Shannon Plumb has shot over 200 short films, which have been exhibited in museums, galleries, and on international screens. She started by shooting herself as various characters, acting out three-minute situations using humor and silence as her vehicles for storytelling. In 2013, her first feature film, Towheads, premiered at MoMA as part of New Directors / New Films. You can see her short films at shannonplumb.com and Towheads is available on Netflix and iTunes. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, director Derek Cianfrance, and their two sons.
Fear seized my four-year-old body. I wore a pink tutu and bunny ears. I crossed my legs like a twist tie around a bag of white bread. I squeezed my thighs tight, hoping not to pee onto the stage through my pink leotard and white stockings. I stood there, like a glacier peeking out of the Arctic Ocean. Fifteen other bunnies successfully hopped and thumped around me. This was my first dance recital. I was supposed to wiggle my cotton tail and tap my feet. I couldn’t move or I would pee.
I had no idea how many years it would be before I could hop like those other bunnies. But something told me I was a hopper. To occupy a space on stage, you needed to earn it. The journey would be long.
The stage can be anything: a raised platform beyond red velvet curtains, or a dirt floor within a circle of onlookers. When you walk on stage, you enter a realm of transformation. You can become a head of cabbage, or an emperor with no clothes. The only boundaries are the edges between reality and make-believe. It’s a place for storytelling. The actor is the vehicle of the telling. The telling is heard by many. But don’t get too cocky. The stage will also test you. Are you focused? Are you brave? Is what you feel real.? If you’re not ready, the stage will annihilate you.
The first stage I created was when I was seven. It was on the carpet next to the record player. I turned on the strobe light that Santa gave me. I put it close to my face. In a heavy nightgown that looked important, with a silenced microphone, I sang along with Donna Summer to an invisible crowd. There was something transformative going on. There was also something nauseating going on. The strobe light made me dizzy and I collided with the ground.
In fourth grade, I played a Native American in Peter Pan who had no lines. As a teenager, with crimped hair and fuzzy pink pants, I walked across the screen in a Radio Shack commercial. When I attended community college, this acting thing got serious. I had to kiss someone on stage. I made it through without freezing up. I can’t say it was a good performance, or a good kiss. At the end, the audience hesitated before all three of them clapped. As I bowed under the heat of a flickering spotlight, I thought, “This is where I want to be.” I wanted to be an actor.
The next summer, I apprenticed at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. I got one part. I was cast as a catatonic inmate in Marat/Sade. I rocked forward and back on the main stage for two hours every night. I bruised my coccyx. I had more to learn.
Why was I torturing myself? Why pursue acting? It didn’t come naturally for me. I was such a shy kid and an awkward young person. If people guessed what I would be when I grew up, they might say … actually, no one offered a guess as to what I would be. Except my grandma. She said I would be a writer. Because I was quiet and withdrawn, because I hid myself behind baggy clothes and spoke with nervous lips, no one imagined I yearned for the spotlight. What could I possibly do on stage? I’m still wondering. But when I see the stage, whether it holds a set or if it’s empty, I want to tell a story, and I want to tapdance my butt off. (I can’t tapdance.)
After being accepted into the theatre program at SUNY New Paltz, I visited the stage every day – acting classes, voice lessons, auditions. Over and over again, I failed. I was stuck like Jack in a broken box. I couldn’t bust out. “More!” the teacher would yell. “Give us more.” I wasn’t free up there. I was still that twisted-up, frozen bunny, unable to thaw out in the spotlight.
Four years went by. I didn’t get cast in a lot of productions. I remember a teacher stressing that life experience was so important for an actor. I left school and drove cross-country. Three months on the road seemingly wasn’t enough living, though. I still wasn’t a great actor.
When I moved to New York City, I got an audition with a very reputable agent. When I arrived at her Midtown office, she told me, “If the phone rings in the middle of your monologue, we can ignore it. Just let it ring.” I sat down on a couch and started my monologue. This could be everything. This could make me. This could start my thespian life in NYC. I could become a real actor! Maybe even in movies! I got to the middle of the monologue, the part about throwing frogs into the street, and the phone rang. I ignored it. I kept to my character and to the frogs. It rang again and this time … the agent picked up the phone. Except I wasn’t finished! She started talking into the receiver. How bad was I? The words to the rest of the monologue faded like the transition in a movie when a character dies.
I lived in the city and worked at a café, then a bar, then a café, then a bar. I never auditioned for an agent again, but acting was always on my mind. I took a job as a delivery girl, bringing meals to fashion photographers. I was noticed by Mario Sorrenti, which began a decade-long relationship of him taking pictures of me. The first time I posed, I felt that familiar sense of a stage. Behind me was a white backdrop. The audience was a small group of assistants, a makeup artist, a hair stylist, a magazine editor. The director was Mario. This was an unusual stage in that I wasn’t transforming into anything else. I was actually becoming more of myself. I was discovering Me. Mario built a safe space on a small stage where I was able to confront my insecurities, where I learned to play. Stripped down (literally naked, sometimes) and vulnerable, this is where I built my confidence. And then, when I heard Mario laugh at my performance, I knew I was on to something that would be a part of my life for the rest of my days. I was finally thawing out. (Thank you, Mario.)
But I still had to find my stage. It wasn’t going to be on Broadway or in a Hollywood movie. If that was in my future, I certainly couldn’t wait. All I needed was a wall behind me, and a piece of floor. First I found it in a kitchen, then a studio, and lastly in an attic. I put a Super 8 camera on a tripod and it became my spectator, witness, audience. I sat outside the perimeters of this space and waited. Did I have a muse? What would it tell me? Would it tell me how to “make them laugh”? The space was empty, but the possibilities endless. I slipped into a costume, adjusted my wig, taped a mustache to my upper lip. Then I stepped onto my stage. I filmed myself. I became a one-man band playing all the instruments. It was lo-fi in every sense. But I was acting. I made my own films with just myself in them for the next 25 years.
While I explored the limitations and the creative freedom of my homemade stage, my husband was getting famous on the larger stage. The films he made were attracting many up-and-coming actors from Hollywood. While he filmed with Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams for Blue Valentine, I stayed home and pushed a stroller through Brookyln, I wrote a script, I ran to the attic during naptime and performed for the camera. When he returned from shooting, we watched the dailies together. I saw great performances from these two actors. I can’t tell you how bad I wished that was me on the screen. I’d been making my own films and just swimming around contentedly in my own kiddy pool until … I saw how close I was to that great big stage. I was eating pumpkin pie with Ryan, talking motherhood with Michelle, and then running up the stairs to perform alone in a hot attic. I could look up at the stars, but I couldn’t be one. I admired both Ryan and Michelle. I heard their stories. They worked hard. They deserved to be up on the silver screen. I related a lot to Ryan. We spoke about the stage. We had a similar passion and regard for it. We felt an allegiance to it. We spoke about the masters of physical comedy. I thought of all the experiences he would have as an actor, the best of the best he would work with and the characters he would play. I thought of all the people he could reach with his performances. He had a purpose. He was contributing his talent to the world. I thought, I wish I was Ryan.
My husband made more movies and inspired more great performances. We were dining with the gatekeepers of Hollywood, the biggest agents, most notorious producers, acclaimed writers. If you were an up-and-coming actor, these were the people you wanted to get noticed by. It took a sledgehammer for most actors to get through this door. I was there without knocking. But I was the wife. Not to be taken seriously. I could sit at a table for a two-hour meal and not one person would ask me what I did for a living. I’d silently sit there thinking, “Here I am!” But I was nowhere and I was invisible. If somebody had just turned on the spotlight, I’d show them what I can do. Look! Come see my films projected on a bedsheet in the backyard. I just need you to see me. I’m not just his wife. I’m an actor! I’m ready now. I’m thawed out!
While the actor’s strike continues, I pluck silver from my eyebrows and wonder why I wanted to become an actor. We struggle for roles, struggle to be seen, struggle to get paid. We humiliate ourselves. We rehearse words incessantly until they make a new groove in our brain. We drag props around town looking for our space on stage. When we try to walk away, the stage lures us back. There’s no exit from the never-ending world of make-believe.
I think I’ll make some changes. I won’t compare myself to Ryan anymore. I won’t beg for others to see me. I won’t feel pathetic, like I used to, when I deposit my $1.70 Screen Actors Guild check into the bank. I’ll continue to hone my one-man band skills. I’ll go cross country a few more times. I won’t rely on the gatekeepers to open the door. Sometimes, we can’t be on the main stage. Sometimes, we just have to make our own.