i've been keeping a secret these last three months.
no, i'm not pregnant.
no, i'm not ill.
no, my secret is, i've become an actor. like a baby found in a cave and then raised by wolves as one of their own, i joined the august company, a local theater ensemble, and acted in their latest show.
ever since i was a kid, i've dreamt about being in plays. i never dreamt about being a musician; it was just something that happened along the way. growing up, i suffered paralyzing stage fright that kept me from performance camp or community theater. it was ordeal enough to play a concert in the middle school band or the smallest piece in my yearly piano recital.
my senior year in high school, i bit the bullet and took Drama I. every day on the way to third period, i would take a quick detour into the girls room and throw up a little. i was wrecked with fear and anxiety. people in my family did NOT draw attention to themselves. and god forbid, if they were recognized for anything, that they might enjoy the spotlight. in my dreams, i easily broke this unspoken rule. in real life, it was much harder.
my theater teacher must have seen something in me that i couldn't see because she cast me in our one act play festival entry, and later as an evil stepsister in the senior class production of "cinderella" (worst musical ever)(why couldn't they have done "annie get your gun"? i would have nailed that sucker).
i began to slowly get over my anxiety about being on stage. playing music helped. for some reason, it was easier for me to stand up in front of an audience alone and sing a song i wrote about my deepest feelings, than it was to dress up in costume and pretend to be someone else.
in the intervening 14 years, i've spent the better part of my days on stage. i love it and routinely do things up there that surprise even me. the transformation from scaredy-cat to entertainer is still a mystery to me.
so imagine my horror to find, as i drove to my first read through this march, that i was full-on nervous. it had been years since i had gotten nervous for anything. not even playing solo to 10,000 people or being on late-nite TV. yet there i was with a gnawing pit in my stomach, my mouth getting drier by the second.
i thought i conquered this! i thought being in a play would be no big deal, that the hardest part was finding time in my schedule. apparently, i was back at square one with fear and anxiety.
over the last three months, i've experienced a crazy train of emotions. my first rehearsals were exercises in anxiety management. i'd wake up in the morning and have to trick myself into eating (crossword puzzles help). once i got to rehearsal, i'd feel my body- which has always been a reliable extension of my voice and musicality- betray me. i'd feel frozen and small, when i wanted to be warm and big.
my therapist offered me some choices:
you could quit.
no, i cant, these are my friends. and i'd be letting so many people down.
if you fell down the stairs and broke your legs, you would have to quit, so...
no, i cant quit.
ok, then think about this. what kind of grade are you trying to get in this play?
oh, right. i am always trying to do things best. my ego works that way. it always has. sometimes it's made me crazy successful, sometimes it's been downright crippling. but in that instant, i was able to deflate and understand i was a student in a generous and soft classroom. no one was expecting me or needing me to be spectacular. i exhaled, and that's when things started to change.
about halfway through the rehearsal process, it became clear that the company needed some help with the music they wanted to do for the show: a cover of a righteous everly brothers tune, "gone", and an a capella adaptation of the traditional "wind and rain". it was no big deal for me to jump in and help make those moments musical. in fact, it reminded me that even if i was new or inexperienced or just plain paralyzed by this acting thing, i could contribute to the company and help make this show great.
something started to loosen in me. i stopped trying to high jump my limits, and i started to simply walk up to them. i accepted that i only had as much experience as i had, and that it was a long time ago. i let go of trying to compare what i thought i knew from being a musician, and i asked for help.
my fear retreated to a manageable level. by the time we got to running the whole show, i was simply busy. first i sang and played guitar, then i moved some set pieces around, provided an offstage line. Next i was on stage for a tiny monologue, a two-hander, an ensemble scene, then sang another song. and then it was over.
i have rarely felt so satisfied in a creative situation. to get to use all my skills in a 90 minute show was a complete joy. and i did find a few things that my musical experience helped with: second shows are always looser (ie, better); dont forget to warm up; "hurry up and wait" is an art to itself.
and now, about those wolves. i spend so much creative time alone. i write alone, travel alone, more often than not, perform alone. to get to share the love and the work of putting on an evening of entertainment was a revolution for me. and to be accepted by folks who are much much better at this thing called acting was the ultimate complement. it was like finding a big ole circus family that needed my particular act and fitting right in.
we musicians are a wierd bunch, but the story we tell is that actors are even wierder. they throw great parties, but otherwise they're just freaky. i think i understand why now.
being onstage is like getting really really high. honestly, it is the best high ever, and i have tried a few. like any good drug, once you've tasted it, you spend the rest of your life chasing down that first feeling. a favorite phrase of mine about drinking illustrates this:
"a martini is the closest thing to a spiritual experience, that isnt."
which is to say that we humans are really looking for something greater than ourselves, something outside our quotidian perspective and experience. drugs help, but ultimately fall short. i think the thing that happens between an audience and a performer comes even closer. to give a good show or to see a good show is to breathe a special air for a few moments. it charges us, inspires us, leaves us different.
as a musician i have experienced this high and found its release to be part of the show too. the physical act of playing an instrument or singing, somehow helps me not to get overwhelmed with this energy. i exhaust myself even as i rev myself up. like a good joint, time slows down and softens. then you come down, then you do it again the next day, ad infinitum. yet, as an actor, i found myself flying high in a new way, like doing lines of coke or way way way too much coffee. it built slowly over months of rehearsal, and reached a frenzy in a too-short run of 4 shows. i had trouble finding a way to release that electricity. what could i do with myself to come down?
and so i found myself on saturday night packed elbow to elbow in a crowded kitchen. the music was loud, the people were boisterous, and i was bouncing around amongst it all like a happy pinball. the sweet tea sloshed about in my plastic cup as i hugged and thanked and laughed with a roomful of new friends.
and guess what? it's no surprise to this kid, but i want to do it again, and again, and again.
the august company cast for "gone":
pam victor, mark teffer, claire kavanah, kelsey flynn, amy koske, liesel de boor, rachel braidman, julian olf, scott braidman, sheila siragusa, kerry strayer, steve angel, dennis quinn