Written by Zennie Trieu
Haleyna Kociuk and I discuss public solitude, communitas, and finding personal fulfillment in both the acting and the hospitality industries during a springtime lunch and walk in Greenwich Village.
During primary training in the Meisner Studio at Tisch, an acting teacher introduced to the class the notion of public solitude. When out on the streets or in a non-private place, the other people that surround you and share that particular space with you are not spectators by intention. These strangers may watch what you do, and you are conscious of that possibility. That instinct of having eyes on you does not—and should not—go away: you cannot do certain things in public that you can do in the privacy of your personal space, and this self-awareness is integral as a survival skill the moment you leave your bedroom or apartment.
However, such recognition should not prohibit you from doing activities in public freely and assuredly. Whatever activity you are engaged in, you should be so grounded in that action that your consciousness of other people would not knock you off your feet—figuratively or not—in a wave of insecurity. For the actor, intense audience awareness can lead to the need to over-perform or to appear more “interesting”—but that sycophantic proclivity prioritizes attention and approval over character, objective, and connection with the ensemble.
Any actor will always be mindful of being watched, whether the audience is a crowd in a packed theater or a ton of people behind a single camera. But a confident actor will: (1) take note of the spectators, and (2) continue to bring the words on a script—the written story—to life, as a fictional character (or you or I) would behave if alone at home, fully doing activities as if in solitude despite being in public. Such activities can range anywhere from walking to eating to reading to people watching to dancing to even just giggling.
When I walk into The Little Owl on a Thursday afternoon, a bit early for my two o’clock reservation for two, I see that Haleyna—also a former Meisner student—had arrived even earlier. As she sits at a window table waiting for me, she calmly but clearly exhibits the very confidence of an actor in public solitude: her eyes do not dart around frantically in search of me, nor do her fingers scroll infinitely on her phone. She does not twirl her hair or play with her hands. She is simple. She is there. She glows in her undistracted, non-anxious stillness. If the other patrons of the small restaurant are planets constantly in orbit and asteroids forever in motion, then she is the luminous star in the middle of all the action.
She further lights up when I take my seat across from her. I rave about her velvet dress. She thanks me, saying that she actually bought it at a vintage thrift shop right before she came to meet me. Does she often find the time to do things alone out and about in the city?
“It’s something I’ve only recently started doing. It’s weird—how scary it is, just doing things on your own in public. But that’s something I love about New York: it’s the perfect place to wander and do things with just yourself, for yourself.”
She pauses. “On days when I’m feeling off, I would look at people on the subway who smiled or laughed at their phones. And I’d think it was so strange—why are they that happy in public? But that’s only when I’m not feeling great about my own self. Usually, I love seeing people filled with joy, even in the presence of strangers. It’s like they can’t control themselves, and I actually wish I saw it more often on my commute."
Haleyna has been an NYU alumna for a year now. For her, the seemingly universal fickleness of living in the metropolis has not proved too unstable of a lifestyle. Growing up with a single mom and having to move often during her childhood and early adolescence, the steadiness and security of Haleyna’s New York residence these past four years have been fuelled by a strong support system from both family members across the country and the close friends that she has made in this city. She lives with fellow Meisner grads, is cheerfully in a years-long relationship with an aspiring actor-filmmaker, and works at a restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen with coworkers who also champion the arts. For her, this way of life lessens the alienating (and often depressing) competitive nature of pursuing a profession in the entertainment industry and instead reveals a constantly encouraging sense of what Victor Turner famously coined as communitas—a strong spirit of togetherness and communal individuality for people experiencing liminal (i.e. in-between) phases as a group.
There might be no transitional period in life that invites such communal motivation more than the period of time directly following university commencement—especially if your undergraduate education was accelerated to be completed in three years instead of four, like Haleyna’s. I ask her if it’s been difficult to retain her idiosyncrasies when she is continually spending time with fellow actors and artists.
“Not at all. I don’t really care about that stuff about self-branding, like completely refining your resume or reel to be the next best thing or getting the perfect headshots. Like, it’s just a picture at the end of the day, you know? What matters is how you hold yourself when you’re in the room.”
Does she find auditioning—and the hustling that comes with building an acting career—to be nerve wrecking? “It’s not my favorite thing in the world, but I love doing the work. I don’t think there’s anything more exciting as an actor than having a new script to read when you get home. It’s such an honor, I think, to be able to explore and investigate character and all, especially coming from someone who took the time to put it on down on paper and share that creative process with people who want to bring that story to life.”
As for the actor’s daily grind and the artist’s sine qua non of constantly self-producing and/or getting work, Haleyna prefers to have more limited time to prepare for auditions or roles. “It gets me out of my head. I trust my instincts more. I do the work, and I don’t have the time to question it or over-prepare. I just do my job.”
While certainly radiating a warm, assured, and self-reliant aura, whenever I ask Haleyna about achievements she is particularly proud of or memories of the past few years that she is most enthusiastic to share, she either asks me about myself with the utmost curiosity or goes straight to discussing the people around her that helped her reach those peaks of accomplishments. She possesses and emanates, without a moment’s hesitation or a hint of obsequiousness, the very essence of humility. It is a most welcome rarity during conversation with an ambitious artist out of college.
This is a quality that I first noticed from Haleyna two years ago, when I was in a Meisner Studio rehearsal project directed by the endlessly charismatic, artistically empowering, and across the board adored Gigi Buffington. It was a production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, and Haleyna brilliantly and unforgettably played Marlene, the assertively unyielding lead. For Haleyna, this casting decision was a surprise: in acting class, she had never considered herself to be one of the stronger or more riveting students to watch, and she felt nervous for what was to come in the next few months.
What helped her the most? “Everyone else. Not just our cast and Gigi—Meisner faculty and classmates in general. They knew I wasn’t all about being the lead or the star. They understood that I wanted to work hard on my craft and challenge myself within the ensemble, and I’m glad that I never had to worry about what they thought or if they judged me or if they felt badly towards me. They had my back.”
During some days working at the restaurant with particularly impossible customers who seem to want to stay upset or insatiable (“Well, you can’t conceivably please every single person you meet,” I say, thinking of my own experience working in restaurants across Manhattan), Churchill’s protagonist often inspires Haleyna. “Even though my coworkers and manager are the best team I could ever ask for in any job and totally let me fall apart after a particularly bad shift, I sometimes wish I could be more like Marlene,” she says with a laugh.
I think back to seeing her transform, seemingly without effort, into that role, standing center stage, fully upright and grounded. And yet, Haleyna exudes a bona fide confidence that is antithetical to Marlene’s. In ways that Churchill’s character is purposely not, Haleyna stands tall but never seems to tower intimidatingly over me. When I sit down with her, she is open, patient, and wants to listen to my stories far more than she wants to talk about herself. As such, she is very much a person worthy of the communitas she enjoys at work and home—and, formerly, school. How reassuring of a person Haleyna is to spend the afternoon with: she can take care of herself, hold her own ground, and keep true to who she is in the presence of just about anyone—even when talking to perpetually unhappy diners, performing in front of critical audiences extremely familiar with the source material, or (perhaps most tellingly) just walking in a crowd of strangers in this forever fascinating city.