Trading Surnames for Stage Names
I WAS on a temp job in New York City when I saw the name "McCandless" on a door. That's it, I thought. I've found my name! I needed one because my actor's union wouldn't let me use my own. They said somebody already had it, and they were firm about it: one person per name. It made sense; you couldn't have two Clint Eastwoods in the film business. But I thought it boded ill for my acting career.
So I looked for another one. It's hard enough to pick children's names, but to rename yourself is much harder, particularly when you don't want to. A lot is riding on it. Do I pick something that rings with the truth of my being, or something that describes how I'd like to be but don't feel I actually am, yet? If I hadn't liked my name, I'd have been glad to start over. But I liked Catherine just fine and didn't want to change both names, so I started hunting around for another last name. The pity w as, I liked Foster, too. It means "to nurse or nurture." It's a name I don't live up to enough, but I like having it, if only as a goal. Of course I did have to put up with fools cackling about me being a foster child.
And, being an actress, I had to be careful about the kind of name I chose. Something like Jessica Forsythe, say, would have gotten me relegated to soap-opera roles. Glamorous has a way of sounding pompous; distinctive can turn into eccentric, subtle into forgettable. And it can't be too close to anyone else's (Meryl Stripe?).
Then I found the door with McCandless on it and thought my troubles were over. It had a "Mc" (I was enamoured with the Irish at the time), a "C" for alliteration, and candles represented light. That fit in with what I had decided was my motive for being an actress - to "enlighten." I didn't just want to get out there and knock people's socks off, I wanted to brighten their lives, shed light on their problems, be the light at the end of the tunnel.
So I got resumes printed with my new name, and new postcard-sized pictures, the ones actors send out saying, "I'm playing Celia in 'The Importance of Being Earnest.' Do come." Or, "Did you get my resume?" I learned to stand up when Catherine McCandless was called out at auditions. The only problem there was keeping from bursting into brogue.
I enjoyed McCandless at first, but after a few months it started to feel artificial. Face it, I'm blonde, not red-haired; English, not Irish.
When I'd introduce myself at parties and acting classes as Catherine McCandless, a little voice would snip, "No, you're not." Being a Hibernian wannabee wasn't working.
SO, when my stepmother called up and asked if it was too late to change my name, I said no.
"What about your famous relative?" she said.
"What famous relative?" I perked up. This was the first I'd ever heard of a famous relative.
"Who's Gustave Dore?"
"The French book illustrator?" said Anne, my stepmother. "Dante's 'Inferno'?"
I went to the library and looked him up. Gustave was famous, in a small sort of way. He didn't apppear to have the most successful personal life, but he'd done interesting work. This was a real family name. Carrie Dore Foster, my paternal grandmother, was related to him, so there was a bit more of a connection than a name off a door. And Dore was French for golden, which was close to light.
As complicated as the process was going to be, I decided to change my name again. But my father, who worked for a newspaper, said no printer would print a name with an accent, so if I didn't want to end up being called Catherine Dore, I'd better think of something. I came up with Doray. I felt bad about Americanizing it, but I had enough problems in this business without being called a door.
I got my name changed at all three unions: theater, television, and film. I got new resumes, new pictures, got used to introducing myself and answering to Catherine Doray, and got my friends to change their address books again.
So now I was French! Sort of. Dore conjured up images of being romantic, stylish, quick, mercurial. I liked that better, but still felt a little earthbound and English. The little voice, at least, wasn't calling me a "liar" in increasingly louder tones, but it was murmuring, "Oh, sure."
But even the new name was not enough to catapult my career into the big time. I eventually left acting. I know, people always say you make money in your second 10 years and those who hang in there longer usually make it big. But after awhile "making it" seemed ever more elusive; every time I moved up one rung of the ladder, the definition of making it moved up too. And I didn't see how always being number 495 on a sign-up sheet to audition for a tap-dancing librarian in summer stock was really doing muc h to "enlighten" anybody. After 10 years, sometimes these noble notions die out.
SO I left the sparkling and unreliable world of theater for the world of print. Journalism is refreshingly independent. You don't need an agent to get you work; just a pen, a notebook, curiosity, and a liking for words. And in terms of carrying out that desire to enlighten, journalism is a very appropriate vehicle. I never looked back. Never missed calling up harried agents who didn't want to talk to me. Gladly gave up the rejections that weren't based on talent or even looks, but on type. I do admit to missing the walk onstage into bright lights and knowing, before I even got there, that I would say a certain line and people would laugh. I do miss that.
Perhaps the biggest relief in changing professions was getting my name back. No more spelling it out. No more little voice whispering, "Liar." And that's good. The funny thing is, I met another Catherine Foster, who oddly enough is also a journalist. She moved to my street and we started getting each other's calls. Despite the ensuing confusion, I never felt tempted to change my phone listing. I had a life that had grown into and filled out my name. That's not to say it can't stand a little tinkering. M y friends have all come up with new variations: Cathe (like cave), Cathwick, Cathers, Catheronious, Miss Cathy, Foz, or simply Foster. I find that endearing. But I have learned, to paraphrase Henry David Thoreau, to "Beware of enterprises requiring new names."