I sat alone on the stage.
In the darkness I unclipped my tie and opened the top button of my tuxedo shirt. My fellow actor H__ passed before me in the darkness. “I have the gun,” she whispered. Over the speakers music played. “I’ve got you/under my skin,” Frank Sinatra crooned. The stage was hot and I was sweating beneath my tuxedo jacket. When the curtain opened and the lights came up it would be hotter.
I was alone for nearly two minutes behind that red curtain with a red stained handkerchief on my left knee. I prepared myself for what would come next. I had just been shot in the leg, and now I had to spend the rest of the act feigning excruciating pain. My anguish had to slowly increase as the scene wore on. I would refuse drugs to ease my pain and eventually collapse, my body succumbed to the fever and the pain.
The curtain opened when the song ended, and for a few seconds I had the stage to myself. This was not a position I ever thought I would be in, not since I was three and sang at my school talent show. Soon the stage filled with people, the other characters in the play, all played by actors with much more experience than I, and much more talent.
Inside me a voice screamed. “You are not good enough for this moment, not good enough for this part, not good enough for this play,” the voice said. “You are supposed to be the shy one, the one who eschews the spotlight.” Yet here I was basking in it. Relishing it. When the lights came up, I pushed the voice away. The voice of doubt and fear. I wasn’t going to let the voice intrude on this moment.
As the curtain closed on our last performance date, I felt the voice creep back in. She got louder and louder in my head, and in my heart. I was filled with an overwhelming sadness, one that almost brought tears to my eyes. But I was holding back my emotions. Because I thought I was bigger than they were. Stronger than the sadness, and stronger than the voice. But still it screamed. “See, the show is over, and now you can go back to being the meek, quiet one. Go back to what you really are: a fraud.”
I saw my costars thrilled with the show, thrilled that they had pulled it off. And part of me was thrilled, too. Thrilled that for seven shows, and for all the rehearsals before that, I had managed to push my doubts aside. To push away my fears and to let myself out of my own cage. Now that the show was over, would I go back to that? Would I return to self-doubt, to self-loathing, to silently listening to the voice in my head that tells me I’m a fraud no matter what I do?
During the show’s run I was thrilled and ecstatic. I took to the stage every night at rehearsals, and at performances, with the most bravado I could muster. A fellow actor and director told me to leave it all on the stage, and that’s what I wanted to do. Be bigger. Be bolder. Be more than I believed I was capable of, and then be more. It helped that I was playing someone else, that I was pretending to be someone else. In pretending I could be more than I was.
But in pretending I was also losing my own voice. I was not bringing everything I could to the stage, because I was suppressing this one basic emotion: fear. My own deep seated fear that ultimately I’m just not good enough for any of this. That, ultimately, I am a fraud.
I have dealt with that fear by rationalizing my emotions. I know in my head that the fear is just that: a fear. Fear is an emotion that can stop us from experiencing life to the fullest. Fear can hold us back from being the fullest measure of ourselves. My way of dealing with that fear is to objectify it. To rationalize it. To take the fear out of my emotion and put it over there, lock it away in a box. But fear has a way of Houdini-like escaping from any box in which it is locked.
My fear of being a fraud didn’t stop me from owning the stage, but it did stop me from exploring the emotion of it. I have come to realize since the production ended last week that trying to put these emotions behind a wall of objectivity doesn’t just block out the fear, but it also blocks out the elation, the happiness, the joy, the love. I was rationalizing away not only my fear, but all my emotions.
As we greeted the audience after our final performance, I felt very alone in my grief. I was sad that the show was ending, yes, but mostly I feared my own self doubt, feared that the voice would return louder and stronger than before.
I have no regrets about the play, nor about my performance. A veteran television actor who saw me on stage told me how impressed he was with my stage presence. “Sometimes we don’t see our own talents,” he said. And he was right. I couldn’t experience the joy of my own performance because I was too busy trying to push away my fear.
Open the Floodgates
Life is a stage. We stand or sit alone upon it, and the audience watches us. That can be a frightening thing, so many eyes watching our every move. Being human means recognizing that emotions like fear and doubt and anger have a place in our lives. We feel these emotions for a reason. They are guides, and they can show us a path towards a more fulfilling life.
Now, as I sit upon that stage, my heart beating faster and faster, I find the emotions flooding me, almost overwhelming. Rather than put them behind a wall, rather than try to lock them into a box, I unleash them to myself. I let that fear and that sadness and that joy overwhelm me, and within that flood I find myself again. The character waiting on that stage, the actor preparing for the next twenty minutes, and the man in me ready to be washed in the emotion of the moment. Not to rationalize it away, but to relish it. To live it. To be in it, fully, wholly, completely.