, able to rescue myself if necessary. (Before you ask, yes, as a matter of fact, I wanted to be a Bond Girl, too, and yes, that is pretty much the way I described my Bond Girl character as well, but that is a whole 'nother essay.) Also, because The Doctor was played by different actors over the course of a quarter century, I could imagine a different sort of Doctor for my character. My Doctor would be younger and sensitive, like Peter Davison, but also irreverent and goofy, like Tom Baker, and brilliant, like, um, all of them.

How I would manage to do a British television series while I was making all my Academy Award winning films, I'm not sure. I guess I just assumed I would be able to do everything I wanted to do in life all at once.

But then the BBC went and cancelled Doctor Who in 1989. Yeah, they attempted to bring in back with a hideous TV movie in 1996, but, for all practical purposes, my plans of companion-hood were dead.

I grew up, went to college, graduated, and then I started my acting career in Chicago. It is my hometown and, at the time, everyone was going on about the "great Chicago Theatre scene", how actors in LA were forging Chicago theatre credits on their resumes so that they would appear to be "serious actors" and garner respect, how it was the place for a young actor to get started. So I began auditioning and working, fully intending to move to New York or Los Angeles after a few years. That was the plan at any rate. However, I fell in love with Fred and relocating to another city, a city where I had no support system, a city to which Fred was not entirely willing to follow me, lost its appeal. I didn't give up on the dream of a mantle full of Oscars, I just figured I could somehow beat the odds and have that while being based out of Chicago. I know how totally ridiculous that sounds, now, but when I was twenty-five, everything seemed possible. Or maybe I was just better at fooling myself back then.

No matter because, as the years went by and the number of theatrical disappointments dwarfed the number of triumphs, I began to take stock of all those hopes and dreams. I wasn't sure if I wanted to make the artistic compromises that an actor, by definition, was required to make. I mean, it didn't matter how good or bad I was, I was dependent upon my cast members, my director, the playwright, the producing theatre company all not sucking and, let's face it, that oftentimes is asking too much. Was it worth all the long hours and no pay if it meant I would be too embarrassed by the final product to ask my loved ones to come see me? Sure, I was doing it all so I could have that big break which would get me noticed by casting directors and agents alike, but what then? Did I really want to be filming in Prague and Toronto all the time when, realistically, we wouldn't be in a financial position for Fred to quit his job to be with me? Was that really the life I wanted? I said I wanted to be an actor, but did I even like acting? When I sat down and looked back at the work I had done of which I was most proud, I realized that every single one fell into the category of something I had either written or choreographed as well as performed. When I thought about what I wanted to achieve in the next decade, having a child, writing a novel and performing my own work for small groups of people outranked becoming an internationally recognized film star.

So I entered a state of semi-retirement as far as acting was concerned. I began writing every day and amassed a huge collection of poems, songs, unfinished short stories (not to mention the aforementioned play). I started this blog. I wrote a novel for NaNoWriMo which I haven't even looked at since December 1, 2006. Most importantly, in November of 2004, I had Julian, a boy who amazes, astounds, and exhausts me every single minute of every single day. There were some long, dark, cold nights early on when I spent the time I nursed Julian thinking about my failure to progress as an actor, concluding that for all my talk of disappointment and lack of opportunities, perhaps the truth was that I simply had no talented (in truth, I still have those moments). However, I also came to realize that regardless of my talent or lack thereof, I had no interest in giving every night and weekend to a show unless I knew it would be good and, in theatre as in life, there are no guarantees. I thought I was if not content, at least accepting of where things stood with my life and my artistic aspirations. Because I reached this place as a result of choices I made and who knows where I would be if I had made different ones. Besides, I can always write while Julian naps (at least, that is the theory).

I heard rumors that the BBC was making Doctor Who again, but I didn't really pay attention. I was too busy with the intricacies of being a new parent to watch anything beyond whatever happened to be on TV when I wanted to watch (which, inevitably, meant Law and Order reruns.) Then, last fall, I stumbled upon the new Doctor Who and became hooked. Not only was it a Doctor Who informed by The X Files, it was a Doctor Who which seemed to conform precisely to my teenage imaginings of what the Doctor and his companion would be. Except, of course, Billie Piper, and not me, was playing the spunky, self-sufficient companion.

I'll admit, those long dormant fantasies about becoming a companion were shaken from their slumber. I suddenly started thinking how I could still be a companion, that I would redefine what it means to be a companion. I would have to because I am too old to be a companion in the traditional mold. Because The Doctor is That Guy, you know the one, the one who gets older while he girls with whom he surrounds himself remain the same age. And, in his case at least, it makes sense because it wouldn't make sense if someone with a lot of responsibilities were travelling through time and space, constantly risking their life for the sake of adventure (and, at times, in order to save the world). That whole late-teens/early-twenties period is a time for both self-discovery and life experience. We look at a twenty year old with no job or plans, backpacking through Europe as a normal and healthy individual, whereas we would look at a thirty-five year old in the same circumstances as a person who was developmentally stunted in some way. So, of course, if a thirty-five year old (even a really young looking, super cute thirty-five year old) were to be cast as a companion for more than one episode, there would need to be some explanation for why she was abandoning her responsibilities and hitching a ride on the TARDIS (like, say, her fiance was eaten by gigantic spiders and her place of employment, which only existed to aid the aforementioned spiders, was destroyed).

Which brings me back to what Aushra said at her father's funeral. I think Aushra's father meant it when he said that if Aushra ever had the opportunity to travel through space and time, she should take it. Despite this agreement, however, when Aushra chose to attend a graduate school in another city, her parents were quite unhappy at the idea of their only daughter leaving and expressed their wish that she choose a school in the area. This probably has something to do with possibilities and opportunities, for while it would be an impossible opportunity to join the aliens on their voyage of discovery, it is a comparatively mundane and everyday occurrence to go to graduate school. But regardless of what he meant with regards to Aushra traveling time and space, I don't for a second believe that Aushra's father would have left his wife and child if the space ship had landed before him, impossible opportunity or not. That isn't what a parent does. You don't leave your child behind and you don't take unnecessary risks. That's what it means to be a parent, that's what it means to be a grown up.

So here I am and I realize that the likelihood of me, a stay-at-home mom who is lucky to be sent on a commercial audition every couple of months, actually being cast as a companion is probably the same, if not less than, the likelihood of a real life Time Lord materializing in my kitchen. And if the latter happened, I might be tempted, but I know that I couldn't leave Fred and Julian behind. But what about the former? What if the impossible happened, like say, someone at the BBC read this blog post and decided I was just what they were looking for in a new companion or, equally unlikely, they decided to do a search of all unknown actors in Chicago because they heard about the kick-ass theatre community and I was the lucky person cast? Julian and Fred would of course stay here because, well, this is home. Britain is not New York, I couldn't expect to travel back on the weekends. So, what would I do?

The truth is, I have no idea. As much as I want to say that, of course, I would jump at the opportunity and figure out a way to make it work, I can't just say that. The idea of being separated from the two great loves of my life is too painful for me too contemplate.

While I still may dream of visiting the stars, the truth is that in becoming a parent, one's child becomes the center of one's universe and, suddenly, the stars in the sky lose a bit of their twinkle, become a bit less fascinating, as you realize that there is so much to explore right here on Earth.

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