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"Yes, And": What Making an Independent Film Taught Me About Identity, Fear and Self-Worth as a Woman

05/20/2015 05:17 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2016

In acting, the first rule of improvisation is to say, "Yes, AND", the idea behind it being that a scene can only move forward if you first accept the circumstances around you, and then add to them. "Yes, AND" allows for collaboration. "Yes, AND" fosters imagination. "Yes, AND" instigates progress.

For a long time, my life felt like one "No" after another. I wanted to be an actor but couldn't even get an audition, never mind an actual role. I was working four jobs and just barely getting by. I was definitely more "starving" than "artist".

I was losing the "game" that is getting work as an actor. The truth is that I wasn't trying very hard to play it. I didn't like the rules. As a woman, I felt like I was expected to live up to an imaginary ideal perpetuated by the oversimplified narrative most female characters are placed into. I remember one particularly painful audition that required all the actresses to bring bikinis with them. Usually I would have fled from kind of request, but it was for a reputable graduate film program so, (against my better judgement) I went. I made it to the "please put your bathing suit on" phase and was then given a scene that required me to violently assault my scene partner. I asked if we could practice once or twice, just to make sure no one got hurt. Or perhaps I could just show my half-naked rage through my words? I was dismissed and received an email a few days later saying that I was "too aristocratic" for the part. I was tempted to reply "Are you sure you didn't mean 'too smart'?"

I thought getting an agent would help my situation, but was told again and again that I was not a "type" and therefore un-castable. It would be more accurate to say that I am not a "type" that fits into the mainstream representation of women. Where were the stories and roles that I identified with? I was stuck.

But then I got a text from my good friend, Will Sullivan. It read:

"I want to shoot a movie this summer. All improv. For zero budget. Will you produce and star in it?"

In that moment, the answer seemed obvious to me. YES. Had I ever produced a film before? No. Did I have any idea what this movie was going to be about? Of course not. But what did I have to lose?

So I said Yes. And it was in my power to make it happen. It was time to choose my own narrative.

We decided to make a film about relationships - not about falling in love, but about what it takes to make love last. Will and our cinematographer, Derek Dodge, wrote the story outline, but there was never a set script. It was up to the actors to create their own dialogue and define the arc of each scene. I had the freedom to craft a character who was in a state of change and therefore undefined by any mold. The experience was transformative for me, not only as an actor and first time producer, but as a young woman who felt like she needed to re-define her sense of self. It scared me, so I knew it was important.

My greatest obstacle has always been fear. Fear of imperfection, fear of being wrong, fear of failing. This project taught me that there is no better cure for fear than action. As we hurtled towards production, I oscillated between thrill and absolute terror. I had no idea what I was doing but I had to do it anyway. Everyday I woke up feeling like I was in full relevé on the edge of a cliff. The only way to forward was to jump. There were moments of soaring and moments of falling hard on my face. I learned, though, that even if I fell, at least I had found the ground. I could get up and keep going. Three days before our shoot started, I cut off all my hair. I did it for the part, but I also did it for me. While the deed itself was superficial, it symbolized the letting go of an image I felt I was expected to fit into. I was released from who I thought I should be, and free to figure out who I could be.

What started as a text message is now a feature film, That's Not Us, set to be released later this year. Making it was a gift of self-discovery - as a leader, as a woman, as an artist, and as an imperfect being who still has much to learn. I had the privilege of being able to make mistakes and learn by doing. To me, that is the true essence of independent film. It's about creating work on your own terms, exploding the mold, and saying "yes, and" to the opportunities that come with attempting the unknown.

That's Not Us premieres at the Inside Out Film Festival in Toronto on May 23rd, 2015. Follow them on Facebook, Twitter, or visit their website at www.thatsnotus.com