I am playing with my band onstage in a small club, under blue and red lights. I feel a tug at the hem of my shirt. I try to ignore it and stay with the words I’m singing and the notes I’m playing. But the insistent tugs continue – in fact, they become even more frequent and strong – and they succeed in pulling me out of where I want to be. I struggle to keep looking forward, keep focusing on the task at hand. The tugs turn into yanks, and then a constant tapping on my shoulder. I cannot bear to look back at this force that must be much greater than me. To look the beast in the eyes would be to look at Medusa – it will turn me to stone. The harder I try to ignore it, the larger and more menacing it becomes. It grows and grows, towering over me, and I can feel its hot breath on the back of my neck. It becomes so big that I think I can see it out of the corner of my eye. My heart is pounding out of control, choking my throat, and I can barely breathe. Finally, I have no choice; I can’t pretend it’s not there any longer. I turn around and face the monster. I find that it’s not so huge – it’s only at eye level with me. The longer I look at it, the smaller it becomes, until it is only a tiny speck. Like magic, it disappears. I turn back around to face the audience.
When I was a kid I was what is referred to, in technical terms, as an “attention whore.” If there was a camera anywhere within a five-mile radius, I’d hunt it down and jump in front of it. My mom signed me up for ballet classes when I was three or four, and I fell in love with recital day. I loved getting to put on stage make-up, wear costumes, and get ready backstage with the older dancers. But most of all, I loved being onstage. It filled me with a giddy glee. There’s a famous incident during a nursery-rhyme themed show in which I was dancing twice as fast as all the other mice. I was so excited just to be there, under the lights, in my costume, with everyone watching, that I completely lost track of the counts and operated on a purely exuberant level. I was the kid in class who could never stop talking and I admit, somewhat bashfully, that I totally hogged the mic while performing “The Three Little Fishies” at the kindergarten play. I’m sure this got annoying at times for the adults who had to reign me in, but for the most part, I was a very happy, well adjusted child who loved to make people laugh.
Then, when I hit puberty, things changed, as they do for all of us. I experienced depression for the first time. My parents decided to transfer me to a strict Catholic school, where being creative and having one’s own opinion wasn’t exactly encouraged. I didn’t fit in, my self-esteem plummeted, and I developed social anxiety. Any time I had to give a presentation in school, I would turn “purple,” as one of my friends described my extreme blush; I stopped raising my hand in class because it was mortifying for me to speak in front of others, even if I knew the right answer. I withdrew into my shyness and, for the most part, stopped talking except when absolutely necessary. During those years, the after school community theater program I participated in was my lifeline. It was the only space where I felt safe to be who I still was on the inside. But gradually, my social anxiety even took hold of me there, and I began to grow more ambivalent towards being on stage. I still craved it, but I started to feel shame about my desire. I grew more and more nervous before performances and started shutting down during rehearsals. I stopped giving myself permission to be that open, happy child that totally lost track of what was “right” because I was so elated just to be there. My insecurities grew until they nearly completely obscured any confidence I had left, like a cloud blocking out the sun.
I still loved the magic of the theater however, and I stuck with it, even as it became fraught with inner conflict for me. I still felt that the stage was the most fun place in the world to be, but I felt more and more like I didn’t deserve to be there. I kept acting and struggling to regain my confidence. Later in high school, I started directing theater productions and learning about filmmaking as well. When it came time to apply to college, even though I had been pining since the seventh grade to study Theater at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, I procrastinated, plagued by doubt. I thought people would laugh at me if they knew that I was applying to one of the best theater programs in the country. I thought that I wouldn’t get in and that everyone would know and I’d be humiliated. But finally, on Halloween, I sat down and completed my application just in time for the early decision deadline. A few weeks later, I got to leave school early on a Wednesday to head up to New York to audition and interview. And a few weeks after that, I came home from hanging out with a friend at Dunkin’ Donuts to find it: the big envelope. I ripped it open, and as soon as I saw the word “accepted,” I screamed! I felt so triumphant, like I had proven everyone wrong. The truth is that most people probably didn’t think much of anything about me in high school since I hardly ever talked. I had mostly proven myself wrong.
I chose to attend the Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting, where one of my high school acting teachers had studied. Every day in acting school, I had to fight with myself to just to participate. I was so terrified of doing something wrong that I couldn’t even let the things I’d done right show. All of the work I had done to prepare disappeared in the face of my fear. When I had to get up and work on an exercise I was in physical pain because I was cringing so hard. One of my teachers even told me I looked “painfully self-conscious.” I’ll never forget the moment he said that and how awful I felt. I thought that I was the absolute worst person in the entire conservatory and that everyone pitied me. The self-loathing was endless. The worst part was that I realized that everyone could tell how scared I was, which made me even more self-conscious. There was no way I could possibly focus on the exercise I was supposed to be doing, or the scene that I had prepared for weeks for because my head was full of negative thoughts. The stage used to be the happiest place in the world for me, and it somehow had become a prison. It didn’t help that “the stage” in class wasn’t a glittering raised platform in the middle of a hushed, dark space. It was a blank room, usually with no windows and all the lights on and my teachers and classmates seated in folding chairs on the same level as I was. There was no smoke and mirrors for me to hide behind. I felt like I was appearing before a jury, not casting a spell.
One of my first classes, Movement For Actors, was the scariest, most incomprehensible part of my freshman year of college. I was terrified of the teacher and had no idea how to make my spine “like seaweed.” For a long time, I just totally rejected the class. But eventually I realized that if I was going to make any progress as an actor, I was going to have to tackle the beast of getting into my body. It’s a strange thought, isn’t it? We’re already in our bodies already, right? I mean, how can we not be? But the truth is I was very cut off from what was going on in my body. And not being alive to what was happening in my body meant that I was not alive to what was happening in my environment either. I lived in my head, which was nice when I wanted to daydream myself away from math class, but not so good when my mind was full of discouraging thoughts. I had no idea how to follow an impulse or react to something in the moment. I was drowning in a sea of thoughts, unable to take action or, at times, even utter a word. So, the summer after my freshman year, I held my nose, closed my eyes, and dove into learning how to exercise my weakest muscle. After a few weeks at home, I headed back up to New York for a five-week physical theater intensive at my acting studio. Slowly, I began to emerge. All the dancing, miming, clowning, stretching, and creating tableaux began to crack my shell.
For two years I devoted myself to getting into my body and the moment. Eventually, through rigorous training and immense effort, I learned how to calm myself down enough so that I could perform well and not be entirely locked up in my fear. But it stopped being fun. I wasn’t suffering, but I felt numb. I realized that acting wasn’t what I thought it was before, when I was doing high school drama club and community theater. It was a completely different beast, and a lot of work, and I had to be honest with myself about whether I wanted to keep pouring so much of myself into it. So I took a break from performing. It was an incredibly difficult decision because acting had been a huge part of my identity. And I didn’t know if I would ever come back to it. But looking back, it was probably one of the most mature decisions I had made at that age.
At first, it felt like I was going through a dark night of the soul. I felt a profound lack that can’t be expressed in words. For me, life had always begun at night. Performing was the spark in my life, that intangible thing that made my life worth living. Without a show to look forward to, things turn gray. I eventually got used to it and learned to enjoy other things. I decided to focus on behind the scenes work, and develop my love of directing and design. There is a special satisfaction that I get from bringing all the elements together that go into a video or stage production. There’s an alchemy in taking an idea in my head and making it a physical reality, whether it’s creating a costume, choreographing a dance, or editing a video. Being able to see the finished product from the outside is just so gratifying. It’s different from the ecstatic joy that I get from performing; it’s a more mellow kind of pleasure. I’m glad that I have cultivated those strengths, and I continue to do so. But I also always hoped that somehow I’d find my way back to the stage.
I kept taking movement and dance classes, but I did them purely for learning and personal growth. I dove even deeper into pursuits that would lead me more into physical freedom and the ability to live in the present: yoga, modern dance, meditation, contact improv, singing. I became an aficionado in what I once feared most. But I did it because I wanted to enjoy life and be happy, not because I ever thought I would pursue acting again.
Of course, performing snuck back into my life. It started a few years ago when a college friend asked me to act in an experimental video for him. The video was accepted into the New Media Festival Los Angeles, and, feeling encouraged, I dipped my toe in a bit more. I applied to a festival of new theater work, The Dark Night Festival, and my proposal was accepted. My best friend and I created an original movement-based theater piece for it and I actually had a lot of fun performing in it. Someone described it as “aggressively weird,” which I took as a compliment. I felt like perhaps I was at the beginning of a new era.
And then, I met my best friend, Taylor. He was starting a new band and asked me to join. Even though I had no idea what I could possibly offer a musical group at first, he trusted me and encouraged me. His support helped me blossom and achieve what I thought was impossible. I never thought that I would end up in a band, but here I am, two years in and having just been on a national tour. And most importantly, I’ve discovered a new way to experience my old love, performing. I’m now in a place where I can dance with my fear. It’s not that I no longer have stage fright, it’s that I’ve learned to live with it. I choose to focus on expressing the intention of the song and having fun with the audience and my bandmates instead of allowing myself to be distracted by negative thoughts. I’ll never forget what my voice and speech teacher once said: “Being brave isn’t not being afraid. It’s being afraid and doing it anyway.” I used to be so terrified of being vulnerable that I didn’t want anyone to see I was scared or even that I was anything – because it might be wrong, and they might judge me for it. Now, I’m finally okay with being nervous and not being in control. It’s in that space, the exact same one where I used to feel like a prisoner, that I now feel most free.
The secret to this freedom is quite simple: I notice things, and I accept them. When you accept things as they are, you can even notice that you feel a crippling fear and just take it in as part of the situation. Whether I am aware of the fact that I feel silly dancing or resigned because only a few people are watching or self-conscious because I have a huge zit, I take a moment to accept that feeling. I have to give it its due course, not push it away and pretend it’s not there. If I ignore it, it’s still there nagging me, pulling me away from the moment. I have to acknowledge to myself that yes, I am human, and yes, I have moments of doubt. It’s only then, when I face my fear head on, look it square in the eyes and smile at it, that I can do what I set out to do. And now, that’s the most exciting part of performing for me: the opportunity to challenge myself. How spontaneous can I be? How open? How vulnerable? How much can I let go of my preconceived notions of what my performance should be? How much can I react in the moment to my bandmates and the audience? Every night there are different answers: different sets of challenges, different pleasant surprises. I live for those precious moments when I get to be my most fearless, and to share them with others.