September 27, 2018 -

As told to T. Cole Rachel, 3496 words.

Tags: Acting, Writing, Process, Inspiration, Adversity, Creative anxiety, Failure.

On creating your own best role

Writer and performer Amanda Duarte discusses how giving up acting led to a creative breakthrough, the pleasure of revisiting discarded work, and why sometimes you need to create the the opportunities you're looking for.
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I know a lot of people in New York who are performers, particularly who do comedy-related stuff, that Frankenstein together a bunch of different things in order to make a living. How do you break down your creative life?

Oh, god. Yes. These days I freelance as a writer. I recapped the last season of RuPaul’s Drag Race for the Times. I contribute to various magazines and online publications. Do you even call them magazines anymore? I don’t know. I also perform. I host comedy shows. I do my own show. I do voice-over work. In fact, right now I’m just sitting here with bated breath to find out if I’m cast as “overwhelmed mom” in a commercial. I mean, cross your fingers that I get that one.

I just do anything, really. I was so excited when I was able to quit waitressing. Eight years ago was the last time I touched a table. I kind of do the creative equivalent of waitressing these days. I’ve done weird things like doing MadLibs with rich people at art benefits. I just do almost anything for money. Please put that in the article. What you got? What’s it pay? I’ll fucking do it. Except waitressing. I physically can’t do it anymore. Emotionally and physically, I was broken by waitressing. I can never go back.

Did you come to New York with specific creative ambitions?

Yeah, I trained as an actor. I use the word “trained” very loosely. I went to a state university and mostly just did drugs and had a lot of bad sex. Then I was a regional theater actor in San Francisco for some years and I came here to be a big Broadway star. For a million reasons, that just didn’t happen, and I got to a point with acting where I just did not enjoy the process anymore. I hated auditioning. I hated the level of projects I was finding myself in. Or maybe it wasn’t the level of the projects, but the level to which I was able to contribute to those projects—the amount of creative input I had as a female actor in a certain category, which is to say not as a star or an ingenue or a leading lady or anything like that.

I was generally cast as comic relief, which is fun, but I found myself very frustrated even when the show was really good and got huge critical acclaim. I won awards and stuff, but I still wasn’t satisfied. The level of creative input wasn’t enough for me.

So I started writing and performing my own stuff. I did a solo show eight years ago, or something like that, where I did characters and it was a satire of celebrity culture. That was really fun. I just really wanted to write the kind of material I wanted to perform, and do so in a style that felt good for me. Once I started doing that, I was like, “Oh well, if I’m not going to be making any money either way, why don’t I do what I wanna do?”

I started getting into storytelling, which then led to writing jobs for different publications. Usually what I write and perform is comedic, so I find myself being grouped in with the stand-up world, which is great, except I’m not a stand-up comedian. I don’t have the discipline to write jokes and hone them and do four shows a night, running from club to club. I’ll stand in front of people and say funny stuff sometimes, but it’s just what I’m thinking about. It’s not at all precise or refined or anything. When people describe me as a comedian, I always twitch a little bit and I feel like I need to explain that I haven’t really earned that title. The stand-up comedians that I know truly work harder than anyone else in the business.

Creating your own path is the best way to go. I think of someone like Bridget Everett, a hero of mine. She was trying to make it as an actress and a cabaret singer. She has this incredible presence, but she was getting turned down left and right by people saying, “You’re too weird, you’re too weird, you’re too weird.” Finally, she was like, “Okay, then I’m gonna be the weirdest.” You’re too big. You’re too loud. “Then I’m gonna be the biggest and loudest.” And then, look at her now, you know?

So what is the ideal project for you? Writing and performing your own show?

Yeah, I love it, though it would be great if I could go to bed and wake up and it was magically written. I’m a lazy bitch. The writing part is like that David Rakoff quote where he says writing is like “pulling teeth out of my dick.” That’s how it feels, for sure, but ultimately it’s the most gratifying thing for me. I mean, I’m certainly always open to outside offers. You want me to play bitchy secretary number eight in your TV show? I’m there, and I will be the bitchiest secretary you’ve ever seen.

But, in general, I find that the most satisfying thing is creating my own work. It’s the most direct form of self-expression for me. There are really gifted actors for whom acting really is their form of self-expression. It’s all about interpreting someone else’s writing or interpreting a character in this very regulatory way. That’s how they dig into their souls and throw what’s in there out to the world. For me, writing is very connected to that. That’s my happy place. That’s my sweet spot.

This sounds like a more fulfilling path, but also a more complicated one to navigate.

Yes. I had to basically give up auditioning as an actor or trying to pursue a more cut-and-dried traditional career path in that world. The thing that was extremely frustrating—that I did not get off on at all, though some people really do—was the idea that you’re submitting yourself to somebody for approval. You audition for them and they’re like, “Yes, you are good enough.” The flip side of that is you become dependent on that for your sense of self-worth and self-definition. You see so many actors, especially older actors, start to lose it a little bit when they’re not getting that same level of approval anymore. They’re not getting the green light that they wanna get. They’re not having the doors opened to them that they want opened. It’s like they’re just asking for permission for their own life. They constantly have to ask for permission to work, in order to express themselves. That was starting to destroy me. I didn’t like the person I was becoming when I was trapped in that mindset.

How did you break out of that? You just decided to stop?

So, eight years ago I booked a really great voice-over job that was steady and was making me some money. I decided to take a summer off from submitting for auditions. I decided not think about it for three months and see what happened. That was such a revolutionary thing for me. I started acting in community theater when I was a kid and had never stopped. I was acting, acting, acting, and auditioning all the time. The idea that I could maybe just not do that for a little while was so odd and crazy, you know?

So I did it, and by the end of that summer I was like, “I feel better about myself than I’ve ever felt in my life.” I actually felt strong and confident and positive about myself because I wasn’t constantly begging for other people to approve of me or validate my talent. So I just never went back. From then on, I just started doing my own thing, and it has totally rewired my brain. I’m a much healthier and happier person for it.

That’s a thing about acting that I find so hard to fathom: you are always looking for the right project, and the approval and permission, just to get to do this thing you are good at.

That’s why the mental health of actors isn’t generally the strongest. Some of my best friends are actors. Actually, most of my dearest friends are actors or performers. Even the ones who work the most, the ones with big careers, really struggle. So many actors and performers think to themselves, “If I could just get to that level then I would be okay. I would feel confident and comfortable and grounded and good about myself.” But even really successful actors I know still exist in that same frame of mind. They feel the rejections that they receive just as hard. They never see themselves as having finally arrived. Even for people who work all the time, there’s always that feeling that you’re one job away from obscurity, or that you’re about to get untethered from the Earth. Your sense of self can be so deeply affected by that. And I see it really fuck up some people that deserve better.

This is, of course, not to say no one should be an actor. Actors are brilliant. Acting is incredible. It’s just a different sort of path, and it’s a question of what you’re able to process and what you’re able to withstand as an artist and as a person. Personally, I just found that I flourished more once I got off that hamster wheel.

The great thing about creating and writing your own projects is that there’s an outlet for everything. If there’s something you want to talk about, you just create a place for it to go.

Yes. It’s up to you. Of course you’re still constantly asking for things. We all have to ask for permission for a venue, or permission from a producer or whatever. Ultimately, if you want to go stand in the middle of Union Square and just start doing your thing, saying what it is you want to say, you can. And if it’s good, if it speaks to people and people respond to it, then you’re gonna end up somewhere. And if not, well then you’re just in the middle of Manhattan expressing yourself and that’s great in and of itself. Some people call that mental illness, but I think sometimes it makes some sense.

You are the creator and host of Dead Darlings—a reading series where artists can present work that they’ve had to cut or abandon. We often talk to people about what happens when something doesn’t work, and when it’s OK to abandon a creative project. You’ve created an outlet where these things get to live, even if just for one night.

Dead Darlings came about when I was writing a play in a playwriting class and I was just rewriting and rewriting and rewriting, and these scenes were just falling to the floor. They were good scenes, I thought, and some of them even stood on their own, which is part of why they needed to be cut. They weren’t terribly important to the play itself, but I hated to see them go. I was like, “God, what a shame that no one is ever gonna say these lines!” I figured I could put them in a drawer and maybe they’d end up in another piece, even though that seemed unlikely.

I thought about the phrase “kill your darlings” and I was like, I’m just sitting here with dead darlings all around me. So I had the idea to do the show and I started thinking about all the great writers and artists around me in New York City and all the great, unused work that was just sitting there, that still has value, even if it hasn’t been squeezed into another piece yet or even if it wasn’t quite right for its original purpose. It still has value. It can still be really good.

What I found out by hosting and curating the show, is that these “lost” pieces are often the things that the artists are the most passionate about. They feel very, very emotionally tied to these pieces. It’s incredible to see not only the level of enthusiasm that people bring in presenting the work, but also the level of vulnerability. Some of the work is just incredible and you can’t believe it never made the cut, while other people delight in bringing in things that were just really, really bad… and that’s fun, too.

We often write things from a very immature place, or sometimes from a vengeful place, sometimes from a place that is more about ego and less about the actual larger macro-view of making good work. And so, those are really fun to hear, too. It’s fascinating to see these artists whom you admire very much bringing in work where they’re like, “I made this and it’s so bad and I’m gonna let you hear it.” You realize even your heroes go through the same process that you do, but they just keep going. In fact, some of the most famous or accomplished people are the ones who bring in the worst stuff, which is inspiring to me.

As artists, we often have these dark, neurotic moments where we think that we have no talent and no right to live. We assume that these very accomplished, successful people are just opening their mouths and emeralds are falling out left and right. We assume they don’t have the same kind of agonizing process that we do, that they don’t make the same mistakes that we do, that they don’t have those long, dark nights of the soul that we have. But, of course, everybody does, and if you don’t, it probably means you suck. If you really, truly think that everything you write or say is an emerald falling out of your mouth, then you probably really suck.

It’s exciting to just get that window into people’s process. A lot of times people will present this work in front of an audience and find that things that they thought were not good are actually really great. Or, things that they were embarrassed about or that maybe were a little too vulnerable feeling for them to present, things they might have pre-judged or never shared because they thought it was garbage, those pieces turn out to be really wonderful. Sometimes after presenting this material in front of an audience, people have gone back and reconsidered throwing it out. They’ve reworked it and made it into something. That’s exciting. It’s not just a graveyard for discarded work, but it’s a nursery, too. It’s like a little IVF dish, where little creative embryos are made in test tubes.

Your work is funny, but it also comes from a real place. Your most recent show, Staying Alive, not only takes on that very terrible movie, but addresses a lot of intense, painful stuff for you. It seems like a good example of using one’s art to deal with things.

Well, in the wake of the election my entire life basically fell apart. I am getting a divorce. I had a cancer scare. I had to have a tumor removed. My dog died. Everything about my life fell apart. In recovery from the inciting incident for my divorce, I watched a lot of bad movies. I have a soft spot for these bad movies made in New York City in the late ’70s and early ’80s. And, it’s a good thing because there’s a lot of them. I remembered seeing Staying Alive while wading about in the graveyard of movies that is HBO On Demand. Staying Alive is the terrible 1983 sequel to Saturday Night Fever. It just had so many parallels to the very things that were destroying my life at the time. There are these great Bee Gees songs in that movie that are criminally under-featured because the movie is inexplicably written and directed by Sylvester Stallone who chose, instead, to heavily feature the songs of his brother Frank.

In the movie, these great songs are just buried in this very bad story and I, myself, felt like a great song buried in a bad story. I listened to the soundtrack a lot. A lot. I heard in the lyrics so many echoes to my life—what was going on in my life, but just seen through a different lens. It felt like there was something there. I wanted to take all of these great songs stuck in a bad misogynist story and put them in a great feminist story to give them another life. So that’s what I’m doing. Lemonade from lemons, you know? Something funny out of something hideous and tragic. It’s the classic recipe for comedy.

Amanda Duarte recommends:

Five Things I Recommend For The Newly Discarded Woman Over Forty:

  • A back scratcher - The one thing that truly sucks about being abandoned and having the foundation of your life violently ripped out from under you is the sudden absence of a human person, however distant and/or checked out they were for however many years, who could at least be counted on to scratch that spot in the middle of your back that gets super itchy for reasons that you believe are related to your older lady autoimmune disorder. I bought a great adjustable back scratcher from Amazon for very very cheap, and it scratches the shit out of that spot without direction or coaching. I do not need a man and neither do you.

  • Art.com - Ladies, now is the time to reinvent your living space and your very self by decorating your place exactly the way you’ve always wanted to but did not because there was someone living with you who found your taste in art to be, let’s say, overly celebrative of radical female power, which he, let’s say, found threatening owing to his fragile masculinity. Hang those Audre Lorde photographs, those Roz Chast cartoons, those giant Georgia O’Keeffe pussy flowers. Art.com ships them to you FRAMED for CHEAP—and they include the hardware you need to mount them. You really just need a hammer. That’s probably all you needed all along.

  • Tinder - You may feel like a used gray Kleenex, but you are in your sexual and personal prime and you have a walkabout to undertake. There are men who are all too happy to walk alongside you, and put their footprints in your sand. They are younger. They are mostly European. They are lovely. Create a Tinder profile. Do not try to conceal your age. Mention that you are a liberal in your bio, so that you do not inadvertently end up on a date with a Gary Johnson voter, who, in accordance with their free-market philosophy, should be forced to go pay for it. Swipe right on younger hotties and watch those matches roll in. Go on dates with them. Have sex with them. Smoke joints with them. Eat popsicles with them. Then send them home and sleep alone, spreadeagled in your big bed. Life can be great. You deserve this.

  • Psilocybin Mushrooms - Having trouble letting go and forgiving your ex? Feeling depressed, emotionally stuck, hopeless, and/or dead from the waist down? It’s time to get back into those magic mushrooms that brought you such innocent, expansive joy in your college days! The experience is different at your current life stage—it is incredibly helpful for letting go of the old and opening yourself up to the new-and by “opening yourself up” I mean “hallucinating that your vagina is the hungry, fanged mouth of a wolf,” and by “the new” I mean “that hot Tinder date’s monster cock, which you are hallucinating is a lean, wild hare.”

  • The Two Hour Supercut of Amy Sedaris’s Appearances on David Letterman - Losing your faith in love? Losing your faith in being a woman over forty? Spend some time with Amy Sedaris and David Letterman, whose love story is chronicled beautifully in this chronological two-hour supercut, curated by, no doubt, an emotionally generous homosexual, and available for viewing on YouTube. Amy Sedaris is the life goal of every woman over forty. She lives alone as a lifestyle choice, has made an amazing career of being her weird, visionary self, and is stunningly, head-smashingly gorgeous. Watch Letterman play the perfect straight man and expertly, gently, lovingly set her up to shine, over and over. Drink in their delicate, charming sexual tension. Love is all around you. It may not take the same form it once did, but that might be exactly what you need. Fly free, you crazy, beautiful bird.