Updated: Sep 10, 2020
“She isn’t a star.”
Even as I type those words, I feel my face get warm and tears filling up behind my eyes.
My manager, Shirley Kirshbaum, and I were discussing a recent meeting she had with an arts administrator regarding future possibilities and projects. Shirley and I have a wonderful relationship. We share a mutual trust in each other’s expertise and a compassionate honesty in all things. I could tell she was hesitant to share this short summation of the meeting with me. Shirley made it very clear that she vehemently disagreed with this feedback and that any opportunity for discussion or clarification about this particular feedback was rebuffed.
I think my response was, “Wow. Ok. That’s that, then.” Part of me was relieved because I had been smacking my head against the wall trying to impress the powers that be. The other part of me, the part I hid from public view, was sent back to the days when I was bullied in junior high. I immediately felt insignificant, raw and that my diligent work and skill set had been nullified. Before I left Shirley’s office, she lovingly assured me that one person, one place, does not a career make and that there were plenty of people and places who respected my work and enjoyed working with me. We hugged and I deeply appreciated her concern for my well-being.
I left Shirley’s office and burst into tears. What does “She’s not a star” mean? I started to question everything from my voice, my technique, my looks, my acting abilities, my social media presence…there was no personal stone left unturned. I put myself through the ringer on every possible level. My ego was bruised, my heart was broken and I couldn’t make sense of it all.
Chris – my husband, best friend, and most valued musical partner – supported me as I leaned on him, cried, and ranted. He patiently listened as I spun circles in my frustration and anger. Then he said something which provided me a flicker of light so I could begin a path out of the dark, awful place where I found myself.
“You know who you are. You know what you want. Trust yourself.”
Chris knew that I had spent a lifetime making big choices. These choices were always in complete agreement with OR direct opposition to feedback I had received. When I decided to accept the offer to join the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, I had plenty of people tell me that they didn’t think I would survive. I not only survived, but that experience was precisely what I needed at that point of my development. When Chris and I programmed our New York debut recital, we were met with questions and doubt regarding our programming selections. Our program, and dedication to it, was one of the most lauded aspects of the experience. This list of choices is long and varied, but I managed to filter through things and make decisions that felt authentic and kept me centered and joyous.
Here I was, faced with another choice – 1) Do I attempt to continue to decode this piece of feedback and focus my energy in a way which doesn’t feel authentic to who I am? Or 2) Do I discard this feedback and focus my energy in ways which are authentic to my beliefs and principles? In this particular instance, I chose to discard the feedback I received. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. The scar is still there, but it continues to heal and fade with each passing choice I make that is authentic to who I am.
Jennifer Johnson Cano as Carmen at Boston Lyric Opera
Fast forward, if you will, to discussions between myself and Tracy Cox regarding a topic I could address for M Institute for the Arts. The criteria I set for myself was to discuss a topic which was both deeply personal, and yet, universal. I also wanted to, not only, address said issue, but (hopefully!) provide a demystifying guide. And thus, The F Word was born.
A funny thing happened when I hit my thirties. I found myself in a position of being asked for my feedback. Truth be told, I keep looking over my shoulder as I assume someone is speaking to a wise authority figure, standing behind me. This role as an educator and my responsibility as junior-senior member of our global arts community is one I take seriously. I hope The F Word series will provide time and space for artists to trust themselves, find their centers and be their wonderfully, authentic selves. I further hope that the participants in the webinar will have resources at their disposal to examine the feedback they will, ultimately, be asked to provide. The possible result of these combined efforts might be a more vibrant, creative and truthful artform.
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