by Jake Taylor
Some may say that to be an artist, one must also be a troubled soul; he must be anguished and tormented, for in this struggle does he produce his finest art. Even if my opinion held any such authority, I would hardly feel qualified to reply. Yet, if I did choose to give my two cents, I think I might respond in the contrary. It’s not that I don’t think that anguish produces art; I am a whole-hearted believer in such a process. Rather, I think the untroubled soul is rarer than one might believe. If we took the time to contemplate our existence, I would argue that no one person would find themselves without adversity. Such hardship will vary, of course. My struggle is different from yours. Your struggle is different from Fred’s down the street. Still, each has his struggles and they are sincerely and utterly his own. No one can discount those experiences.
Therefore, my objection is not in the fact that a troubled soul will produce art. It is in the specification of torment as something separate from human life. An artist doesn’t need to be a troubled soul; he is one. So is a doctor, a teacher, an athlete, a judge. The human race is made of troubled souls, some with more troubles than others. An artist doesn’t function in suffering alone. An artist must live. An artist must embrace. He must experience a breadth of emotion from torment to bliss. Without that anguish he cannot understand true happiness, without the joy he cannot truly know pain. As an actor, I didn’t always realize this oneness with humanity. I didn’t always look at trials as opportunities. I would never have considered my life to be especially painful…but on second thought, perhaps I was wrong.
As my eighth birthday approached, I couldn’t help but feel both excited and anxious for my upcoming baptism. Like any good Mormon boy, I had been preparing for years in Primary class for the day I could follow Christ’s example and take upon me His name. “It will be like a giant eraser that will take away all of the mistakes you’ve ever made”. They told me I would go in the water dirty and come out completely clean. I would be changed. There was nothing I wanted more. I wanted to be changed. I wanted to be clean. I knew, even from this very young age, that I was different. I wasn’t like the other boys in class. Basketball practice and Little League may have consumed my outward actions, but my inward feelings were drawn elsewhere. I wasn’t afraid of girl cooties. In fact, most of my friends were girls. It was the guys that I had a hard time relating to. By this age in my life, I had heard of “gay” (not very good things about it, but it was in my vocabulary). I feared it. “Gay” filled my belly with the icky feeling I got on big roller coasters. I didn’t want it, but I was scared it was in me. When the uncles would teasingly inquire if I had any little girlfriends in class, I would shyly laugh it off. I’m prone to believe that is where my acting career began. A pretending little boy who wanted so badly to be normal. My body tried to remain calm, my voice would give a little laugh, my brain would avoid, and part of my little boy heart would be forced to entirely shut off. Yes, you could say I was excited for my baptism; surely I would be cured.
Now, in no way do I accept such acting as art. The art would come later. Nevertheless, the search for identity, in itself, is an artistic pursuit. It is a pursuit that I was forced to embark when after my most spiritual event as an eight year old, I realized I was still the little boy who feared himself. I was embarrassed and alone. It would take another decade and half before I ever told anyone about this scary part of myself. I decided at that point that I would do anything I could to avoid this part of who I was. It’s only recently that I’ve attributed this secret torment to the beginning of my artistry. Before this realization, I was much more cliché. My “beginnings” story consisted of a dramatic retelling of my enthusiastic experience watching Titanic in a crowded theatre. I would rave about my obsession with the tragic love story meets crazy awesome action effects. I would go into detail about elementary school recess and the numerous one-man reenactments I staged. I would talk about how it was then and there that I fell in love with movies. Soon enough, I was going to be an actor. Watch out world because here I come! I would leave out the part about my crush on Jack Dawson.
As the years went by, my love for the gospel and the Lord increased, though I couldn’t say the same for my love of self. I was never angry with God. I pushed that anger inward and quietly struggled to find worth. I pressed forward toward my ideals of success. Growing up, I took upon myself many roles; I was the peace-maker of the family, the over-achiever in the classroom, the most studious young man at church, and the poster child for achievement. The joy I felt excelling in these areas helped distract me from the one part of me I could never really change. It was in this struggle that I found art. I found the theatre. I found the limitless possibility of identity without restraint. I could escape the pressure of being me and take on character. I wasn’t allowed to judge the characters I embodied. I had to accept them as they were. I couldn’t change what was written and I didn’t want to. It was exhilarating to be able to embrace full-heartedly every detail of this new persona. My art allowed me to survive. It saved me. If I wasn’t willing to figure out my own identity, I could take on a new one. I became intimately acquainted with so many roles. They became my teachers as I began to realize that in each of these characters was a little piece of myself.
At the age of nineteen, I was preparing to take on my biggest role yet. It wasn’t from a play or a musical, but it was definitely an escape from reality as I knew it. Once again, I felt like the little boy dressed purely in white, stepping down into the baptismal font with clenched fists and eagerness in his eyes—only now, instead of a good Mormon boy, I was a good Mormon young man. After family pictures, kisses, and tears, I left that beautiful Utah autumn. As the green of the trees transformed into radiant shades of yellow, red, and orange, I embarked on the biggest change of scenery I could have imagined. Leaving my little Utah home behind, I started my own transformative journey on a two-year mission trip in Costa Rica. Elder Taylor: Missionary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I learned more about myself in those two years than I had ever imagined. Never had I received so much rejection. Never had I seen such beauty. Never had I had such an overwhelming opportunity to come face to face with the human experience. I learned a language, a culture, and a way of life. I forgot myself and went to work. I loved my mission. I still do. I think about it every day as it shapes my new perspective of life. I learned that God loved me. I discovered that he knew me. I understood that I had a purpose, even though I had no idea what that purpose would be. When one truly takes the time to consider humanity, one cannot separate it from art. There were no opportunities for play productions or musicals in those two years of service, but the air breathed of artistry and my mind flourished with possibility. When I first left the United States, I wanted nothing more than to come back home. When I reached 24 months and my time was drawing to a close, I wept.
When I began this exploration of art and myself, I emphasized the necessity for depth of emotion and experience. If anyone had warned me of such a dramatic shift from exhilarating joy to excruciating anguish transitioning from missionary to pedestrian, I may have tried for a more mediocre Costa Rican experience. Mission rules are very strict, you see. Your heart, might, mind, and strength are devoted to spreading the word of God. On the mission, you are never really alone. You have a companion at your side and the Holy Ghost in your heart. You shake hands with the ladies, no hugs—absolutely no dating. It was wonderful! There was no pressure for romantic pursuits. In fact, they were forbidden. No pressure, that is, until Hour One of your first day back in reality. “Find yourself a wonderful bride”. “I have a friend who would love to date a returned missionary”. “You’ll be able to start a family in no time”. I swear I have enough wedding invitations to start my own art gallery! Once again, I did not fit in. However, now it was much harder to blend in. A mission is full of everyday miracles, but the one I had been wishing for never came. I was still gay. I am gay. I am Mormon. I am a gay Mormon. Probably haven’t heard of too many of those. The inevitable split of my identity was finally coming to the surface and I was unprepared to face the torment that ensued.
I had been dating a girl. She loved me. I wanted so badly to love her back. We were the perfect couple—high school sweethearts. I had only been back from my mission a couple weeks, but the sweet girl had waited nearly two years for me while I was away in Costa Rica. That Halloween we went to Disneyland. Our relationship was very much like a G-rated Disney flick. I didn’t need to round 3rd base. In fact, I was completely content hanging out on home plate. As we strolled down the perfect cobble-stones of Main Street USA, I couldn’t help but think that something about our relationship wasn’t quite right. I knew that I couldn’t give Rachel what she needed, but I was devastated because I felt like she was the only girl that I could love. As life tore us apart, my hopes and dreams of normalcy splattered on the dirty floor beneath my feet.
Life trapped me in her web of chaos and left me suffocating with no visible hope for survival. I was a fly whose wings were so badly torn, that even if I escaped for a small second, she would pull me back under before I could get my weakened legs one step farther. “Gay” came to the surface in ugly and unsafe manifestations. It mocked me for keeping it hidden all those years before. As the coldest of Utah winters began to warm in the mid-march sunshine, my heart continued to freeze over. Who is this rebellious man and what did he do with Jake? Why did you let him take over? Why did you meet up with that guy, Jake? Who are you? Who are these men? What are they doing with you? Why are you allowing this? Don’t you have any self-worth? I don’t care anymore, I tell you—I don’t. I don’t want to live anymore, I tell you—I don’t. I don’t deserve to live. I don’t deserve to breath. I am a disgrace to everything I tried so hard to accomplish. There is no hope for me anymore, I tell—I’m done.
In the basement of my home, in a corner by myself, I stained my cheeks with tears. It was one of those deep cries of agony and immense pain; one of those cries where even after you blow the running snot from your nose your swollen sinuses still won’t allow you to breathe. A cry where your eyes burn so bad you can hardly tell if it is more comfortable to keep them open or shut them forever. Trust me, there’s no Visine for that!
When at last, I was at my lowest and weakest, my sweaty hands grasping at life but slipping as my fingers tried desperately to withstand the weight of identity, I was lifted by Art. I was saved, most literally, by the theatre. Perhaps it was divine intervention, but I found the strength to audition. I found Ren from “Footloose” and he taught me to stand up for what I believe in. I found Chad in “All Shook Up” and he forced me to come to terms with who I am. Theatre revived my dying soul. Ren and Chad were my angels and they guided me to the mirror of my existence. They broke down the fortress I had built around me. They allowed for a glimmer of hope. They allowed for my miracle to finally occur.
My miracle did not come in the form of a cure. No, it did not save me from who I am. I remained, and will always be, gay. God loves me that way and it was time that I realized that I could love me, too. My miracle came in the unlikely form of another struggling Mormon boy by the name of Sean. Nervously, I checked my phone in the parking lot of a little Jamba Juice just outside my home town. It was nearing 9 o’clock and I was anxious for our meeting. We had spoken several times online, but we were both a little nervous of each other’s intentions. It was clear that we just wanted to talk. This wasn’t a date, it was merely a person to relate to. Tired of the depression and self-destruction, it was amazing to meet someone who had walked a similar path. We talked for hours. We laughed. We cried. We ended the night hopeful and happy. Although we concluded that we were merely going to help each other find “understanding wives”, our emotional connection was undeniable. Time passed slowly until we met again. And again. And again. We were falling in love. It was innocent and pure, beautiful and exciting. My miracle was learning about true love—the truest love, uninhibited and free. When I found Sean, I didn’t realize that I would be finding myself. Sean and I celebrated our 2nd anniversary this year.
Finding one’s self is the uncovering your identity. Identity is at the root of artistry. I have come to realize that the experiences we have, whether full of joy or full of pain, shape us into who we are. The more we understand our experiences, the more we begin to understand ourselves. The more we understand ourselves, the more open we are to embrace and produce art. In my pursuit for my own identity I found myself in the reflection of many others. I experienced my story through the lens of an array of human experiences. In every human is a little piece of each of us and in every piece of ourselves is a communal glow of humanity. I am me because I am others. When I wish to seek out art, I simply think, first and foremost, “Know Thyself”.