On being "othered"
I moved to NYC 15 years ago, knowing nothing about the industry. Knowing only that I loved theatre and wanted to be a part of it. The few folks I knew here told me about AEA and auditions, that I needed to find my brand/look and stick to it. They said I needed to network and befriend casting directors and producers and get on people's good sides. They told me I'd have to sacrifice a lot, sometimes even my dignity. The first voice/rep coach I ever went to told me I wouldn't work very much til I was older cuz I was brown, and that I could help myself by wearing lighter makeup, being very femme and sweet and staying indoors during the summer to seem less other. Woof.
I followed this advice for a long time and hated it. None of it felt like me. I was trying to constantly project someone I wasn't and it was too much work. I'm genderfluid, queer af, chicanx and neurodivergent. The path that had been laid out before me was not gonna work for the true me. But boy did I try to stay on it. And boy did it mess me up.
I had to leave my life here to see it. It took a divorce and a 3-month solo cross country trip to find MY path. It took becoming a doula and taking care of a newborn to remember myself and my power and my desires. When it all came down to it, what I REALLY wanted was to do what I loved with people I loved. What I really wanted was to channel Spirit and help people come back to themselves. The desire to return to NYC and to the stage was surprising, but I knew that this time around I'd do things differently. I would take different advice: my own. It may be that none of this applies to you. We all have very different paths, but this is what I would say to fifteen years ago me. Maybe somewhere in here is something you need to hear too.
1. It's ok to be who you are.
Baby, you are changing CONSTANTLY. It is the very essence of you. You are forever growing and expanding and shedding skin and changing perspective. Yes, it's frustrating to be constantly changing in an industry that demanding you be consistent with your look, type, your neatly-wrapped box, but you have to let that go. You are an ever-evolving being. Own it, don't bemoan it! Forget everyone who warns you that leaning fully into your ever-changing self will mess with your type and no one will know what to do with you. Your type, your being, is so apparent and intrinsic that no matter how you change your look, it cannot dim or affect it. Being authentically you is the only thing that will get you where you're meant to be.
2. Don't let your boundaries be crossed. Make them clear and assert them.
I give you permission to honor your boundaries in all of these spaces. This industry is heavily cis, white and male. Even in spaces that aren't, the patriarchy is deeply embedded in all of us and white supremacy reigns. You will be asked “So what are you?” hundreds of times. You will be tokenized hundreds more. You will overhear people say you're “too ethnic” for their season. You will come across scripts so racist and sexist you will gag as you read them out loud. You will be harassed and you will be objectified and you will hate every minute of it, but you don't have to deal with it. I give you permission to leave. To walk out and away from that project and those people. Those environments don't deserve the best of you. And you won't be able to give your best in them anyway. But if you don't want to walk out,
3. You can speak up.
When someone says something racist, sexist, you can speak up. When you or someone else is misgendered, you can speak up. When the director is gaslighting you or your castmates, you can speak up. And you must. Because when you don't, you'll be filled with regret and that's not a thing you want to carry anymore. I know you'll be scared they might be offended and never want to work with you again, who cares? Your days of trying to be pleasant in order to be liked are over. Yes, the industry is inherently racist, sexist, transphobic, ableist, ageist. But you don't want to be a part of THAT industry. You want to participate in shifting it to something else. You want to help create a space that is radically inclusive and and compassionate. You can only do that by speaking up. Speaking of speaking,
4. Networking is very much not your thing.
For you, it is very simple. It's going where your intuition leads you. It's being yourself wherever you are. It's moving with ease into moments of communication that lead to connection which in turn lead to collaboration. Don't waste time and energy berating yourself for not going to that event or not getting up the courage to talk to someone who's important but known to be mean. You don't need any of that. Your connections will come come from unexpected places. Your connections will come from random photo shoots on boats, or the partner of a castmate you really get along with. You'll find your most fulfilling and world-changing relationships and work from being in alignment with you and honoring the connections you find with like-minded souls.
5. Let yourself dive into the other things you love to do.
Let yourself take breaks from this work to put your energies elsewhere. It will make your work in this industry deeper, and better. It will allow you to bring so much more of yourself to your storytelling. It will connect you with people that will open your mind and your heart and help you create the life and path you want. People say it will be harder to come back, but as always, you're exactly where you're meant to be if you're following your heart. And doing that will lead you to the fact that,
6. Your path is not and never has been like anyone else's.
You'll be told to look to people who are your type for clues, and that's fine. You'll be told to look to people who have the type of career you want and that's fine too. But the truth of it is that you are completely unlike anyone you've ever known or witnessed, so while there may be clues or crumbs to follow from those who've gone before you, yours is a new path that you alone will be able to forge. Do it with love and honesty. Do it with excitement and joy. Do it with kindness and compassion, especially towards yourself. Be brave and be true and bring every bit of you to the journey, and you will be rewarded with everything you deserve.
Jen Anaya is an Arizona-born singer, actor, instrumentalist, writer, doula, healer, weirdo and agent of love and light. Pre-COVID they were in the NY Times in March for "Fandango for Butterflies (and Coyotes)" and post-covid got their Reiki and 13th Octave LaHoChi certifications. They love making all manner of art with all manner of awesome beings.
(photo by Tia Byington)