Casting yourself in a better role can mean breaking self-made limits

 Geoffrey Bruen is shown in a 2014 production of 'Sunset Boulevard' at the Media Theatre. (© Mark Jordan)

Geoffrey Bruen is shown in a 2014 production of 'Sunset Boulevard' at the Media Theatre. (© Mark Jordan)

Do you feel like your particular job lets you feel like yourself? That question served as the courageous pivot into a whole new work life for a Philadelphia attorney-turned-actor.

Do you feel like your particular job lets you feel like yourself?

The question might sound too obscure to some people and way too obvious to others. But for Geoffrey Bruen, a Philadelphia attorney who became a professional actor, that question served as the courageous pivot into a whole new work life.

“I had done theater and musical theater in high school and college,” Bruen recounts, “but after college I chickened out. I was genuinely interested in other things, too. I did activist work — for instance, I was a community organizer dealing with legal services for the poor. And that led me to go to law school.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

In all, Bruen practiced law full time for more than six years — for the city’s legal department, then for a top firm, and then the federal government. By most accounts, his career was a success. 

“It was intellectually stimulating,” Bruen says, “but that’s when I fell out of love with full-time law. You’re constantly working, you have no life. In those years of working these mad hours, I had moments when I was unhappy and didn’t feel like myself. I had taken myself out of the equation to be this ambitious, successful attorney.”

It’s a great metaphor — taking yourself out of that equation doesn’t work very well.

Revisiting an old love

Bruen remembers a moment at a show on vacation in Fire Island, New York. “I saw the performers living in the moment, living on the edge, telling these amazing stories, and I had a flash where I wondered why I’d stopped doing it,” he says.

“I came back home and starting taking acting classes, voice lessons, and coaching in Philadelphia. It began a three-year process of studying theater and vocal performance and auditioning, first for community then for professional theater, all while working full-time as a lawyer.”

But it became impossible to fit two careers together. Eventually he had to turn down a role at a regional professional theater because he couldn’t handle the rehearsal and performance schedule on top of his job. “My heart broke,” he says, “and I thought, ‘I’m going to do everything I need to arrange my life so that I can take the next professional acting gig.'”

So with the emotionaI support he needed from family and friends, he rented out his condo and moved to a smaller apartment and began to save more money. And then it happened again — a choice between full-time legal work and a professional acting gig. “I booked ‘Sunset Boulevard’ at the Media Theatre,” Bruen says. “I went back to my employer and asked for the time off to do the professional gig, and they said they couldn’t swing it, so I resigned. They were really nice, very understanding, and they acknowledged it was what I needed to nourish my soul.”

And that big step pushed Bruen over the threshold into new territory that was both risky and exciting. A professional acting gig is great, but you have to keep coming up with the next one. “I didn’t know what I was going to do to pay the bills,” he says.

Making the risk work

Bruen now does part-time legal work. “But I do it on my own terms,” he says. “It’s let me fall back in love with legal work. I get more out of my relationships with clients and still have the flexibility to do ‘Les Miserables‘ during a two-month run.”

Bruen says he’s never been happier. “I’ve never felt so ‘me’ and living a life as my truest self. I can remember sitting in music rehearsals in high school thinking it was so cool if this was my job. And here I was years later sitting in a rehearsal [for ‘Sunset Boulevard’] thinking, oh my god, this is my job!”

And the perks don’t end there. “I have time for loved ones, to savor a cup of coffee and reflect — getting that back was hugely important.”

So Bruen has made the transition work for him, which makes me wonder if there are lessons to be gleaned from his journey that might apply to other’s yearnings.

“When I made the decision to leave law, I called a friend who had left teaching to be a professional actress,” Bruen says. “I said, ‘I want to do this, but I’m really scared. What if I can’t get another acting gig. What if I can’t pay my bills?’ She said, ‘It’s always going to be this hard. It’s always going to be this scary. It’s your life. What do you really want to do?’

“So, yes — it’s always hard, and you’ll have to be resourceful. You do have the moments of fear, but the benefits of living the life you want are so high that those anxieties have never chipped away at my resolve.”

Take a leap of faith, and the net will appear. It’s a cliché that Bruen has found to be completely true. “When you’re living your life in a way truest to yourself, truest to what you need, opportunities open up that you weren’t seeing when you felt trapped. We create these limits for ourselves, and taking the leap took away the limits. I realized I was free in ways I hadn’t realized I wasn’t free before. So many of the things holding me back from this best possible life were just in my head after all.”

That’s an important perspective to remember, and a liberating one. The key is often to stop holding yourself back.

Bruen sums it up in very human terms. “A dear friend of mine from high school died early in her thirties. I thought: Here I am not doing what I love because I’m afraid. Life can be long — or it can be short. It’s important for me not to look back and ask why I was so afraid and why I didn’t do what I loved.”

Of course, life circumstances do vary person by person, life by life. But the exuberance in Bruen’s voice as he told his story was a tribute to living the question.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal