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10/15/2014 10:51 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How A Crushing Disappointment Helped Me Recognize My True Power

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Our most agonizing moments can usher in our most transcendent.

By Naomi Barr

"You're a monochromatic actor," the director said, standing to leave. "You'll never surprise anyone."

I was 25, a few years into a theater career -- one that appeared to be swiftly approaching its end. The director, an intense man celebrated for his work, had accepted me into his master acting class. Thrilled, if intimidated, I'd been trekking weekly to the classroom where he sat, pashalike, critiquing our scenes. Today I'd lingered after class to get more feedback. I'd like to say that I asked probing questions about my character, but what I really wanted was his stamp of approval. The master knew it and seized the opportunity. I lacked complexity, he said. I didn't make the bold choices that separated good actors from bad. I felt as though the wind, and my dreams, had been knocked out of me.

I cried all the way home. I could admit that I'd wanted so much to be brilliant that I was often thinking one line ahead, when an actor's job is to stay in the moment. But I'd earned my way into this class, hadn't I? I believed I had the talent, and I knew I had the desire. I resolved to prove my director wrong.

That resolve crumbled as soon as I entered the classroom the next week. When I saw the director, I flushed with shame. I tried to recapture my focus, but when he called my scene, my lines came out flat, as if my voice had ceased communication with my brain. I could feel the director's disgust.

Then my scene partner began stroking my head.

The gesture made sense: My character was upset, and her older sister, played by this actress, was trying to comfort her. But we'd never rehearsed it that way. And I hate having my head petted, so her touch annoyed the hell out of me. My concentration shot, I jumped up to escape the caress, and as I did, something happened that I still can't explain. An image of an open door flashed into my mind. I heard myself say, "You can walk through this door, or you can remain here, stuck." I don't generally put stock in the woo woo, but none of this felt weird. I knew that by walking through the door, I'd be able to channel the fear, ambition, and rage that were once a distraction into my work. I took a step forward, and my brain and body reunited. My classmates, the director -- they ceased to exist. I moved across the stage with purpose. Fully in character, I sobbed.

When I told this to a friend, she said I was lucky: A perfect storm had gotten me to that point. Perhaps, but I still had a choice. I could've allowed my director's excoriation, my insecurities, and the grating touch to knock me down, or I could use them to propel me forward. I controlled which direction I would take.

I still do. Even off the stage, the memory of the door has helped me conquer fears small and large. I've walked through it to ask someone out; I've walked through it to move across the country. Each time it amazes me how heavy things feel on one side of the door and how much lighter everything is on the other.

After we finished the scene that day, the director pointed to me and said, "Now, that is acting." I had surprised him. More important, I had discovered the doorway -- and on its other side, the person I knew myself to be.

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