There is no question that going back to school after you've had a life - a big: mortgages, raising kids, downsizing, moving cross-country, saving the family dog from death (not once but twice), saving offspring from death, those things. There is no question that going back to school at a major university, or any university, is a big deal. The fact that I applied at all was a big deal. The fact that I got "in" was monumental.
I'm a simple woman. Not really, but I like to think I have my values straight. My husband and I have been married for decades. Everyone tells us how nice and polite our kids are so we did something right. No one has been arrested or flunked out of school, yet. I like to say that I decided to go back to school to avoid having to get a real job. That's a stupid thing to say, offensive actually. I've had a real job my entire adult life. Yes, raising three sons in New York and Los Angeles is a real job. I've also raised a lot of money in philanthropic circles - also very real. I've also enjoyed a modest but respectable career running my own interior design consulting firm. So perhaps I should amend my quip to "I'm avoiding a desk job," or "I'm avoiding going to work for someone else." Actually, I am walking right into the lion's den of libraries and formal scheduling.
It's the year of the bucket list. I have enrolled at UCLA in the graduate acting program in the school of Theatre, Film & Television. Joel and I are not only empty nesters, but the kids are thoroughly ensconced in their new lives and have been now for a few years. They come home for a few weeks at a time, or maybe the summer, but technically, I am no longer scheduling my life around theirs. I actually get to create my own. Sort of.
Like you, I have the bucket list and it's long. I have always wanted to enroll in a yoga teacher training and, I have always wanted to go to India. When an email came across my desk last December to actually participate in a yoga teacher training in India, I jumped at the chance. There were no weddings or Bar Mitzvahs, no graduations or parental milestone birthdays on the calendar. I decided to go for it. Twenty-four hours to Istanbul, another four hours to New Delhi, yes another flight up to Dehradun and then one hour taxi ride to my hotel overlooking Mother Ganga, I then settled into a routine for four weeks in the foothills of the Himalayas, still another sixty minutes up into the hills, an experience worthy of its own blog.
Just before I left for India, I received an invitation from UCLA to join the 3rd Cohort of a new acting program led by a man who quite literally embodies everything I believe art should and could be. Lofty it sounds and indeed, he is mortal and probably has some habits I will learn to loathe, but for now, my dream of collaborating with other artists who care about craft and the opportunity to train like an Olympian is my new reality.
"Are you excited?" Everyone is asking me in the weeks and days before Orientation. "Yes of course, but it just doesn't' seem real yet." I receive information in May to apply for my parking permit over the summer. I meticulously put the date in my calendar and even though I am on vacation in July, stuffing my face with homemade strawberry shortcake and rhubarb turnovers, I fall asleep the night before the on-line portal opens to purchase the promised permit committing to memory that I must apply and pay for the permit the minute I wake up. Naturally, like all good sugar-coma vacationers do in Northern Wisconsin, I wake up, have some coffee and go for a walk along the water, the trail. Lord only knows what on earth I did that day. I definitely did not apply for my permit. Probably somewhere in the middle of another swig of beer or fish 'n chips I scream, "Oh shit! Where the f**k will I park?" Like a terrier chasing a rat, I got myself to my computer pronto, applied around midnight and by the grace of God I was allowed to drop $700 bucks on a tiny decal that would literally save me from commuting on LA's most esteemed public transportation. Round One and I survived.
Orientation began last week with the entire graduate school gathered to sit in on panels from grant money to health care, activities fairs that included the ballroom dance team to cross-gender bathrooms. Finally! Honestly, am I the only woman who swears there are more men's rooms than women's rooms? I mean the men's rooms are always right at the top of the stairs and so easy to find. Women are usually forced to go through a maze like a gerbil just to locate the loo. My biggest fear of spending so much time on an enormous, albeit beautiful campus, is that I will be the only one running around like a mad woman, clutching my undies desperately trying to find a ladies room. Does anyone feel me?
Orientation was a whirlwind. I met interesting grad students in entirely different disciplines. Ladies of a certain age and I found each other in queues and we happily exchanged cards with each other in the hopes of "checking-in" once a quarter. Most impressive were the speakers on the panels, various deans and provosts, and especially the graduate students who clearly had learned to develop their own voices. My memory was harkened back to a time when my own voice was never in doubt, my confidence was palpable and I could "present" without questioning my integrity. Perhaps this is why I want to go back to school, to feel that ownership again. To feel like I'm not acting, even though that is exactly what I am here to do.
Remarkably, some of the other actors in my program, there are only eight of us, actually recognized me on campus most probably from our summertime Facebook group. They pulled me aside and introduced themselves. Of course, I'm flagellating myself for not recognizing them until they said their names. "I have got to get better about that," I pseudo-promise myself. I must admit part of me has given up a tiny bit. I just love name tags, and wish that Steve Jobs lived long enough to develop some kind of secret spy gizmo so I'd never forget anyone's name or face again. No one, luckily, seems to mind that I wasn't able to recognize them in a sea of hundreds and we settled on the lawn for our first "sit-our-butts-down-on-the-floor" event of the year. More on that later...
Our second day of orientation offered more programming and wasn't just for the students of "diversity" as was the day before. "Diversity?" you ask? Yes, I'm still a woman and I'm still white. So why was I included on "diversity day?" Do I really have to spell it out? As somebody famous said, "Aging is not for the faint of heart." Bette Davis? Mae West?
Day three of orientation narrowed our panels to specifically the School for Theatre Film and Television. No more women in the queue who were studying public health or anthropology. I am now alone and walking into a gathering at nine o’clock in the morning only to discover that this particular seminar is for both undergrads and grad students alike, which I should have been able to discern from the decibel level. Young co-eds have a tremendous amount of audible enthusiasm even before coffee. Ok, now I feel like I need to be careful. Now I’m enormously self-conscious, "should I take the Band-Aid off of my nose that is covering my brand new and very first basal cell carcinoma, or should I leave it on for fear of freaking someone out?" Yes, now I have the voice in my head similar to Desperate Housewives. “ Bree took out her husband's suit. Laid out the gun...”
Stop. I immediately disallow this voice to take control, I mean I didn't go to India for nothing, and I find some of the screenwriters who maybe don't have kids as old as mine, but they could have if they wanted to, that is if they were teenage parents.
We are shuttled into the Freud Playhouse, a familiar setting for me as an audience member. On this particular day, my colleagues and I find each other and we sit together mid-way back and enjoy a rather delightful and most expertly presented morning of entertainment; undergrads, short films, professors, deans and most notably, a Charlie Rose style interview with a very seasoned former chair and an alum who happens to be the CEO of DreamWorks. It's all becoming very “real” now. They don't have to sell us on the program - we already got into the program. They do, however, have to make sure we understand that the stakes and it is clear they have given us some very fine role models.
After lunch we few hundred are reduced to only theatre students (my screenwriting pals were scooped off somewhere else) and the new brand spanking new Chair of the department presented a rather hilarious version of "we know what we're doing, trust us and if we don't have the answer today we will get it to you." If you read a scripted version of this fireside chat, you might think UCLA and “world-class” should not belong in the same sentence. The new chair, however, is so affable and unassuming that he's kind of like a puppy dog. He looks in your eyes and wins your heart. The second afternoon session was reduced smaller yet with the 15 students in my cohort, 9 designers and 4 PhD students. Our advisor walked us through the details of academia and I was relieved to learn that I had already paid my tuition; my fellowship funding had been allocated properly to my account. Ahhhhhh. I have survived Round Two.
Our final day of orientation began with a panel given by several librarians. Droll you might think? Hardly. I've never been so jazzed about libraries hearing these experts explain their special collections and archives and it's all at my disposal. Wait, what?
Our next panel lost the designers and the PhD students and we were now down to 15 students. This will be my group for the next quarter at least. We are shrinking and there is nowhere for me to hide. The professor who invited me to join the program, the academic dean, another playwriting professor and, the seasoned former chair are all in attendance. I quickly discover I don't have to open my mouth at all. Everyone else has loads of questions and things to express. I can be the strong and silent one. We'll see how long that lasts.
It's Erev Yom Kippur and I'm off to services for the next 24 hours. My brain is distracted with a new speech from Dante's Inferno. I roll into my one and only class on this Thursday morning. It's finally the first day of school. It's delicious. My advanced acting class is not just the 15 of us; we have the 9 students from the second Cohort and the 7 students from the first cohort. We can observe them, learn from them, and we are even instructed to stand behind them as we practice our deep Suzuki style plies. At last, I feel safe.
Our second day of classes consisted of the same advanced acting class. I took lunch in the sculpture garden, a rather amazing collection complete with a Richard Serra Torqued Ellipse. I still cannot believe I get to walk next to a Serra every weekday for the next three years. After lunch, we have Directing class 260. I know that my professor for this class is the guy with the puppy dog eyes and dry sense of humor. He can parry anything without making you feel dumb. Smart, irreverent and completely likable. So, I feel somewhat safe, other than the fact that on Facebook, the Chair enters a very professional and appropriate post announcing his new promotion, to which my little sister, my very own flesh and blood replies, "congratulations Brian, look out for my sister Beth Lane. Wait what?
I've been alerted on Facebook that my name has been mentioned in a post. I immediately text baby sister, “how on earth do you know so and so? ” Oh, he was a classmate of mine in high school. We went to a Duran Duran concert and…" she replies.
We are learning about dramatic tension in class. How to control the tension, mold the tension, manipulate the tension. We are paired up into groups of three and told to go make a 30 second scene that demonstrates dramatic tension. I'm paired with two guys. Good guys. One is nice and tall, the other looks like a baseball player. "How bad can this be?” I ask myself. Then it happens. The inevitable. The boys, who are barely older than my children, decide that our scene should be about an Ashley Madison hook up between them and me. Seriously. I mean I ain't no Demi Moore... or could I be? Then they did it for real; they used the "m" word. They said, "ok, you be our mom and we will ‘pick you up’ on the park bench." "I'm the mom?" I'm mulling it over. I know the part well. “And you both are going to hit on me?” I'm not saying I was "hit on," not at all. However, Day 2, Class 2, I have to explore sexual tension with students I definitely could have given birth to? I'm not quite sure which was more mortifying. Having to say to puppy-dog-professor-former-classmate-of- sister, "what you see in this room stays in this room," or in the bathroom after my audition nine months ago when a young lady came up to me and nervously giggled, "Oh isn't this great? Do you have a child auditioning?" To which I replied, "No dear, the child who just auditioned, is me.”