Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Stage Fright, Part I: The Traumatic Terrible

It took thirty years of performing for me to become scared of doing it. I’d say I was the Benjamin Button of stage fright, but unlike a slow decline in confidence over a lifetime, mine was broken by a singular moment—The Traumatic Terrible. And unlike most memories that fade with time, this one lingers in my bones, morphing fresh to suit any present day theatrical situation. It blacks out the sun in a place that used to be flooded with light. It makes my palms sweat and my feet tingle. It makes sullen every thought I have about being on stage. I’m going to tell you about The Traumatic Terrible, in so many parts, to try and understand it for myself. Truth be told, I’ve been talking about it with nearly everyone who’ll listen since it happened three years ago, but it’s still a murky mess in my mind.

Part I: After a stressful opening weekend of a show that I had directed, I was on my way to an audition for a company I was hungry to work for. I had usually been good at compartmentalizing, but driving to my audition, I found that I couldn’t relieve the tension of the weekend. Trying to focus on the task at hand, I rattled through the monologues I’d prepared, drilling every line in an obsessive frenzy. To be fair, that’s what we do, don’t you know. Actors run through lines several times before auditions or shows. The difference here was that I must have ran through each monologue thirty times in that forty-five minute drive, attempting to use preparedness as a cure for nerves. And it didn’t stop there. When I got to the waiting room of the rehearsal hall where the audition was being held, I continued running lines. I was having trouble accessing my calm. But every harried run-through only served to feed my anxiety, finally convincing me that I didn’t know one word of what I was about to present, even though each one had obviously been well rehearsed.

My time slot was called, and as I walked into the rehearsal room, the casting director got out of her chair, came over to me, and gave me a big hug, welcoming me into the room. I knew her from having been a teacher for the company and had even auditioned for her before. None of this calmed my nerves. As I attempted to listen to her talk about the unseasonable weather and how bold it was for the previous auditionee to have performed a Lady Margaret piece being but a teen, the words of my monologues continued to cycle through my brain like the worst song, stuck. Finally, after what seemed like a bloody eternity of small talk, it was time for me to make my presentation. There were not enough deep breaths in all of the yoga classes, in all of the world to calm my racing heart. As I attempted one, the air came half way down my throat and stopped. There was nowhere left for it to go but up and out. I exhaled a short, sharp, and likely audible breath before diving into my first piece. It was a fast, comedic monologue whose success depended largely on timing. There was no room for thinking in this piece, which would have been a blessing at that moment. A nice pregnant pause would have at least allowed me to get some oxygen into my body. As I rounded the third sentence, I thought to myself, “I’m going too fast, I’m too frantic.” But there was no stopping this train, so I barreled ahead, my hands trembling with every gesture. But then, I stopped. Suddenly, I found I was no longer playing the character in my monologue but was just me, the actor, standing there, unable to remember what words came next. Quickly, I repeated the previous line, hoping that my muscle memory would kick in; that all of those repetitions would save me. I noticed the casting director respectfully take her eyes off me and turn them downward toward her notes, pretending that she hadn’t seen the three-ton elephant that just entered through the window. But my muscle memory was shot, and again, no words came. Except these:

“Can I start over?”

Now if you ask any High School drama teacher they will tell you that the second most important rule of theatre is never, ever ask to start over—particularly in an audition. Why? Because it implies that you haven’t learned the first most important rule: ‘The show must go on.’ I’d known both rules for so long, I couldn’t tell you when I’d heard them first. But there I found myself, in a state of shock, having stopped the show. I had forgotten my lines and instead of improvising my way to safety, for the first time ever, I declared defeat. Let me reiterate: In my thirty years of performing I HAD NEVER FORGOTTEN A LINE OR ASKED TO BEGIN AGAIN.

“Of course you can! Whenever you’re ready. Take your time,” chirped the casting director.

I stood there for another eternity, probably a good twenty seconds, trying to do some serious damage control on my psyche as I stared at the floor. I tried not to think of how unprecedented this moment truly was and took in as many of those short ‘deep’ breaths as I could manage, trying to drive them deeper. I eventually started again, this time thoroughly damaged, but able to get through both of my monologues, words intact. On the way out, the casting director asked how opening had gone over the weekend and I explained how stressful it was, underhandedly implying an excuse for The Traumatic Terrible that had happened just minutes before.

Afterward, I consulted countless actor friends who all told me that they’d done the same thing in auditions, several times even! It wasn’t unprofessional, they said. After all, my resume spoke for itself, explaining to anyone who read it that I clearly did understand the two most important rules of theatre. Moments like The Traumatic Terrible just happen, to the best of us, I was told. It’s part of being an actor. It’s part of being human. We’re breakable and should be as artists. The following season, the same casting director would call me in for a show, proving that The Traumatic Terrible had left my career unscathed. But surely you’ve caught on that this post is not about the highs and lows my career. The Traumatic Terrible still lived deep inside me where I kept everything I know, brewing all manner of chaos. Two months after the audition, performing in what was likely my fortieth musical, I couldn’t remember how to work without The Traumatic Terrible taking over. Each night was a torturous routine of running my lines and lyrics until I walked onto the stage, exhausted, hoping that whatever caused me to forget them in that audition wouldn’t happen again. I’d been over it countless times: If I had been relaxed that day, had not had a stressful weekend, had not had tried to do too many things at once, maybe The Traumatic Terrible would not have happened. But ‘what ifs’ were useless. The scar was already there and it itched like mad.

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