One of the first mile-posts in any theatrical production is the Off-Book day. (At least for the amateurs; I have no idea how a professional rehearsal schedule works.)
Basically, this is the day that the director decrees that the actors need to have their lines memorized well enough that they can function without having the scripts in their hand during rehearsal. For many of us actors, this becomes the day that we become very good at hiding our scripts on our person and thinking we’re stealthy enough to get away with surreptitious looks.
For me, this was always the most harrowing part of any production. I revel in being on stage, in front of an audience, under the lights, in costume and full makeup. But the fear that comes with getting off book is . . . unreal.
And it’s gotten worse over time.
Not counting my mostly non-speaking roles in elementary school, my real show was during senior year of high school.
That first show, I remember being worried about learning lines, like any new actor. But I worked with friends, learned to handwrite my lines, and developed what I call my working script — basically, I type out all of my scenes, keeping all of the lines that aren’t mine, and replacing my lines with blanks and prepositions that were supposed to trigger the rest of the line in my mind.
To use an example from Qui Nguyen’s She Kills Monsters (I wish I’d had a chance to be in a production of this show, it’s absolutely wonderful!)
Agnes. I get it.
Chuck. So _____ ____ I do ____ ____?
Agnes. Rumor has it that you know a thing or two about D&D.
Chuck. Well, ______ __________, are __ ____________ 1st _ __ _______?
I picked up the skills. I learned the tricks. And while I still experienced the anxiety, it was something that I worked through. Not only did I learn the lines, but I felt comfortable that I had the lines.
I was able to make that gradual transition, to where I knew that I had the lines. I went from using a crutch to walking to running with the lines. By the time we got on stage, I was ready.
Between 2011 and 2016, I went through what I sincerely hope were the worst years of my life, mental illness-wise. Among other things, I thought I’d never act again.
And then I took the tiniest of baby steps.
I had just moved back in with my Mom. And, since she was going to school, I thought I would take the opportunity to go back, as well. As a new student, enrolling late, with low priority, there weren’t a lot of classes that I could take.
But there were two classes in the theatre department: Beginning Acting and Oral Interpretation of Literature. Both of them with the same professor, who was also the chair of the theatre department. Meeting that professor was probably the best chance happening of my 20s. He’s single-handedly responsible for getting me back on stage, something that I’d honestly given up on.
But even before he pulled me back into that first production, I noticed there was something different. While Oral Interpretation of Literature didn’t require that we memorize anything, for Beginning Acting, we had to memorize two different monologues.
With these, the anxiety was worse intense than I had ever remembered before. I put the same work into learning the monologues that I had always done with my lines before. Invested the same kind of time. But I never really got comfortable with them. I never really felt like I had a solid hold on the words.
I was always afraid I’d mess something up. That I wouldn’t get it right. That, when I was up there delivering the monologue, something in my brain would slip, and I could irrevocably screw something up. I always felt like I was teetering right on the brink of screwing the whole thing up.
It was a very visceral feeling, of constantly taking tiny baby steps forward, and not being sure if the ground would dematerialize right under my feet.
I made it through the monologues. But when my professor, Ed, asked me to audition for the show he was doing that summer, I was much more hesitant. But he wanted to work with me.
So I did it. After all those years, I went back out on stage. And I was anxious the entire time.
I loved being back on stage. I loved working with people again. The cast and crew of that first show, especially — Peter and the Starcatcher — was the perfect return to the stage. There were so many parts of being back on stage that I loved.
But that panic never really went away. I was constantly afraid of dropping lines. I didn’t go so far as taking a script on stage, and there was very little off-stage time during that show. But every moment I was off-stage, I had my nose in the script.
I never got to that comfortable place.
Ditto with A Christmas Carol. Ditto with Charlotte’s Web.
And the two other shows that I was supposed to do with Ed, but had to drop out of because of other (car related, usually) problems.
During Charlotte’s Web, I had the script on my person during the show. I had nice, deep pockets in my blue jeans, where I could slip the book. I never took it out on stage of course — that would have been horrible — but I needed it on me every second that I was in the wings. I was reading the next scene
The thing is, though, I was fine most of the time. I’ll never claim to be perfect on the stage, but I can’t remember any major screwups. Any moments where I seriously dropped a scene.
But I was always afraid of screwing up. Constantly. And the fear ate away so much of the joy, to the point where it devoured the experience. There was a lot of fun and passion and good times, but that anxiety undercut it, every step of the way.
I miss acting. There’s still a part of me that thinks, often, about going down to the local theatre company and auditioning for a show. I don’t doubt that I’ll always want to be on stage.
But then I remember the fear. The panic. The physiological stress reaction. The beating heart. The fear, the weight in my chest that solidifies into a solid lump of lead.
I ask myself if I want to feel that again.
The answer, for now, is a painful one: no.