With a twenty-year career of stage productions and improvisational acting, I’m regularly asked by colleagues and clients where and how I got my start speaking to large groups of people. Usually fairly introverted, being in crowds and putting on public displays is actually quite draining for me, but the thrill of having a captivated audience makes it all worth while. It’s a process of sharing a story, of inspiring others to dream and experience something outside of themselves.
In high school, several friends of mine created the “Iambic Pentameter Club,” with the aim of putting on at least one amateur Shakespeare production per year, distinct from the school’s small theatre department. Not comfortable with the idea of memorizing lines or being on stage, I contributed by helping actors learn their scripts, paint or create set dressings, and trying to encourage people to attend the limited-run performances. With a successful Fall performance during our senior year, the club founders put forward the idea of also doing a Spring show. The group seemed motivated, and auditions were set for several weeks later.
“You know,” the director said, with a pointed look in my direction, “this is your last chance to get on stage. If you don’t do it now, you probably never will.”
With the director’s challenge and the support of other club members, I took up the chance and learned a simple monologue for my audition. It was a terrifying experience, standing before even just the director and set designer was nerve-wracking, but apparently I did well enough to be cast as one of the leads in our Spring production, The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Over the next two months I learned not only my lines but also the basics of how to act; a friend of mine who teaches English describes the difference between studying the language and acquiring it – for me, learning to emote, to share an emotion with the outside world on command was very much something that had to be taught, no matter how expressive I may have been in everyday life. Eventually we moved into blocking and stage directions, and we had a schedule for our one weekend of shows.
Cast as Valentine, not only did I have lines in the opening scene, I actually had the first lines of the show, which were meant to be mid-discussion. I had no idea how I’d react when those lights came up, because shy of actually having an audience, I don’t think there was anything we could do to prepare for that moment. The other Gentleman was ready to jump in, should I falter, but I wanted to make sure he didn’t need to.
Opening night arrived, and I still remember how loud my heart felt in my chest as it thudded anxiously. We were all standing behind the stage backdrop, and were given the “two minutes” warning. I could hear an audience gather, filling our small theatre space. My mouth went try, and I squeezed the hand of the other Gentleman for support.
At once far too soon and after too long, the lights dimmed. I lead our cast out onto the stage and we took our places, trying to ignore the quiet murmurings from the crowd sitting mere feet away.
The lights came up, blinding me.
I started my line, and realized before I finished the second sentence that the crowd could have been any size – 1 or 1,000 – and it wouldn’t have mattered, thing would be okay. The scene went well, the jokes got laughs, and I made my exit on-cue. So tight was our theatre space that we had to actually leave the building to cross from backstage right to backstage left, and as I ran into the outside courtyard I pumped my triumphant fist in the air.
I had done it – beyond any of my own expectations I had stood on stage and performed Shakespeare. Though there were many scenes and lines to go before the show closed out, I knew in that moment the rest of the play would go on perfectly.
Being on stage that last semester of high school genuinely changed my life, and even resulted in me switching majors to Theatre Arts later in college, graduating with my BA. Having the experience of overcoming fears, anxiety, and self-doubt and having the result turn out so wonderfully was a genuine feather in my cap, and a moment I look back on with great fondness.
An enormous thank you goes to Jeremy and Karintha, who were instrumental in both pushing me to audition and preparing me for the stage; and to Jacqueline, Robin, and Daniel, who shared every scene with me and taught me a great deal about the art of performance.
These days I’m more focused on writing than I am on acting, but it’s still an activity I try to keep my ear out for, and entertain the idea of stepping back on stage once again.