"How do you really feel?" That's what I've been asking women nearly every day for the past 12 years in my role heading a marketing firm called Just Ask a Woman. Big companies pay me to ask their customers really personal questions and in return, women tell me more than most people might want to hear. I've always loved getting feedback.
But now the tables have turned. I'm asking for feedback about my own performance -- literally. I'm acting in my own one-act play and it's a long stretch from tap dancing in front of a bedsheet hung in my parent's garage. This is New York City and I am feeling the angst.
Let me back up. I grew up in Philadelphia hoping to take my mixed bag of theatrical talents to the Broadway lights. But my father suggested that I might want to try to make some money first. "The theater will be your avocation," he said. I guess 'avocation' meant the dream that would never be. Till now.
After a 35-year career as a Madison Avenue ad woman and speaker, with three books under my belt, I've written a short memoir, The God Box: Sharing my Mother's Gift of Faith, Love and Letting Go, a love story of growing up as the daughter of my remarkable mother. And drawing on that long buried avocation, I decided to develop a companion theatrical piece, featuring one woman: me. That's when I got a rude awakening.
Starting at the bottom again is hard. Imagine crying out loud onstage in front of strangers, on cue. Memorizing pages and pages of dialogue-and then blanking out in public. My producer said to me, "In the theater, you have to be ready to fail." You also have to be ready to hear the truth.
The playwriting process demands a series of humbling workshops, before a live audience. Afterwards, I sit onstage and ask, "How did you really feel?" It's not called a "talkback" for nothing. Suddenly, hearing their opinions isn't as much fun, especially for someone used to being the boss. I told my director that I was starting to hate all this honesty and she said, "Feedback is like chocolate. A little is great, but too much and you want to throw up."
It's not really that bad. Most of the audience really likes it. They laugh or cry and share a story of their own loss or love. Mostly, they're looking for a little blood in the water, "Didn't you ever fight with her?" "Wasn't there some unresolved conflict?" And they like to confess their own struggles or family dysfunction. So I suppose I am getting as much as I am giving.
Putting myself to the test onstage might just be the emotional workout I need. And as Mom taught me, it doesn't hurt to ask.
Mary Lou Quinlan is the author of the upcoming book, The God Box: Sharing my Mother's Gift of Faith, Love and Letting Go to be published April 2012 by Greenleaf Book Group, and will be debuting her one woman play of the same name. Visit www.theGodBoxproject.com