The first time I went on stage I was thirteen — a grade eight boy who only got involved in drama to escape a whole class detention. I remember how nervous I was. In the play, I was supposed to light a cigarette (imagine smoking on stage in school) but my hands were shaking so badly, I couldn’t keep the match lit. That was when I discovered I had a knack for improvisation. On my second try, I said. “You know, I think it’s time I quit smoking.” We incorporated it into subsequent performances.
The reason I remember that day so clearly is because it has been repeated every time I’ve had to perform, give a speech, do a reading or appear in public. When I was still doing improv murder mysteries, I would swear for an hour before the show started that I was never going to do another one. Even as I prepared for my one hundredth such performance (and two hundredth) I made the same assertion.
What I discovered was that once I was out there I had no problems. I always knew my lines, could improvise when others didn’t know theirs, could connect with an audience, and could in fact perform. Most people have no idea how I feel before the start because they never see it when I’m actually doing it.
When the show or the appearance is over, I’m generally pumped, as excited after it’s done as I was anxious before it began. Still, I’ve never felt the post show high was worth the pre-show jitters. At least I didn’t vomit before every show like a friend of mine. He didn’t last long in the performance game.
Why on earth would anyone put themselves through that? Well, we do it for the moment of magic. While the post-show excitement didn’t outweigh the pre-show pain, the moment of magic, when you hit just the right note, catch the perfect emotion, connect with one person or a whole audience. It is in some ways better than writing because there is no mediation. It is your body, your face, your voice, your emotions — right there, right now — and there is no possibility of re-writing or second guessing. It happens and then it is over. Until the next time, when you know it will be different. It might be worse or, magically, it might be better.
That is why people who are scared do what they do: because they want to be bigger than their fear, bigger than they imagine themselves to be. So the next time you feel overwhelmed by the feeling that you are not good enough, maybe you can think of that scared 13-year old up on a stage he never aspired to be on. He made it through and maybe you can too.
And that’s ten minutes.