Debra Doggett has been many things in life: actor, filmmaker, historian, writer, but finds putting words to paper the most satisfying. After years of moving around the US, she’s settled in the desert of New Mexico, a far cry from her birthplace in Louisiana. During all her travels, she’s learned, ”You never know where life will go.”
It was the last place I expected to be. Yet there I was, trying not to flinch, a middle-aged, overweight woman, standing center stage as if I belonged there. My feet planted firmly on the painted wood beneath me, I forced my gaze out at the waiting audience. They couldn’t scare me, not at this point. I’d been through too much to get here.
For three long years I had watched my husband stare death in the face. The diabetes had eaten away at his liver and kidneys, maiming them beyond repair. I tried to adapt as words like dialysis and medical terms I couldn’t pronounce became part of our daily life. My children—two teenagers and my youngest, only nine—searched for words that would help them understand an experience they shouldn’t be having at their age. And for three years I cried in silence while the man I’d vowed to grow old with left this world without me.
We packed what little we could take and headed our yellow Dodge van west to Colorado. I was short on confidence and long on need, living once again in my parents’ home at the age of thirty-nine.
My three girls and I shared the cramped living room of my parents’ small house, sleeping on couches and mattresses lining the floor, walking through this new life like shell-shocked refugees from a war we’d lost. Though the inside space was small, the fifty acres that surrounded the tiny house was more breathing room than we’d had in years. And the stars in the vast Colorado sky weren’t hidden by street lights or neon signs. They hung in the ethereal canvas like lanterns. In the early hours of most mornings, I gave up all attempts to sleep and stumbled out to the metal lounge in the wide-open front yard. I’d flop myself down on the worn cushion and watch as the stars faded with the dawn’s light, and I’d wonder if there was a message in the night’s passage that would help me make sense of what had happened.
After years of city living, it amazed me to see stars—real stars—glistening in a sky so immense it seemed endless. The road back to life that lay before me seemed endless, as well. On the drive west I’d tried to tell the girls this was our chance for a do-over, tried to convince them this was the change we needed to get our feet under us now that their father’s hard-fought battle was over. And they tried to believe me. They needed a reason to smile again, a life that could give them some happiness. I needed a paying job, a new car, and health insurance.
I realized later that some wishes should be phrased very specifically. The job I found working in a children’s shelter paid, but the money was gone long before our needs were. For years, college had been a dream of mine, and now it offered a way out of the six-dollar-an-hour pit that the working world afforded, so I headed back to the classroom.
After filling up my schedule with the “important” classes, I took a long look at what I’d be studying and decided I needed a reason to smile again, too. So I followed a whim and signed up for Acting One. Long ago, in another life, I’d dreamed of being on stage, on film, anywhere I could use words to create an aura, a persona. As a child I’d sat in a darkened movie theatre as often as time and money allowed, eating stale buttery-slick popcorn while glued to the flickering images in living celluloid color. At home I ran my mind back through the clever dialogue and twisting plot turns, adding my own touches to each performance. I soaked up every sound, every voice and accent I heard. Each and every story rolled around in my head until I knew it completely and could add my own nuances to it.
Time and a newfound love drove a wedge between my far-flung dreams and my everyday reality. Life shared a new purpose through building a family, then took it away in a heartbeat with death. Finally—after returning to my childhood home with my own girls and bailing the river of depression out of my soul—I stood on the bare stage and felt my life flood back into me.
Words have always been a balm to me. They amaze me, move me, change me with their veiled innuendo and charged expression. As I let the words I had so carefully memorized march out of my mouth and across the wooden stage, taking shape and form as they took control of the space itself, they reminded me of the life that still flowed within my soul.
The gift of words was reborn within me that moment. They opened my eyes once again to the truth that their power could create both illusion and reality, their form could build the fiction of the prose I struggled to get out of my head and onto a computer. Their color could bring art back into my life. And they possessed the power to heal the real wounds that hindered my soul.
As I stood there, swept up in the story and the drama, I felt strong, stronger than I’d felt in three years. Raw, creative power walked through me and I didn’t want to let it go. I closed out the noise of my inner critic and took hold of the strength washing over me. Actors talk about being “in the moment.” The moment inhabited me that day, on that stage as I created a window of truth for my audience. I told them a story, moved them with the emotion of it and let them go with me on its journey. Each word shaped them along with the space as I reveled in the feel of creation’s breath. When it ended, the moment left me with a wondrous gift, a sight that did more healing of my wounded heart than anything else I’d tried. Creating left me with an open window where I saw a life with purpose again. My window of opportunity stood there at center stage, bringing me the breeze of a new life.
Some years have passed since that first spark, years that have brought much needed change. One thing that did not change was the need to be a part of the theatre. Big productions or small ones, professional or community, acting, directing or making props, the stage still offers that fresh breeze that keeps the creativity that lives inside me growing. Now I write the words that others say and hope those words bring the same spark to someone sitting out there in a seat, watching and wondering what will happen next.
Photo credit: “Empty Stage” by Max Wolfe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.