When I wrote on my application to Yale that I intended to major in theater studies, I didn’t foresee that that would make me a grand strategist in some of my friends’ eyes. They thought I branded myself as the first Chinese theater studies major, and played the strategy well.
The reality was neither grand nor strategic. First, I really didn’t know at the time what I wanted to do in college, and “undecided” just sounded uncool. Second, I did have a passion for theater in high school.
Be warned, though: By speaking of “theater,” I’m referring to its very primitive version in geographically landlocked, economically underdeveloped and culturally conservative southwestern China, where the concepts of stage left and stage right were absent, and Jodie Foster assassination–inducing glamour was unheard of.
Hence my underestimation of the selectiveness of theater auditions at Yale, whether Shakespearean or modern. Spring term of freshman year, having familiarized myself with all the graceful transition phrases like “after careful consideration” in the rejection e-mails I received, I discovered to my joy that my supervisor in a Model UN conference was co-directing a play.
I went to the audition, and I made a shameful conquest of myself. My former boss told me that despite admirable courage, my (lack of) facility with the English language left much to be desired. She didn’t even bother to mention the acting part.
She truly understood the meaning of an honest friend, I suppose. And I kept her lecture in my heart. Soon after that setback, I played the part of the First Emperor (a Chinese tyrant who allegedly killed millions) in the annual Chinese American Students’ Association Cultural Show. That was a really big deal for me. I memorized my lines during spring break in New Orleans and edited the script to make my debut a blast. The feedback was excellent. In the worst case, my audience should’ve expected a Chinese emperor to speak English with a broken accent.
I pumped up my newly collected spirit and went to another audition for a Shakespeare play. The instructions were straightforward: deliver a monologue (from Shakespeare, of course) of your choice. That was great for me, since it meant I could prepare in advance. I made sure that I mastered John of Gaunt’s monologue from “Richard II” before I performed it in front of the director with all my enthusiasm. She smiled, nodded, and said she was impressed and that we would be in touch soon.
We never were — except that I saw her sitting two rows in front of me when I went to watch “Richard II” at the Yale Rep the next weekend, in which the actor playing John of Gaunt totally messed up his lines. The poor guy was performing Act II, Scene I, the very part I did at the audition. I couldn’t help thinking what she must have thought at that moment. Here’s my guess: “An eagle sometimes flies lower than a chicken, but a chicken can never reach the height of an eagle.”
If only fmylife.com existed back then.
Not even the annual CASA Cultural Show, in which I diligently performed for three years, pronounced anything else but more RIPs to my attempt to break into the entertainment industry. The funny impromptu lines, of course, were a sign that I was too lazy to memorize the “official” lines. Moreover, my three directors invariably assigned me the most wicked characters in three different plays — from a tyrant to a mafia head, and then to a greedy restaurant owner — which I reckon is not because I possess the genius of Heath Ledger, but because I’m evil enough to deliver the performance by simply being myself on the stage.
I have finally realized, not without much painful self-reflection, that I, a rising senior majoring in history and headed to the corporate world, might just be too good for an acting career. But I keep thinking about the only (no kidding) valuable thing I learned from Jonathan Spence’s famous course on China. To close the last lecture he read a Mark Strand poem to analogize the pursuit of knowledge and happiness: “For all you know I may/ have a passion for fires.” The fact that “we’re on a train” heading to our own destinations rather than toward the fire, combined with our utter inability “to do anything about it,” ultimately “kindles a love of fire.”
I slept through all of Spence’s lectures but that one. I’m glad I stayed awake that morning. I realized that sometimes reaching for the crazily unattainable excites us and lifts us from our secure yet jaded life. I may never be an actor, not even the third-class Ronald Reagan type, but who cares if I left no trace of wings in the air? I’ve at least had my attempted flight.
Robert Li is a junior in Ezra Stiles College.