I remember the first play I was in during junior high school (now called middle school) years. They put white shoe polish in my hair to make me look like an old lady. My role was as a witness being cross-examined in a courtroom scene.
I had been happy, even enthusiastic, about my role in that play. It was all so much fun until the night of the performance. First I got nervous. Then came the butterflies in my stomach. Then I started feeling sick, nauseated. I threw up in the commode in the girl's bathroom and began crying and shaking uncontrollably. Stage Fright Maximus. I was terrified inside and out.
Somehow I made it through that performance. I was stunned by my loss of nerve. What a nightmare. So why did I sign up for the very next community theater play that summer? I don't know, but I do remember that I was both relieved and disappointed when my next role was not a speaking part. I got to be a hula girl that time, and not so scary at all.
The next speaking role I had was in a high school play during my freshman year. I played Mary Skinner, the love interest of Clarence Day, Jr. in LIFE WITH FATHER. I wasn't afraid to audition for that play. I figured I'd gotten over all my stage fright that night with the shoe polish hair.
Wrong. Somehow I managed to land the one role in the play that would cause me to become totally unglued. An insecure teenager that was exceedingly shy, and especially around boys, I had gotten a part that required me to do the unthinkable: that is, to be forward with a cute boy. The scene called for me to walk right up and sit in his lap. Clearly, I had to stretch in this role. I would never have done anything remotely resembling such aggressive flirtation in real life. Even worse, my biggest fear (should I ever do something like that, which I wouldn't) was the rejection I had to experience next in the role. Clarence, Jr. stiffens immediately and yells for Mary to get off of him. (It's because he's wearing his father's pant and he is mortified at the thought of getting them wrinkled, but "Mary" doesn't know this and takes his shove-off as full-blown rejection.)
But wait. It gets even worse. Then I have to go to front stage and FACE the audience as I start balling out loud. Hiding my face with my hands and muffled sobs were not allowed.
Mr. Scrimpsher, our director, had been a director for "real plays" in New York in his younger years and he was very demanding, and we rehearsed nearly every single evening until near midnight for four weeks. Every time I got to the crying-out-loud part he would snap at me, "Show your face to the audience. Cry louder! I want you to really cry and cry hard!" I would do it again for him, and inevitably he would say, "Do it again. This time give me MORE!" Even doing this in front of empty seats, the act made me feel no less than if I were totally making a fool of myself in public. Each night I felt utter and total humiliation. And every night right after rehearsal of that scene I would hurry backstage to find a private nook to hide and cry for real. Other actors and stagehands who had worked with Mr. S before warned me most seriously not to EVER let Mr. S catch me crying. "He hates that!" I managed to hide it from him.
Why was it so hard for me? It was, after all, "just play-acting." It didn't matter. To me it was as if the whole scene was real every single time. It was a solid month of practice and agony.
Looking back not long after the end of that production I realized that my experience in that play had changed me forever, and for the better. Before that I had been painfully shy and almost exceedingly timid in "real life." Teachers loved me because I was so damned quiet all the time read "opposite of a troublemaker"!
But now I found that I was no longer so frightened of people. I began, probably for the first time in my life, initiating conversations with people I didn't even know or didn't know well. I was no longer afraid to say "hi" to people in the sea of faces in the school hallways. As painful as it had all been, I have always felt grateful for the effect that play had on me and the lesson I learned about facing my fears.
Many years later, in one of my first film acting classes taught by Mona Lee, I was surprised to hear something she said. Not because it wasn't true, because it was. But it was a new concept to me when she said that film acting is not about pretending; that rather, it is about being REAL.
Over time I have found that facing my fears in "real life" helps me to face my fears while acting, and vice versa. Just this month I had a situation that was very difficult for me to confront. To confront and express my feelings was tantamount to making myself feel foolish, humiliated, embarrassed. But it was something I needed to do if I was ever going to get beyond a high degree of frustration and misery. The moment came when I knew it was time. Interestingly, as I entered the room and saw the person I needed to speak to openly, I found myself with a sort of flashback feeling of being in a play with a difficult part such as my role as Mary Skinner. I thought to myself, "This is my cue," and I knew that I must perform express myself well and fully, and that "the show must go on." I expressed myself boldly and acknowledged my fear, and when it was all done and he had left, I even cried for just a few moments not out of embarrassment, humiliation, pain or sadness, but out of relief for having done something that was truly hard for me to do. And what came over me was a sense of peace, of harmony, within myself.
It is so true what William Shakespeare said, "We are all actors on a stage." (I don't know if I got that word for word, but that is the gist of one of his more famous lines.) By living my "real" life more fully and expressing myself more honestly I feel that one of the many rewards is that I stretch as an actor as well. Which reminds me about the criers in India. There are people in India who are hired to go to funerals and cry, in order to help others begin to cry. It is a release that can be shared. But that's another column perhaps.
I'm writing this column on Christmas Day, which I have spent in solitude this year. My son went out of state to see his grandma and my closest friends went elsewhere. I thank my Teacher, Maharaji, for giving me the wisdom and the way to enjoy my Party of One.
May you find fulfillment, peace and joy in the New Year.
Michele is a local actor in Austin, Texas, represented by Liz Atherton and Ciao! Talents. Her credits include a supporting role in award-winning independent comedy film "Snake Tales" and a "home movie" filmed by Kevin Spacey on the set of "Life of David Gale." You can see Michele's online résumé (and follow the link to her new tattoo) at http://www.deradune.com/resume.html.