Week 48: Performing Onstage
I’m so nervous.
Tomorrow — or actually, today, since it’s 1 a.m. — as the finale to my 10-week writing class, I’m going to perform a piece I wrote. I keep reading and rereading my work, first trying to fatten it up to 1100 words, and then, reaching 1400 words, trying to whittle it down to 1200.
There’s nothing like a deadline to push work out of me. As much as I like writing, I always stall, which is one of the two reasons I signed up for a writing class this fall. The other reason was to improve my writing.
Tomorrow’s piece should be between 1100 and 1200 words, which, depending on my pacing, will meet the time requirement: eight minutes in length.
Speaking of eight, the last time I performed on stage was in the 8th grade. I had one line in a middle school play.
One line then, eight minutes now. Someone else’s play then, my own work now. Twenty students on stage with me then, one person now.
To be fair, although I will be performing by myself, so will six other writing students. And this isn’t exactly a stage I’ll be on tomorrow, it’s a floor. And the audience I’ll be performing to are just friends and family of our collective writing group.
But I’m still nervous. By the time I’m satisfied enough with my piece to try and sleep, I can’t sleep.
I google things. I put up an Instagram story about tomorrow and how nervous I am. I toss and turn when I switch off my phone. I check my phone and see so many messages on the ‘gram — more than I’ve ever received from my whopping 100-ish followers. I realize that people connect with vulnerability.
I hope I can remember that tomorrow, too.
In the morning, I go horseback riding. I worry that the horses I ride will pick up on my antsiness and start being ansty themselves. They always pick things up. But they’re also always forgiving when one is honest with one’s feelings — even unpleasant ones — and they give me a pass today.
At 2 p.m., an hour before showtime, I arrive at Church of the Angels, where my writing group meets each Thursday. We’ve met here every Thursday, save Thanksgiving, since the week in September that I returned from South Korea.
Our teacher, Terrie Silverman, has been teaching writing classes in LA for twenty years. Her writing classes, though, are enhanced by a performance aspect — at the end of each 10-week season, students are given the option to share their work at an event called Gorgeous Stories. Terrie also teaches a 6-month masterclass for those wanting to create a full-length, one-person show.
I actually met Terrie through one of this project’s activities back in May. I went to a goat improv class, which I had heard about from the organization that cares for the goats. Terrie was the person leading the class itself.
This fall, Terrie’s been teaching her masterclass and two regular writing classes, one on the West Side of LA, in Venice, and one on the East Side, in Pasadena. I’m near Pasadena, but twice I’ve gone to Venice to make up classes I missed while in Minneapolis. Julia, Terrie’s chihuahua with ultra-long legs, is often a guest at our classes.
Next Sunday, the Venice class will have their own Gorgeous Stories performance.
The best part about my writing class has been the other writers I’ve met and befriended. And so it is today, as we all gear up together; their encouragement and the felt sense of going through something together is my only relaxant.
After we’ve all arrived, we run through the order of performance, practice our speaking voices — I’m told mine is too soft, as usual — and give Terrie some sentences she’ll use to introduce each of us to the audience.
As the time to begin draws near, we gather in the back room. Our degrees of anxiousness vary. Because I’m the one with the least (like, zero) performance experience, I feel like I’m going to be a trainwreck. The only times I’ve been witnessed in front of a large group of people, besides the 8th grade play, have been at horse shows.
But I’ve been okay at horse shows because my body knows how to ride a horse — I was always too concerned that the horse might spook, or that I might forget the course of jumps, that I never had time to preoccupy myself with being watched. Plus, I had a partner with whom to share the spotlight.
At least in this situation, I think to myself, I have my writing to back me up. We don’t memorize our pieces — we have them in front of us to reference. If this was improv, or even a speech I had to memorize, I would be a whole other level of nervous.
Right before 3 p.m., Terrie asks us gather in a circle and hold hands. She offers us sincere words of encouragement, the most encouraging of which is that at least one person in the audience needs to hear our piece. Then, she asks us to close our eyes. When she has us open them, there are a bunch of half-elf, half-Santa hats before us.
We put them on and spend a while trying to take a selfie on Wendy’s phone. A selfie stick comes out of Pam’s purse and to the rescue. Wendy puts one of her photo-taking apps on a Christmas setting. The result: we look festive, our teeth are blinding, and Johnny’s head looks like it’s floating in space. Success!
Then, it’s go time.
The seven of us sit in the front row, ready to each come forth after Terrie introduces us. I’m up second, after Pam. Pam has been performing for twenty years. She shines on stage. I went to a performance of hers back in September. I know how engaging she is, and I’m horrified that I will be following her.
There are about twenty to thirty people gathered, and they’re all friends and family of the seven of us. We’ve arranged a few rows of fold-up chairs for them behind the first row. It’s so informal — fold-up chairs, a smattering of warm people — but to me, this might as well be a stage with a spotlight and curtains in front of a full auditorium.
I sit through Pam’s performance — she’s so captivating on stage that I actually listen to her piece instead of worry about my own. The minutes pass, and as she winds down, I’m reminded of my nervousness again.
Terrie comes up, introducing me by description before saying my name. And I’m never so nervous as when she calls my name.
I go up to the podium. There is no sound system — that’s how informal it is. I have only my voice.
I pause, and look at the audience for a moment. They’re looking back at me. Terrie always says that it’s important to be seen in telling our stories. She’s helped me understand the significance of not only doing something to be seen, like performing, but to also see the faces of others who are seeing us.
We tell our stories, and that’s one component. We have our own relationship with them. But to be seen by others in telling them — that’s something that writing alone cannot give us. Take it in, I tell myself.
So I pause, seeing the audience see me. It’s so strange, this moment. My nervousness is gone, but I don’t realize that until later. I’m just seeing, and they’re just seeing. Time is slow. That nervousness I felt, I realize later, is just in anticipation of the future. But in this moment, I’m nowhere ahead of myself…just here. I see them see me.
Then I speak. “The planet Saturn has 62 moons.” And I go on with my piece. Every moment of those eight minutes is like that first moment, before I even said a word.
I am aware of my own voice, the cadence of my story, and the audience all at once. I feel a field that is always available in the present moment, and lost to those living in any other dimension of time. It’s so rare that I live like this.
I come to the last page of my piece. Then, it’s over.
I hear clapping, and I take a bow. I return to my seat, and the show goes on. When everyone has taken their turn, we all take a bow together.
Afterwards, people from the audience come up and tell me nice things. In the past, I might have blown them off, or thought that they were just being ‘obligatory nice.’
Now, I try to give myself and them both the benefit of the doubt — them, in not second-guessing their sincerity, and myself, in believing that I can produce something that touches someone, in some way. I gave a lot of myself in this performance, and by now I know that creating is not just about putting something into space.
The other half is in taking in how it’s touched others.
The reverse — watching others, and feeling how they have touched me — has always felt normal. Trying to be on the flip side, though, is quite different. Those others, I understand now, must have either been able to get out of their own way, or been very brave in trying.
The most important thing I’ve realised this autumn — from both my writing class and life experiences — is the significance of listening to what wants to be born of us. When we try to wrangle out of something — a piece of artwork, a relationship, a story — what our heads say we want it to be, we’re led down a road that feels forced.
But if we listen enough, we can feel a kind of third presence in a piece of artwork, in a relationship, in a story. In a wooden spoon.
The word ‘listen,’ though, has the same letters as ‘silent,’ and that’s what it requires. When we get out of own own way — silence our understanding of what needs to happen — in order to listen to the whisperings of our body, the house of our intuition, which is in turn our link to all other things, we allow space for whatever we are creating to speak. We allow ourselves space to be its conduit.
In this way, that third presence can unfold…and it’s often so much more beautiful than anything we can cook up with our intelligence.
I’m inching, or actually, centimetering, there with my writing, and with many activities I do alone. But there are things — like performing — that I become all tickled about.
I want to be able to say what wants to come out without factoring my false ego in; I want to be able to touch people’s lives without either being motivated by the limelight or hindered by it. Although it seems like not liking center-stage could be a sign of egolessness, I know that in this case, my ego has just taken on a cloak.
I want to just be able to do whatever I was born to do. How simple that seems…and yet how much work does it take to come to a place where one can actually begin one’s work in the world without the push and pull of inner conflict?
It seems that equally important as doing what one was born to do is going through that (long) phase of preparation.
But when it comes to being seen — not just looked at, but seen — I struggle so much with obstacles like shame and anxiety…that I would rather skip all the inner work and just be able to tell my story as someone totally comfortable with attention.
I suppose, though, that these obstacles are just meant to test my desire to move forward and, eventually, propel me along.
Before the spacecraft Cassini begin her journey to Saturn — where she was designed to go — she first went in the opposite direction. She flew by Venus twice. She flew by Venus, and then by Earth, and then by Jupiter in order to gain momentum to push her towards her true goal: Saturn.
This flyby maneuver, called a gravity-assist flyby, uses the pull of another planet as fuel to push forward, so that a spaceship doesn’t have to use her own fuel. It is much more powerful than the earthly fuel in the ship’s reserves.
Likewise, maybe facing an obstacle and overcoming it — using the lessons it teaches to one’s advantage — can give a person much more momentum to reach her dreams than never having to face that same obstacle.
The annual Christmas ornament from JPL — the NASA center where my parents work, and also the birthplace of Cassini — usually features an image of a specific spacecraft. Last year, as in 2013, it featured Cassini. In the past decade, it’s also featured Voyager, Seasat, the Deep Space Network, a Mars rover. But this year’s is different from any other’s. This year, the ornament simply depicts an image of JPL, situated in the foothills of the mountains, with five stars above. Below the image is a sentence: ‘The stars are calling and we must go.’
I’ve never met such a deep Christmas ornament. It’s right. I don’t think we have time to come to that perfect place before attempting to carry out our individual callings. Perhaps we just need to be brave, and okay with fumbling around…over and over and over. In the process, we’ll get somewhere meant for us.
Which means that when the stars call to us, we just launch and go. And, stumbling through the darkness, maybe a little less graceful than a controlled spaceship, we find our way to our individual destinies that have been waiting — calling — for us.