Ever since I can remember, I have been a performer. I spent the summers of my youth participating in intensive musical theatre camps in the suburbs of Chicago, and most of my free time journaling or rehearsing for events I would be on stage for. I had my first solo as a kindergartener in Philadelphia during our winter holiday concert. “Do You See What I See?” was the song in question and I did not see what everyone else saw, because I royally screwed up the third verse of the song (which happened to be my solo) before stumbling blindly back to my spot with tears in my eyes. The girl standing next to me (Ashley, hey girl, thanks for ruining my childhood) went on to tell me how I ruined the entire concert, and that my fumble would be the only thing anyone would ever remember me for. (Kids can be so cruel, right?)
Because of this, until about age 16, I had crippling stage fright. The kind that turns your body into stone, makes your heart threaten to jump up through your esophagus like some kind of amphibian creature, and all of your lines suddenly disappear from your mind. All of a sudden, your weeks of rehearsals, deep character studies, and hours spent perfecting a dramatic eye wiggle mean nothing. The fear takes hold and you are convinced that Ashley was, and still is, completely right. You’re going to ruin the entire show. And what if you forget a line and the only thing anyone remembers you for is that time you stood onstage like a codfish for twelve seconds (which felt like 11 excruciating minutes) with nothing to say? For a performer, there is almost nothing in the world that sucks as much as this fear.
The only thing that sucks more than this fear, is realizing that you gave your fear the power it has over you.
At the age of 5, I was in no position to defend myself while sobbing, because what third grade Ashley had said to me, I believed to be true. I truly thought that I had ruined the entire concert. I gave her words power by not letting myself feel good enough. I didn’t quit choir (only because my mother refused to let me do such a thing with my angelic 5 year old voice), but I did begin to doubt myself.
I spent the next ten-odd years participating in music, theatre, writing, and other nerdy yet awesome high school things like Speech Team. I am and always have been, an outpoken, loud, hilarious (just kidding, kind of) individual with a lot of emotions to express — but what most people don’t understand is that even though people like me put themselves out there doesn’t mean that they don’t have doubts about doing so in the first place.
At 16, I was in a production of Grease where I played Jan (brusha, brusha, brusha), and one night we were onstage opening a bottle of faux-champagne for a scene, and it turned out the top was not screw-on like we’d anticipated, but an actual champagne cork. At sixteen, wine bottles were a pretty foreign concept to me — but the bottle played a major role in the scene and well, you know what they say in show business, THE SHOW MUST GO ON. I improvised a few lines and ran off stage to hunt down a corkscrew. Magically, there was one somewhere in the theatre and it only took two and a half minutes for me to run back onstage with it and save the day.
A really inspiring story, I know.
The point is, when I “saved the day” that evening, I felt good about myself. I had encountered a problem onstage, and solved it onstage as my character, and then solved it again, offstage, as myself. Double whammy. Something clicked in me that day. I realized that regardless of whether or not things had to be rearranged on stage, that it was doable. Even if I forget a line (which I do, here and there) or miss a beat in the song, or spin the wrong way in the choreography – the show goes on. And most of the time? The audience doesn’t. even. notice. My stage fright is still there, still causing my heart to act like a poisonous frog right before an audition, or right before I submit a piece of work — but my limbs don’t turn to stone anymore. These days, I’m able to take a deep breath, push through, and check my Instagram to take my mind off of things until it’s all over.
Since my revelation at 16 that life goes on even when you make mistakes, I’ve come to a few more revelations:
1. Grease is actually a pretty terrible stage play.
2. I am not everyone’s cup of tea. (Which is fine, because I drink coffee.) But seriously. I’m an extrovert by nature. I like to make people laugh. More importantly, I like to make myself laugh. What I think is funny, not everyone thinks is funny. And sometimes that’s terrifying, but that’s okay. (If you need a pep-talk in this arena, I highly recommend this round table courtesy of the Hollywood Reporter. Betty White talks being funny for yourself and stage fright at age 92.)
3. Once you become comfortable with yourself, everything else just sort of falls into place. I’m still working on this, every day of my life. But I like to think that every day I work on it, I get one step closer to Nirvana.
4. If you put yourself out there, critics will come out to bat. But so will your champions. For every awful, negative, nothing better to do with their time than bash person that’s out there, there are ten waiting in the wings to congratulate you and push you and your self esteem up to the next level.
Being a performer/artist/writer/creative usually means that you are indeed, your own worst critic. (Unless you’re Kanye West, in which case, you go, Kanye West.) But sometimes, naysayers come out of the woodwork with their two cents, and oh my god, welcome to the internet, the land of anonymous bashing with no consequence. At least in kindergarten when Ashley bullied me into a crippling existence for the next ten years, she was forced to apologize for it. Nowadays, bullies run rampant on the internet and don’t have any higher authority to answer to.
But guess what? Those jerks only have power if you give them the power.