More than once someone has come up to me before an opening of some play I wrote saying something like, “Oh, you’ve been doing this so long you probably don’t even get nervous anymore, right?” My reply is always: “It’s precisely because I’ve been doing this so long that I’m terrified. I know all the things that can go wrong.”
In two days I will be joining the 14/48 team as an actor for the first time. In the parlance of the Seattle’s venerable “instant theatre” festival, I’ll be a virgin, and thus forced to fetch beer from the keg for whichever veteran demands it. The fact that I have served as a writer four times makes no difference. Nor should it. As an actor, I am a virgin. I feel like a virgin. And I have a virgin’s fears. Or to be more accurate I should say, I expect to feel a virgin’s fears. I just don’t feel them yet. It’s one of the blessings of being an actor. You really don’t need to plan that far ahead. Actors are soldiers in the trenches. Sure, it’s their ass in the line of fire, but at least they have something to do when the lights rise and it’s time to go up and over. A playwright, like a general, has to watch in horror-- sometimes abject, sometimes surreal-- from beyond the action. Of course there is joy too, but a playwright’s joy comes only in flashes until the final curtain drops. Until then, anything can, and often does, go wrong.
So my 14/48 virgin actor fear hasn’t hit me yet, but I have no doubts that by the time of the first morning’s “actors’ draw”, when I find out which play I will be performing and who my director and cast-mates will be, my insides will be doing a nasty free-style crawl towards either end of my G-I tract. And when it comes time to go onstage for the first performance, I fully expect my swollen heart to be thumping in my chest. This is only right and proper. It’s how human bodies process performing publically. And it’s as it should be.
A healthy fear is essential to making theatre. It is what keys us into the audience’s experience of the immediacy of the moment. If you’re not feeling it, then chances are the audience won’t be feeling much of anything. And, alas, they’re used to that. If they want “perfection”, they stay home and watch the boob. Our fear as theatre artists fuels the whole machina ex deus that is theatre. The audience gets off on knowing that the train can leave the tracks at any moment. Ours is the crucible where the experiment of art is performed—not re-enacted—but embodied in flesh and sweat and spit. If we already know we’re right— if we know from the outset that the experiment is going to succeed— then we are also already dead. Fear is life. Fear is holy. And in these darkest Northwest days just after New Year’s, fear is also a much needed bolus of bright adrenaline. I plan on nursing it until the lengthening days can take over.