The Trials That Bring Us to Where We Are
Savannah Stevenson is a British television and theatre actress. She is best known for starring as Glinda in the London production of Wicked, playing the role for almost 3 years and at 1,000 performances. Savannah also portrays Mary, Mother of Jesus in the LDS Bible Videos. She was a guest speaker at the Europe Affirmation conference in London in 2017. This talk was given as part of the 2018 Affirmation International Conference held from July 20th to July 22nd, 2018, in Salt Lake City, Utah.
[2/14/19 Update: At the request of the speaker, video of her talk is no longer available to the public.]
Hello everyone, it is so wonderful, I really feel privileged to be with you here tonight. I thought I would start by sharing with you why I’m here. My own journey to Affirmation started back in 2016 when I came across a shared post on Facebook. It was an article about Aaron McManus. I was so impressed by this article. I think he was being interviewed and I was impressed by his positive attitude to being both gay and Mormon and his willingness to speak openly. I just had to reach out to him even though I was a complete stranger. So I did and I offered my support and my appreciation for him and I asked if there was anything I could do to help. Our Facebook conversation led me to speak at the London conference last year. Somehow I’ve been invited back this year, so I’m really thrilled.
To tell you a little bit about me, I am an active member of the church with my husband Nate, who is here tonight. We actually met here in the states and we now live in London together. We both feel really passionately about being allies to the LGBTQ community. We both have many friends who are gay and some friends who are gay and Mormon. We’ve spoken to our friends often in the hope that we can find more understanding and we really wanted to learn of their experiences. It’s a little closer to home than this as well in that Nate’s uncle Ron was gay. I’ve been chatting a little bit with Nate’s mom and dad in our stay here to find out a little bit more about him and they’ve agreed for me to share this, they’re really open about it. Ron was afraid that he might be disowned by his Mormon family. It was only when he became very sick with AIDS that he came out. He died not long after coming out in the early 2000’s. I know from speaking to Nate’s parents that they look back with some portion of regret that Ron felt that he couldn’t come to his family sooner. They loved him and love him unconditionally. And also that he himself may not have been comfortable with his own identity. It forced the family to challenge some preconceived ideas and has had a most positive effect on them. Our love and our respect for this community run deep within us.
Tonight, I thought I would share a few stories, insights, and thoughts from my own life and I hope one or two of them might resonate with you. From what some of you may know about me, my life might sound a little bit glamorous. And in some ways, it is. I thought I would start by sharing a few cool highlights from my career mostly.
I always say that in my career I’ve had the opportunity of meeting two queens. The first is that I had the opportunity to perform for and meet Her Royal Highness, the Queen of England, Elizabeth II. Yes, that is a real picture, that is me with the queen. I’ve also had the real honor of meeting the other queen, which is the queen of music theatre, Julie Andrews. But I don’t have a picture, as it was before we all had mobile phones that could do it for us. I also met another queen, Brian May of Queen fame, kind of a hero of mine. If you’re wondering why there’s a tiny Christmas tree in the picture with us, it’s because he came into Wicked to judge our Christmas decoration competition and that is all the time I had.
I’ve been able to perform for and to meet other actors that I revere. People like Matt Damon and also Angelina Jolie, who loves Wicked and brings her kids every time she visited London. She’s amazing. I’ve also performed for various pop stars and Olympic athletes. I have even dueted with Mormon heartthrobs, oh yes. I’ve been able to work with the most famous theatre directors in the world. I get to tell great stories. I get to bring families together, including my own, it’s one of my favorite things when all my family comes to the shows that I do. I have been able to attend award ceremonies. I get to wear fabulous costumes. I get to go to, sometimes, celebrity parties.
You can say that my life is pretty rich in experiences. But I think it’s important to remember that there is a lot more going on in all of our lives than perhaps our Instagram or our Facebook feeds suggest. We all tend to share the highlights, but rarely expose our vulnerabilities. So I thought that tonight I would open myself up, make myself a little bit vulnerable, and tell you about some of my low points and my difficulties. So here we go.
I deal with rejection often. Most people in their lives go to just a handful of job interviews. I go weekly and I’m often, if not usually, rejected. My industry is competitive, it’s pressured, and uncertain. And everyone is a critic. I can suffer with anxiety, I have suffered with anxiety and, at times, depression. I am often judged on how I look and I can struggle with my self-esteem, and with my body image, and self-judging.
When you perform, it’s really high pressure to deliver each night. Every day becomes about being fit to perform and not let people down. That’s a lot of pressure, and it weighs quite heavily upon me as a person. Unemployment is a constant worry and reality. I have felt the upsetting uncertainty of that, and with that comes a feeling of failure and rejection. I have also experienced the horrible effects of serious illness in my close family.
In fact, just a few weeks ago I did something that, for me, was pretty scary. You Broadway fans will know that Disney recently launched their new Frozen musical, which has been a great hit on Broadway. One of the show’s stars, Patti Marin, shared on her Twitter that she had been experiencing severe anxiety and that she would be taking a little time off the show. In showing my own support for her on my own Twitter account and saying that I too struggled with anxiety, I was contacted by our leading industry paper in the UK to see if I would be willing to do an interview on the subject.
I wrestled with whether I had the strength to be so vulnerable with myself in a public forum, but I decided that my honesty would help others, so the article was printed. To my surprise, I received nothing but love and support from my colleagues, and my industry friends, and from strangers; many of whom said, “Oh, me too.” It was a lesson to me that being vulnerable and being willing to open up and share our difficulties is one of the most important things that we can do in our lives.
What has gotten me through some more difficult times in my life has been my sweet family, and my close friends, and my faith. By faith, I certainly me my own personal faith in God and Jesus Christ, but also faith in myself. I’m not always confident. I doubt. But somewhere deep inside of me is faith that God loves me and He wants to use me for good things, and that He will come through for me if I keep going.
I thought I would give you a little example of some of the difficulties of being an actor. My very first job, I was really really lucky, it was in the ensemble of the original London cast of Mary Poppins. I got this job straight out of drama school and it was the best start to my career that I could have hoped for. You may find it surprising that I left that show after my year’s contract Saturday night and on Monday I began working in a call center. I was selling theatre tickets and one of the shows I sold for was, yes, you guessed it, Mary Poppins. Just to be clear, I went from being on a West End stage to selling tickets for the same show in 48 hours. Life can be uncertain and, at times, not easy.
Another story I wanted to share was a number of years ago I was struggling to get an acting job and I was at an audition for a play. At the time I was working a number of day jobs to make ends meet. I went to this audition and I was excited about it. It was a nice job. I went in to read and the director was awful. He was horrible to me. He picked through my resume and insulted some of the credits on my resume; insulted some of my acting choices. I had to do what we call a cold read, which is where I hadn’t seen the material before, and he just gave me the most impossible directions for the cold read. I vividly remember walking out of that audition and going to Covent Garden, those of you who have been to London know exactly where I mean, and in a section of Covent Garden, there are a few benches there. I remember vividly coming out and sitting down on this small bench and just bursting into tears wondering how long I could endure this constant rejection.
Then it was a scene out of a movie because the heavens opened and the rain poured down and I got absolutely drenched. We were in the middle of a full-blown thunderstorm. That night, I was due to travel to a pickup point. I was to get a train to a pickup point where a group of my colleagues had a car and we were going to drive all the way up to the north, to Manchester, about four hours north. The next day I was going to be teaching drama in a school. From Covent Garden, I walked down to Waterloo, absolutely drenched, to catch the train to make the car. As I walked into Waterloo Station, I realized very quickly that it was absolutely packed and that everyone was looking up at the board, and the board said, “Canceled. Canceled. Canceled. Canceled.” Due to the adverse weather conditions, all the trains had been canceled and not a single train seemed to be leaving.
I remember frantically trying to call my colleagues, trying to arrange another option; praying in my head that God might just send one train to get me there. But it was decided it was too late that the car had to leave without me, and that I wouldn’t make it. I had to squeeze myself onto a bus and go home. I remember standing in Waterloo Station and looking heavenward and not understanding why. In my mind, I wasn’t even asking for an acting job. I was asking for a day’s teaching to help me pay my rent that week.
Have you ever been there? Stood wondering, “Where are You? Why are You putting me through this?
Well, the story continues. The next day, I got a call really early from my agent. She told me that for the audition from the day before I actually had a recall and that it was going to be that day. So I attended and I ended up being offered the part. Yes, with the awful director, that one. It incidentally turned out to be my first leading role. Had I made it to my teaching job in Manchester, I would have never made the audition. I had prayed to have work for one day, but God had in mind to give me work for the next six months.
I know that things don’t always work out this beautifully. They certainly don’t for me. But, honestly, I reminding myself of this story because in the times that my life gets really really hard it helps to remind me that God does have a plan for me, that He does care for me, and that He can see the full picture when I can only see part.
I had the honor of playing Mary in the LDS Bible videos. It had been the best professional experience of my life. For those of you who don’t know about the Bible videos, they are free for anyone to use for any good purpose. I’ve received numerous really sweet messages from people who use them in the schools or in their churches. For some, watching has become part of their Christmas tradition. One of my favorite ways the Bible videos have been used as part of a Piano Guys video. I thought, for those of you who haven’t seen them, I would share this clip.
The experience of playing Mary in these films has been a really profound one in my life for a few reasons. When I first auditioned for the role, I was really struggling in my personal life. I felt the lowest I ever have in my life, and I was broken, and I was depressed. I had been that way for a number of months. I wasn’t leaving the house. I had little or no desire to eat anything. I wondered where God was. I felt frustrated because I felt that I was promised to feel peace and comfort if I tried to draw close to Him and I just felt that wasn’t happening at all. When I learned that I had been given the opportunity to play Mary, it did lift me and I felt that God was there for me, but I still had this awful heartbreak that just wouldn’t go away. I felt a real sense of that as we went into the filming.
I had a number of amazing experiences through the filming of these videos, but one that I wanted to share with you was the day that we filmed the scene of the crucifixion. I also played older Mary, so I knew that this day was going to be a really difficult one to film. I could see them putting up the three crosses on the hill, and I sort of took myself away. I just wanted to make sure I was in the right frame of mind for the filming. As I was placed in my position at the feet of the actor who was portraying Jesus, I decided that I wouldn’t look up until we were going for a take.
What you hear on set is that they are rolling and then you hear “action”. I vividly remember at rolling, I looked up and saw the actor portraying Jesus on the cross, but I just got this overwhelming sense of love. It was a new experience for me as I had always been taught that Jesus died for my sins, but in that moment I had this special deeper personal connection to that teaching. I really felt that he carried all my pain, and my disappointment, and my depression. The sorrow and the heartache that we feel is somehow part of that process too. I also realized that the pain that I carried into that filming process was part of the plan for me to portray that role. It allowed me to connect on an emotional level to perhaps some of the uncertainty that Mary may have felt herself at her responsibility, and in some small sense the devastation she must have felt as she watched her son give up his life on the cross. I really felt that in some small way my grief was allowing me to portray hers and I was so grateful for it. Looking back now, I wouldn’t change any part of those difficult few months for me because I feel its when I grew the most.
The other reason I am so grateful for the Bible videos is that I was sent a really unexpected blessing. In the third summer of filming, we filmed over three summers, just a few days before I was leaving to return to London, I met a pretty nice guy from Utah. A mutual friend introduced us and invited him over to watch a movie with us, and he kept me up late talking that night. After about two years of long-distance dating, he moved to England, and we got married, and he’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Also, in the same week that I met Nate, I was also offered a life-changing role in Wicked. It was a good week.
It always speaks to me that God works in His time, not ours.
I was thinking about what I really wanted to say to everyone here tonight. I was thinking that there may be many of us here that experience difficult times who may feel lost and alone. I believe that God loves all of his children and that he understands our unique circumstances and that we are never alone. What I love about Affirmation is that we are all united in love and friendship regardless of where we are at in our journey and I have such respect and love for everyone in this room. Thank you.