I was starting my second attempt at graduate school. The first was back in 2007, a Master’s in Classical Acting from a reputable school in London. Strike One: too lonely, too broke, not ready. This time, it was a fully paid three-year-MFA in Performance in the States. I was part of the first class. There were eight of us, and I felt like we were X-Men. Dunno yet if I’m Wolverine or Jubilee. Am I ready to fuck shit up creatively? Show my age, say little, be raw? Or, am I gonna sparkle, bring light, kumbaya with everyone? Dunno yet.
I walked from my off-campus graduate housing to orientation with the rest of my cohort. We were all dancers, designers, and I grinned ear to ear. We were an eccentric bunch. Our ages spanned over thirty years, from fresh-out-of-undergrad to been-doing-this-shit-since-before-you-fill-in-the-blank. We were a United Colors of Benneton ad, sans the Caucasian overtone. I thought maybe I could get along with these misfits.
Purpose filled me from head to toe. Three years to risk, to play, to make noise. Three years to get paid to learn and make connections and grow into the artist I had always thrown caution to the wind to pretend I was.
One state line over was Washington D.C. I knew there was good theater there. I intend to be known, even though my focus was to go in and incubate during that second round of grad school. I had been desperately craving the time to make my own art—something I had always done guerilla-style, scraping a solo show between restaurant gigs, or infrequent casting in a play at a regional theater. 2010 me felt I had yet to make that breakthrough. When the art flowed, so would the cash.
This program will be left unfinished, like the first. Unlike the first, money won’t be the issue. Nor loneliness. Strike Two: no trust. I lost faith in the faculty, in their ability to help me realize the vision that attracted me to the program. One year and six months into it, I realized I could only bend so far, putting up my fists to the thousand cuts delivered in microaggressions, veiled threats, passive-aggressive professors, in-fighting among faculty, and our cohort feeling like kids stuck in an awful marriage. I saw instructors try to control students with “artistic probation,” some lame-ass invention of a disciplinary act for when we either acted Too Brown or Not Brown Enough.
After Strike Two, I passed through my Jubilee and Wolverine phases and become Cyclops. I focused my rage and laser holes through the lies. I maintained principle, risking my education, my dream. The irony was, I would work more outside of the university in the ten years that followed. I created work for myself, getting jobs as an actor and teaching artist, and I’d also struggle a lot more. A Master’s of The Hustle. An apprentice of the Starving Artist Guild.
Today, I am world-weary, exhausted from living in this space, from having to decide which part of the American citizen in me I want to claim, contend with, or trash altogether. I’m an extrovert learning to incubate for the sake of my mental and emotional health. I yearn for the freedom of walking through a bookstore or my local library without anxiety stretched across my chest because of an unseen killer, a virus that is exposing everything fucked up in our society, save the holes in the bottom of our shoes.
2020 me started the year embracing a new band of misfits. In January, I graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in Writing. The degree sits on a shelf behind me, and I know it’s as much a talisman as it is an albatross. What I thought I was chasing over three Master’s programs was certainty. The grounding of achievement conferred on me by a made-up thing called “Institution.” I wanted everything to solve itself immediately: my insecurities around auditioning, my fears of not being a good enough performer. I thought these programs would grant me superpowers that would make me shine. Work and money would pour in shortly after.
What I gained—what I have now—is the dust of experience: my stories. In the dust, there is reason to write.
In my office, I make a library of my wants; I contend daily with the suffocating feeling of not doing a damn thing to help the world. At least I have a view to open unobstructed space in my backyard. At least I’m surrounded by the tools of my trade: books. The masterworks of fellow craftspeople. The pages of these masterworks look out to me from the shelves without malice. They say to me, You have. You can. You will. You can't guarantee legacy, they tell me: Just make it matter now. And make it worth your time.
Armando Batista is a trickster spirit in human form, hailing from Washington Heights, NYC. He is the child of Dominican immigrants. A trained actor and performing artist, Armando has worked on stage, screen, and in multiple venues and spaces, transforming the everyday into a magical moment for the curious and imaginative. He holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Vermont College Fine Arts and a BA in Theater from Temple University. He is currently down the rabbit hole of a poetry book project which he envisions as a “gaming experience in poetics and wordplay” for the reader; think CYOA meets visual poetry and hybrid text at an underground house party… He resides in the DMV area.
You can follow him on IG @armando_batista_poet.
Armando would like to raise awareness for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, particularly their Coronavirus Care Fund