The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

TCK TALENT: Why do so many Adult Third Culture Kids gravitate toward acting, and is that the best use of their talents?

Com & Trag Collage

Tragedy and Comedy, Scarborough Hotel, Bishopgate, Leeds. Photo credit: Tim Green via Flickr.

Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is back with her monthly column about Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) who work in creative fields, Lisa herself being a prime example. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she has developed her own one-woman show about being a TCK, which will be the closing keynote at this year’s Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference, “The Global Family.”

In my last column, I interviewed Laura Piquado, a professional actress based in New York who grew up in six countries, including Egypt, where we were drama classmates in high school. As a result of the interview, Laura, editor ML Awanohara, and I had a lively discussion about Laura’s career change from education/activism to acting.

ML said she was puzzled as to why so many intelligent, well-educated Adult Third Culture Kids feel so at home in the acting world. She expressed concern that acting might cultivate a narcissistic outlook on life, which is the opposite of a TCK’s worldly upbringing. She said she found it particularly jarring that Laura could go from go from almost doing a PhD on women’s education in post-conflict societies, to enrolling in acting school—and not look back.

Laura’s response was so eloquent that I am posting it here.

Before you read it, I recommend watching this TED Talk by British actor Thandie Newton:

Born to a Zimbabwean mother and English father, Newton always felt disconnected or “other” while growing up in the UK:

“From about the age of 5, I was aware that I didn’t fit. I was the black, atheist kid in the all-white, Catholic school run by nuns. I was an anomaly.”

Acting gave her a chance to play with her different selves.

And now from Laura Piquado:

I had a similar reaction to yours, Lisa, in seeing acting described by ML as a narcissistic endeavor. While I can certainly understand that reputation (indeed, the Golden Globe awards), I have always idealized what theatre can be: life-changing, hopeful, inspiring, and necessary. It’s the worst to be onstage with someone who’s “masturbating” their way through a show (and equally as painful for an audience member).

I was in Maine a few years ago at a craft school (I’m a potter), and I sat next to a visiting artist at dinner (the amazing Hungarian-born sculptor Gyöngy Lake). She asked me what I did. When I told her I was an actor she said:

“We love you! We need you! You tell the stories of our lives!”

Now while that sounds uber-maudlin, I was completely overwhelmed. I had known this woman for less than two minutes, but she had described, for me, what the essence of art is.

On the other hand, I don’t want to get beaten over the head with social and political commentary every time I go to the theatre. I mean, I love Brecht, but can you imagine if that’s all theatre was? Mother Courage after Mother Courage, after The Caucasian Chalk Circle, after Arturo Ui…ugh. People would stop going. There’s room for pomp-y, wacky, ridiculousness (all hail The Book of Mormon), and everything in between. But I do think theatre at its best, the stories that stay with you, are the ones that connect to a deeper human context.

I was reading an interview with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer in the New York Review of Books where he recounts a story he heard while a law student:

At the turn of the last century, the court was called upon to decide a case on prices for theater tickets—could they be considered basic necessities, and could they be regulated as such? The majority thought the theatre was not a necessity. The great Justice Olive Wendell Holmes Jr. replied in his dissent: “We have not that respect for art that is one of the glories of France. But to many people, the superfluous is the necessary.”

The interview was a larger discourse on France and Proust, but the point Holmes made about the necessity of art resonates.

ML also made the comment:

An interest in international affairs implies that you care about effecting positive social change on behalf of less fortunate people… Do you foresee bringing those two strands of your life together at some point?

The notion of “effecting positive social change” is what I’ll respond to. Again, it’s what I believe theatre can be, from Winter Miller‘s In Darfur to Moisés Kaufman‘s The Laramie Project. Being a part of that kind of theatre is deeply gratifying and something I always seek out. (Or as a potter: being able to go to communities to work with local artisans to make pots that filter clean, potable water falls into that same category.)

The leap from one discipline (social justice through academia) to another (theatre) wasn’t so quantum for me. And while they are vastly different on so many practical and actual levels, “effecting positive social change,” for me, lies at the heart of both.

* * *

So, readers, do you have anything to add to the debate? Are we ATCKs doing ourselves, and the world, a disservice by turning to acting, or can acting be one of our more profound contributions?

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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9 responses to “TCK TALENT: Why do so many Adult Third Culture Kids gravitate toward acting, and is that the best use of their talents?

  1. ML Awanohara February 1, 2014 at 9:40 am

    Laura, I’m grateful to you for highlighting the NYRB interview with Justice Breyer. I like the passage you quoted, and I also like it where he says:

    To me, the distinguishing characteristic of human beings is the desire to create order out of chaos, to give form to the universe. We are surrounded by colors, shapes, and sounds. We can arrange all these things in an attractive and constructive manner, as in a painting or a symphony. And that is what Proust did with his writing. Of course, he was supremely talented—but I firmly believe that every one of us can, to some extent, try to establish order amid chaos.

    I think he’s pinpointed what the creative life, and all of our creative endeavors, are about. I also think that by his own example, he shows us what it means to be a Renaissance person. I remember when I returned to the U.S. from my world travels and ended up doing a journalism job, my mother, who trained as a journalist, said that she thought my international life was the best background for journalism. One couldn’t get the perspective of other people and what they go thru just by attending j-school.

    That’s what I love about you ATCKs (at least the ones in Lisa’s group): you’re all Renaissance people that draw on all kinds of influences from your backgrounds to make a creative contribution. I just wish more of you were in public life, that’s all! Especially at a time when our society is stuck with the likes of Chris Christie — can you believe he was a presidential hopeful who at one point realistically aspired to becoming his party’s presidential candidate? We need some talented TCKs to stand up and make a difference in our domestic and international affairs, imho.

    • cindamackinnon February 1, 2014 at 3:38 pm

      Renaissance people ! YES! I like to think of myself that way. I write, play music, study languages ( one at a time), raise guide dog puppies for the blind, dabble in hydrology, biology and geology. My sister is the same way. Of course this makes for a “tinker of many trades and master of none”! So many interesting things to do, I never have enough time and can’t understand how anyone could ever be bored!

    • Lisa Liang February 2, 2014 at 1:39 am

      I wonder if one reason that so many of us go into acting and/or writing is: we’re so used to being “good guests” that we have a stronger need to express ourselves when we grow up, but we do it through characters, which is empathetic yet cathartic. And: we’ve seen how fiercely people believe in their own prejudices, so we know what an uphill battle it can be to effect change through policy. And many of us have lived in countries with exhausting bureaucracies so we want to avoid working in that field. Plus we’ve been the “new kid” enough times to want to be able to control others’ perceptions of us, which is easier to do on stage/screen (in character) than in public office. And acting in a great play like The Laramie Project is a more artistically fulfilling way to effect change than working in a government office. At least for us creative types–we want to move people and perhaps change their minds while we ourselves are also challenged and fulfilled. Maybe there’s a selfishness in that, but I think it’s the good kind: making oneself happy while trying to do good.

      That said, here’s an ATCK in public service: President Obama–probably the most famous ATCK alive–and I did see evidence of his global upbringing when he first came to office and visited different countries, in the way that he conducted himself. John Kerry, Christiane Amanpour, and John McCain are the others I know who are in politics or journalism.

      • ML Awanohara February 3, 2014 at 8:22 pm

        Well, there is definitely a relationship between politics and acting. Actors have a thing for becoming politicians in this country. And actors the world over embrace (or are tapped to become involved in) various political causes, whether humanitarian (eg, Angelina Jolie) or national (eg, those who fundraise for President Obama).

        Funnily enough, I recently happened upon a review of a 2006 book about Betty Davis. When she became became the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, she shocked the members by talking about the plight about America’s friends in Europe and their struggle against the Nazis. According to the reviewer:

        That moment, when she reminded the academy members that there were matters in the world more urgent than award galas, was characteristic–a foreshadowing of her haunted feelings, as war drew near, that acting was impossibly trivial work, under the circumstances: Hitler had conquered most of Europe, and it seemed every day that England might go under.

        Eventually, she (and fellow actors) would throw herself into every aspect of the war effort she could, exhausting herself on War Bond tours and forming a Victory Committee.

        While it’s impossible to imagine today’s actors supporting a war effort by the United States, they do support, as already mentioned, various liberal (national and international) causes. And ATCK actors, one would think, ought to be leading the way. The conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks advises the nation’s future leaders to become, in essence, expats:

        Go off and become a stranger in a strange land. Go off to some alien part of this country or the world. Immerse yourself in the habits and daily patterns of that existence and stay there long enough to get acculturated. Stay there long enough so that you forget the herd mentality of our partisan culture.

        When you return home, you will look at your own place with foreign eyes. You’ll see the contours of your own reality more clearly. When you return to native ground, you’re more likely to possess the sort of perceptiveness that Isaiah Berlin says is the basis of political judgment.

        You ATCKs, thanks to your parents, already have a headstart here.

        Just sayin’!

  2. diahannreyes February 7, 2014 at 1:02 pm

    Really interesting response by Laura! For me, as a TCK, I learned to bring out different aspects of myself as a matter of trying to figure out how to fit in or not- geek girl, prom girl, nerd, social outcast- I was all of them in the span of six years. So much of acting isn’t about becoming someone else but about how the character becomes because of who you are- so I think that is another reason TCK’s gravitate to this profession. I think too we can develop a really strong awareness of our inner world–the only landscape that stays consistent for us during our geographic moves- so that is a definite plus when it comes to understanding a character’s inner life because connecting that way is second nature for us.

    • Lisa Liang February 12, 2014 at 12:47 am

      Yes! And what was odd for me was this: it was easier to express my inner world in character than in real life. (I suppressed a lot in real life for a long time. Yet everything was still keenly felt.) This is true for many ATCKs of our generation but I don’t know if it’s as true for TCKs today. I wonder…

  3. Alaine March 4, 2014 at 1:02 am

    Absolutely the need to combine our upbringing as a TCK and our talents and skills as artists is the reason why I keep doing this. When we bring about our compassion for the world, it shows in our art. I laughed at the “masturbating” through a show comment b/c I hate watching self-indulgent shows. However, I also agree that we can’t all just keep doing social commentary b/c that would be like a news report through a piece of theater or interpretative dance which would read more like an op-ed piece in the NY Times. hah! On the personal level, I feel a pull towards combining my many talents as an artist, an individual with my background as a TCK.

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