Fear: The Only Thing That Can Keep You From A Brilliant Performance
In a very real sense, acting is one of the most masochistic professions out there. Really, think about it. You are the center of attention, with dozens, if not more, of pairs of eyes focused on you as you deliver your lines. There’s nowhere to hide if you mess up. If you stink, everyone is going to know it. If you flub your lines ten times in a row, you’re not going to enamor yourself with the crew or the other actors. It is sometimes a wonder that any of us can open our mouths at all with all that pressure.
Yet, fear is the performance killer. Succumb to it, and your ability to move the audience and to take them along with you as the story unfolds will tank. Overcome it, and there’s no telling what you will be able to do. It all starts with whether you choose to give in to that nagging voice inside you that says you’re not quite good enough, that you’re nowhere in the league of the other actors.
I was once in a community production of Othello, one of the best plays ever written and a bear to perform. We kept it real and stuck to Shakespeare’s English, meaning that it was a challenge - and then some - to learn our lines. Have you ever tried to let Shakespeare roll off your tongue? He wrote his works over 400 years ago, when English might as well have been a foreign language. The grammar, the syntax, the expressions, the vocabulary - everything was totally different.
I spent weeks studying my lines, trying hard to speak them naturally and to then memorize them. You better believe it was tough. When opening night came, I felt that dreaded icy pit of fear in my stomach. My co-stars were awesome and sounded like they were from another era. What was I doing in the scene with them? The audience was sure to know I was just some guy in tights who fancied himself an actor but who was out of his league. You know what happens when fear hits you - your thoughts spiral, you get negative, and it all starts to circle down the drain.
As I was standing in the wings, wondering if I should fake a heart attack or just make a run for it, one of the other actors came up to me and said something I’ll never forget: “Ben, the only one who can ruin your performance is you. You’re an actor. You were chosen for a reason. You can do this. The audience isn’t going to know what Shakespeare is supposed to sound like. There may be a Shakespeare expert out there somewhere, but 99.99% of the people who watch you won’t know much about good old William and are going to think you’re just incredible. That .01% won’t matter. Now go out there and have some fun. You’re performing in Othello! Nothing is cooler than that.”
His support released something inside of me, and I went on stage that night, happy and confident about my performance. When it came time for me to speak, I spoke. I projected my voice out into the audience and simply had fun pretending that I was Horatio, Hamlet’s friend and one of the people who saw the Ghost. I just flat-out had a good time, and in the end, isn’t that what acting is all about?
We actors are never going to be rid of fear. It’s always going to stalk us and tell us that we’re not good enough, that we don’t belong in the company of our peers. Just remember this the next time you come face to face with it: you’re an actor. You’ve got talent. All your audience wants to have is a good time, and you’ve got the ability to give that to them. Fear, in the end, plays no part in that. It’s all about simply believing in yourself, letting go, and letting what will be, be.