I just finished playing the lead role in a local theatrical production of a play called Stage Kiss by Sarah Ruhl. It was a dream role, meaty, interesting, funny, challenging…and best of all, it was age appropriate…all the things an actress wants to be able to do in her lifetime. The ridiculousness of working full time, raising children and being in a play is impossible to describe. Only people insane enough to do it can understand it. If you don’t love theatre you could never comprehend why anyone would ever do it. It’s completely dumb. And I had to do it. My kids had to do it with me and they weren’t too big on the idea, it was very hard on them. Needless to say, by opening night I was physically and emotionally exhausted. But I was still determined, dammit. And I was still in love with the theatre. I was also scared shitless.
My character only left the stage twice for 30 seconds each to change clothes. So when I walked out on stage to say the first line of the play, I was stuck there for an hour until intermssion. The same was true in Act 2. I had to sing (something I only do in the shower or along with the radio), I had to change costumes on stage, I even had to dance a little. Oh, and I also had to kiss four different people…one of them about 20 times a night, the play is all about stage kisses. I got to slap one guy four times, one slap for every five kisses. I had a fight scene where I got thrown around a little. That’s a lot of stuff to have to do in 2 hours, after working a full day, making dinner for kids, driving carpool and shit. I also had a fuck ton of lines. SO MANY LINES. The show rested on my characters shoulders. I had to keep it together. My fear could not get the best of me.
It was a lot of pressure. I became somewhat fascinated, over the five weeks of rehearsal and four and half weeks of performances, in how my body reacted to the stress. Not my mind, but my body. I am pretty self aware and rarely let my mind spill out onto the stage. Ok, well there was this one time when I had a “minor” breakdown about a costume I didn’t feel good about and said something to the costumer that I was later told went something like “I would never fuck anyone in this dress. If someone tried to fuck me while I was wearing this dress I would make them take it off me first.” I don’t recall saying it, I felt like I was simply explaining that the dress didn’t make me feel pretty but whatever, I apologized to her and we got a better dress, thank god. Other than that one tiny moment where my mind leaked out of my mouth and went completely insane…I kept my mind pretty contained through the experience. I lost close to ten pounds through it all but that was from not eating dinner. There was absolutely no time. I let my youngest kid stay home twice during tech week because he was suddenly very fake sick (this is code for he missed the shit out of me and needed some mommy time). But generally, I was pretty impressed with how I held it together through weeks of five hours of sleep a night and enormous pressure. I even got my real job done.
I have a friend (yeah, you) who always tells me to breathe on stage. It’s totally annoying advice until you realize you aren’t actually breathing and find that when you do, it’s so much better. Oxygen is good. I learned to really breathe on stage during this show. It was very helpful. When our first preview audiences arrived, I became really interested in how my body was experiencing stage fright. I made mental notes of how it was manifesting in my body and how it related to what was going on in my mind. Opening night I was nervous, hyper focused, afraid of making a mistake and derailing the show. It didn’t happen, I was fine…not great but totally fine. I stayed in a state of rigidity the entire two hours. The next morning, I had a nice chat with myself (smacked myself around a little) about why I was there, what I hoped to gain from the experience, and what the point of it was if I was going to spend four weeks on stage terrified of making a mistake. For the second performance I went in absolutely and completely determined to have fun. I danced to great music before I left the house, I talked sweetly to myself and my family. I filled myself with happy, loving thoughts.
I was still nervous. My body did all the things it had been doing. My heart raced before I walked onstage. My hands were shaky. I felt a little sick. All liquid drained from my body and giant balls of cotton filled my mouth. But the difference was palpable. My fear shifted about five minutes into the play into something else, excitement. And that’s what it became for the next four weeks. Excitement. I still felt a little panic every night, some nights hardly at all and one other night I was more physically affected when one of my friends was in the audience (yeah, you again). But generally, I discovered with this play, that I am someone who experiences panic before I walk out on stage. It’s just who I am, it’s how I do it and fighting it only makes it worse. That’s my body, it needs to process the fear. And that’s ok. I get jittery, my hands shake, the liquid drains from my body, I am sensitive to light (which is hilarious because stage lights are ultra bright), slightly sweaty, oh and I also like to burp a lot. When I don’t fight it, it’s mostly gone entirely within about five minutes on stage.
On the subject of bodies doing weird shit you don’t expect and can’t seem to control…I had lunch once with a lovely woman I dated briefly, wasn’t compatible with, and we immediately shifted into a solid friendship. We went to a local hipster pizza place. It was a sunny day, I felt great, happy, light and carefree. This was at a weird time in my life so good days were really cherished. This was one of them. We sat down and read our menus and ordered iced tea. She leaned forward to whisper something…
“That woman at the table next to us is your type.”
“What?” I said, not sure I had heard her correctly.
“That blonde over there, with the short hair…right next to you, she is totally your type.”
I knew instinctively who it was before I looked. I knew it was the woman who had devastated me about six months earlier. The woman who had left me so raw and unexpectedly humiliated. I glanced out of the corner of my eye and saw her. Yep, it was her. My mood shifted immediately and I thought, “Oh yeah, she’s my type all right.”
And then something began to happen to my body. My vision blurred, my hands began to shake, my mouth went instantly dry. I tried to take a drink of my tea but my hands were shaking wildly and I couldn’t lift the glass without spilling it. My friend asked what was wrong. I think she might have even asked if I was on medication (she’s a nurse, she always diagnosed me…she also really liked my strong veins and said nurses must love drawing my blood). The knowledge that I was actually having a full blown panic attack in a public place, that it was obvious and in front of the person I had determined would never see me suffer again…was only adding to the panic. It was absolutely horrifying and surreal. It’s not like I didn’t see her all the time. I don’t know why my body decided to go bezerk in that moment. But it did.
Somehow I worked through it. I calmed down. I didn’t start puking or screaming or hyperventilating. My pride took over. No one had to call an ambulance. It was awful but I survived it and I was fine and I think we had a decent lunch in the end.
But here’s what it taught me, and here’s how it relates to the subject of theatre and stage fright…pain must be felt. It doesn’t work to do the tough girl, rigid, I am totally fine thing. The pain, the fear, the anxiety, it must be felt. Resisting it only makes it worse. I mean you can try but that body of yours will take over when you least expect it and it will force you to feel it. And it may happen at a very inconvenient time. So just feel it. Be sad. Be afraid. Be angry. Feel it, let it wash over you, and then let it go.
Over the past few months I have learned to recognize the physical manifestations of stage fright and deal with them effectively. Because of this work, I have gotten to be a pretty good actress. I was always a decent actress. But the last few productions I have been in, I have learned to use the weird shit my body does before I go on stage..to work with it and use it instead of fighting it. It allows me to continue to be present, to breath, to listen.
And those lessons apply to real life too. Because art imitates life in the most unexpected ways.