Half hour has just been called and I’m filled with dread. I’m looking for a window to jump out of. I go into the restroom and lean over the toilet. The dry heaves relieve the tension, but only until the fifteen minute call. I take deep breaths to relax. I run through some lines and get hung up on a word. Panic! I know these lines! Let go of them I tell myself. Deep breaths. Project out of myself! Let my muscles think and not my brain. Breathe. The word is there. The five minute call comes. No escape. I have to go out there. I have to face them. The audience. And they terrify me.
If you’re an actor you’ve probably felt this way at some point. We don’t talk about it very much, that would be inviting the gremlin into the room, but you see it on our faces before a show: silent meditation, anxious introspection, staring into space. We see all the things that can go wrong. Some actors try to talk it away; going over the mundane events of the day, or complaining about a note he or she was given. But however it’s dealt with, it’s there. Stage fright. It’s a terrifying place. Actors are supposed to crave the attention of the audience. There are actors who can’t live without it, who want to be center stage all the time. I’ve often found something lacking in their work. Humility? The spirit of the ensemble? Empathy? I don’t trust an actor who isn’t afraid, at least a little bit. To fear it is to respect it. If we’re honest, which as actors we must be, the one thing that binds us together is fear—a deep-seated paralysis that often comes over us doing the thing we love most.
I love reading about actors’ fear because it reassures me that I’m not alone, that even the most well-known of us deal with it, and that it’s not uncommon, but in fact essential.
There’s Laurence Olivier’s “terrors” or stage fright that lasted for a decade. A bucket was kept backstage for him to vomit into. Actors were told not to look him in the eye on stage for fear that it would throw him. Still, he forged ahead and bravely went out there.
There’s Antony Sher playing Richard III for the Royal Shakespeare Company who says in Year of the King: An Actor’s Diary and Sketchbook that acting relaxed, chatting and joking with people before a show helped him. “Acting in real life helps quell the screaming voice inside—‘Help me, let me go, let me escape please!’”
And here’s actor William Redfield’s conversation with a cast member after the final dress rehearsal of Richard Burton’s Hamlet:
“I think he’s scared. I think he’s scared to death.”
“Well of course he’s scared! Wouldn’t you be?”
Our nervous systems don’t seem to be made for this kind of work; who in real life wants to marry their mother, have children with her and then watch her hang herself? Or even be remotely associated with the Weston family of Osage County? George Harrison said the price the Beatles paid for their success was their collective nervous systems. Being observed under such intense light takes a toll. There have been many times walking to the theater, passing dimly lit restaurants, people drinking, laughing, relaxing after a day’s anonymous work that I’ve often longed to be among them, to shed the tight knot in my stomach. I saw a poll once that said 70 percent of people questioned ranked public speaking over death as a fear. Really?! You’d rather die than stand up in front of a group of people? I’ve been there.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman was an actor’s actor; the best, many said, of his generation. And yet, in the aftermath of his death, you realize that he was just like the rest of us, full of insecurity. Bennett Miller, who directed Hoffman in Capote, tells of his friend’s fears two weeks before the opening of The Sea Gull with Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline. Hoffman confided that he was nervous and would be found out to be a fraud. A fraud? The best actor of his generation? He told of the exhausting stress caused by the psychophysical commitment it takes to play a role. I saw his Willy Loman on Broadway. I’ll never forget his first entrance, lugging those bulging sample cases into the house, exhaling the first line with the weight of world on it, “Oh boy.” It was Sisyphus rolling the boulder up the hill. Even from the back row, I felt there never was a more exhausted Willy. Could he have turned to pain-killers to dull the anxiety of being on exhibit? Watching Hoffman’s Willy Loman was to truly understand the meaning of the word catharsis; to shed light onto dark places. To act well is to bare one’s soul, which, if you’ve seen any of his work, you can see that he did over and over.
Aristotle chose his words properly describing catharsis as “pity and fear.” Fear opens the gates to vulnerability, humility, and a communion with the audience that makes them see themselves. What makes it cathartic is to see characters, and actors, forging ahead in the face of disaster. Perfection has no meaning in the theater. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it, but reaching it is impossible. My mantra is something Yo Yo Ma says before each performance, “Welcome the first mistake, then you’re free.” Without mistakes, life and theater would be pretty dull.
To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, the fear now is part of the pleasure later. Without fear, I’m not bringing my vulnerable and best self to the stage. Fear is a necessary part of the process, like death is to life.
Places have been called. There’s no turning back. Blackout. An incredible calm comes over me. My fear is still there, but I welcome it. I know I need it. The audience settles into their seats, or perhaps sits up just a bit on the edge of them. They give me comfort now. I’m about to enter into a life under a microscope. But in truth it’s a communion.