Trick or Treat, the story of an impostor in theatre school

An imposter at playing make believe

A couple of recent conversations with colleagues have been really impactful. Some aspects of what Seth Godin calls ‘practical empathy’ had escaped me.

I had forgotten that the people I work with and the people I serve don’t know what I know or think what I think. I had taken my expertise for granted much to the detriment of both myself and my clients.

This is part five of what started as a five part series that is now six or maybe seven parts. Counting is difficult. Here, I’m exploring my personal, practical knowledge and why it enables me to help people build more resilient businesses, relationships, and lives by connecting better with themselves and the world around them. My hope is that from reading these, you might see yourself in some of my stories. Perhaps you’ll find the courage and humility to get help and become more resilient in all aspects of your life.


These Sunday posts are becoming the first draft of my second book. The Book of Wrong Answers Volume 2 - Exploding Canaries.

An impostor at playing make believe?

What could be more absurd?

That’s all theatre and acting is - playing make believe

And for a big chunk of my career, I believed that I wasn’t ‘good enough’ at make believe.

There I was, in the heart of redwood country in Humboldt County California.

I was surrounded by incredible, lush beauty. My classmates were eager, accepting and friendly. 

And me?

I desperately wanted to disappear.

We had just finished our first assignment - it was to merely present ourselves to our classmates. I was expected to do a ‘personal introduction’. I felt such pressure to perform, to be good and to show people that I deserved to be there that my ‘performance’ was just that -  a performance. It was a pushy, ugly, contorted display that showed just how badly I wanted to be thought of as ‘cool.’

It showed nothing more of me than my insecurity.

At the time, I believed in my heart of hearts that I did not belong there. I believed that everyone else was more talented, funnier, more creative and WAY more deserving. I was terrified that if they only knew my terrible secret, I’d be asked to pack my bags and shipped back home more quickly than  the local pot pickers could scatter at the sound of a helicopter.

My dirty secret? My audition. I pooched it. Really. It was awful. I was awful. I spent a month creating the audition piece entitled ‘my autobiography’. I wrote. I fussed and fantasized. My ideas were bad. I didn’t rehearse. I had to stop twice, totally humiliated. It was really awful. Stubbornly, I kept going. I insisted on finishing. When the man who auditioned me asked me to do it again, I obliged. 

Afterwards, we went for a beer. He was a friend who had gone to the school for a summer workshop. He told me that he would merely tell the story of what took place during the audition and give his recommendations. 

Given how poorly I performed, I believed that I was sunk. Though I did my best, my best wasn’t very good at all.

This was familiar to me. I would show up, do my best and try to deliver what I thought was desired and expected from me. I’d fall short, feel humiliated, drink too much and move on.

Imagine to my surprise that a month later I received a letter from the Dell Arte International School for Physical Theatre accepting me into their training program. 

There had to have been a mistake. Did David lie to them? How could this be possible? How could someone who screwed up so terribly be accepted into a clown school?

In retrospect, the answer to these questions is obvious. I was accepted because I showed up. I persevered. I kept trying. I failed and continued. I failed and did it again. I screwed up and did it anyway. I was resilient. I had the spirit of a clown. And yet, I expected to have the skills of a clown before even going to clown school.

I believed that I needed to be good at this stuff before I got there.

I had not yet learned that that learning is a journey. I had not yet discovered that being terrible at something is an essential part of the creative process. So, instead of taking risks, I tried to make something good. I tried to look good, cool and in control. In reality? The work that connected expressed a truth about the people on stage.

The successful ones could share a bit of themselves in a way that could connect with the audience. The work they did was an invitation. The work I did was a front.

I finished the year at that theatre school. The whole time I was there I felt like I didn’t belong. I believed that I wasn’t good enough. Most of the work I created there was forgettable, trite and mediocre at best. I left there feeling an arrogance for attending and a failure for the quality of my work. I felt like an impostor every day.

And yet?

This impostor walked into a seventeen year career as an arts educator. 

This impostor created and performed numerous shows.

This impostor faked it onto some of the nicest stages that you can imagine.

It took about a decade of doing the work to believe that I could do the work.

As a therapist, it took about three or four years to believe that I could do this work too.

As a writer? 

I don’t yet know what I don’t know about my writing.

I could invite you to let me know what I’m doing wrong.

But for now?

I’m just going to pretend that I know what I’m doing enough to be a really good imitation of being a writer.

I’ve learned that instead of pretending to have it together, it’s easier to have fun being an impostor. 

Hopefully this trick brings us all lots of treats.

Happy Halloween folks