Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Lessons from the footlights

It's been two years since I've stepped onto a stage. Two years since I warmed up the pipes to entertain a crowd. Two years since I gave myself over to that momentary magic of shared energy between performers and their audience.

Two years is a long time, and in that time a lot of nerves have the potential to rear their ugly head. And not without merit; I have my share of theater demons. By far my most humiliating moment on the stage happened in the spring of 1984, when I was playing Annie Oakley in "Annie Get Your Gun" at East Aurora High School. During one performance, I got completely lost in the song You Can't Get a Man With a Gun.

Completely. Lost. So lost, in fact, that when I looked down at the pit orchestra I saw my sister Pat (playing the piano) flipping furiously through the sheet music, desperate to find where I was. I saw the drummer just stop playing, and lower his head. See, the song is one of those repetitive ditties in which every verse sounds the same ... so if you don't follow yourself along, you're screwed. I was so completely gone, I just walked off the stage. There was no redeeming the song, so I gave up.

Those who know me will find this surprising, as I am not the "throw-in-the-towel" type, but at that moment, it couldn't be avoided.

And it has haunted me ever since.

Fast-forward to last Saturday. I arrived at our final rehearsal for the Summer Showcase in Libertyville, ready to run through all the songs. Everything was going along smoothly until it was time for my solo. I stepped up to the microphone, belted out the first line ... and immediately skipped ahead to the second verse. I tried again. Nothing. My cast mates waited patiently through a few more false starts, the band members tried their best to help me muddle through, and - God love him - my director assured me it was going to be okay. But I was having none of it. There just isn't an excuse or a reason; there is only an unprofessional performer, stuck in her head.

I told him I couldn't do it, and I took my seat. At the time, I wasn't sure what I meant; can I not do it now, or ever? I was freaking out and sad. I turned away from the cast in the sidelines and had myself a bit of a cry, and we got through the rest of rehearsal without a hitch. No one came at me with platitudes or bullshit; everyone (bless 'em) let me work through it on my own. It wasn't until we were in the car during break - me and my Patrick and our mutual gal pal, Dawn - that I even really talked about it. I told them that I didn't think I could do my song, and Patrick told me that would be okay.

And I immediately felt relief. I should not be surprised that the guy who has always known the right thing to say to me knew the right thing in that moment, too.

I did cheat a bit by writing line cues on my hand. I even looked at it once during the first show. But other than that, I rocked it, pure and simple. (With the possible exception of my eclectic lyrics to Master of the House during the first show.) I held it together, I did my best, and it all worked out okay.

There's a choice we all make when it comes time to do something we're not sure we're capable of. I do things all the time where I have the potential to make an ass out of myself; I even came in last in a 10K not too long ago. I was totally able to laugh it off, introducing myself to the police officer behind me desperately trying to close the course. So it's not a new idea for me, but it is different when there's a stage and a spotlight and a cast of characters behind you.

I think you have an agreement with your audience when you decide to do a show. You agree not to suck. You agree to entertain. That's hard to do if you can't remember your words. So I had a decision to make: let down my friends and give up, or try. It meant risking letting the audience and my fellow cast members and the production staff and the band down, but it was worth the risk.

And it all worked out for the best.

When I was asked how I was able to turn it around, the only answer that came to me was risk-reward analysis. Sure, it would have been easier to scrap the song. But then I would have always wondered, "what if?" This way, I was able to know I gave it all I had, and if it hadn't worked out, no one was going to die. It was just a song.

And yet, so much more. In one evening, I looked my demons straight in the eye. I faced my self-doubt and told it, no; not today; thank you very much. I'll escort you out now.

That's not to say it will never happen again. But if it does, I will have knowledge to fall back on. We have tremendous power to rise above ourselves when we know there are people behind us who believe in us, love us and want the best for us.

Ever forward, my friends.

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