Today is October 22 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you open every door?” As poet Emily Dickinson wrote “Not knowing when the dawn will come I open every door.” People like Irish born theater actor Denise Gough, author Carren Lissner, and actor Nichelle Nichols each understood the value of Dickinson’s quote as they navigated the chaos in their respective fields.
When Gough she was 15, she left home for London, with a boyfriend and “London kicked the shit out of me,” she said. She was a wild, broke teenager, quickly split up with the boyfriend and had a rough time. She worked in a bar, and, at 19, received a full scholarship to the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts.
Despite winning ‘Most Promising Newcomer’ from the Critics Circle in 2012 (for Desire Under the Elms), when People, Places, Things came up, Gough was still little known and had not worked for a year. She calls it her year in Siberia, but instead of torturing herself about failed auditions, she learned to bolster her self-esteem through yoga, soul searching, and hanging out with her nephews and nieces. She struggled financially, working in a children’s nursery, and as a waitress, borrowing money from her sister. When Gough read the script for People, Places, Things, she knew this was the one, that Emma was a pivotal role. She also knew that if she didn’t get the part, she was going to give up.
In an interview Gough said “I read it and I thought, bloody hell – if it is not this, I’m done. I cannot be dealing with reading a perfect part and then it not being mine. I went into the audition and I tore the room apart. I snorted icing sugar which I’d brought with me; I rolled a cigarette and knocked over chairs and at the end of it I read them this piece by Pia Mellody about addiction, about how brave addicts are, and when I left I wished them well and said, ‘I hope you find the right person,’ because I thought, I’m not doing this anymore.”
“It was one of those mythic auditions,” recalled writer Duncan Macmillan. “This play needs a talent, someone very charismatic. Denise came in and grabbed it by the throat and wrestled it to the floor.” While Gough opened her door in theater, Lissner did the same in publishing and realized if you wait for life to hand you opportunities you may be waiting a long time. In an article published in The Atlantic, Lissner tells the story of how she seized one opportunity after another until her first novel, Carrie Pilby, was made into a movie.
According to Lisser: “Five years ago, I got an email from two Hollywood producers who wanted to turn my first novel, Carrie Pilby, into a movie. I was thrilled but reminded myself not to expect much. After all, in the years since the book’s publication in 2003, two other production companies had paid me a few thousand dollars each to option the rights for a year, and nothing had come of it. Should I really fantasize about my characters living and breathing on the big screen? Nearly a decade later, I was struggling with revisions to a new book, still living in a tiny apartment in the town I’d moved to after college, and about to turn 40. I really wanted my writing to reach a new audience. Actually, I really wanted to be able to afford furniture.”
When it was all said and done, one opportunity helped form the foundation for another, and then another. Eventually, after 14 years of false starts, navigating Hollywood, Lissner received a modest payout for her book Carrie Pilby to be adapted into a Netflix film. While Gough and Lissner opened doors to advance their careers, Nichols needed to be reminded of the door she was opening for African Americans and how important it was for her to keep it open. On Nov. 22, 1968, an episode of “Star Trek” titled “Plato’s Stepchildren” broadcast the first interracial kiss on American television between actors Nichelle Nichols and William Shatner. The kiss, however, would never have happened had it not been for a conversation Nichols had.
In 1966, “Star Trek” creator Gene Rodenberry decided to cast Nichelle Nichols to play Lieutenant Uhura, a translator and communications officer from the United States of Africa. In doing so, he made Nichols the first African American woman to have a continuing co-starring role on television. After the first season of “Star Trek” concluded in 1967, Nichols considered quitting after being offered a role on Broadway. She had started her career as a singer in New York and always dreamed of returning to the Big Apple.
But at a NAACP fundraiser in Los Angeles, she ran into Martin Luther King Jr. Nichols would later recount their interaction and said King told her “You must not leave. You have opened a door that must not be allowed to close…you changed the face of television forever…For the first time, the world sees us as we should be seen, as equals, as intelligent people.” King went on to say that he and his family were fans of the show; she was a “hero” to his children. With King’s encouragement, Nichols stayed on “Star Trek” for the original series’ full three-year run.
How often do you open every door?