Being that some of the better parts of who I am were formed on a stage, I am no stranger to nerves. From 3rd grade on, I could frequently be found pacing back and forth in the wings of a theatre, five minutes to open, occasionally stopping to cross my legs in a familiar dance ritual I’ve perfected since infancy.
“Go pee,” my mom would say, had she been there to see me. But she wasn’t. Never at five minutes to curtain, at least. She was there almost every moment up until then: helping to stitch together 70 child costumes, fighting to get eyeliner on my 12-year-old munchkin face and reminding me to check my prop placement before we started.(**Sidenote: I mean munchkin as in, well, I was playing one in The Wizard of Oz.)
Nope, five minutes ’til, my mom had most likely already found her seat in the middle of the auditorium as she awaited to see if everything had come together in time.
Nerves are good, I learned. Nerves give you energy. They are the flutter in your stomach that tell you that you are doing something incredible, something you fear and that you will someday be proud of. They can only cripple you if you let them. Otherwise, they bring great strength.
I once heard an actress say that the performances she was not nervous for were the ones she bombed. Without nerves as her driving force, her performance lacked, and she knew it.
As I approach the end of my college undergraduate experience, I feel my stomach constantly making these leaps. As much as I’d like for them to be in anticipation of a performance, they aren’t. They’re for real life, which is that much scarier. The curtain is about to open and I have memorized no lines. I have never seen a script or received blocking or been fitted for a period dress and I certainly have not done a “To Sit in Solemn Silence” warm-up at various volumes.
The silver lining is that I have done plenty of character work. This is what we in the theatre world use to describe unmentioned questions we’ve personally answered about the character we are playing. This was always one of the most nerve-wracking experiences for me; probably because I never took it seriously. When my director would ask where Josephine in Little Women got her inspiration for script-writing, I’m sure I improvised a quick answer about her active imagination and cursed Devin for having so many questions.
In the past 3 1/2 years, I have had to answer plenty about Grace. I have learned that she is not great at introspection. She doesn’t cry much, but when she does, it’s alone, in a closet, at the end of her rope. She loves her friends so much that she gets mad when they are not around. She believes there is running weather, and Netflix weather, and makes plans accordingly. She has more pride for Arkansas than she’s ever had for Texas, but will go to France when possible. She is an experiential learner and a verbal processor who has yet to figure out where she truly falls on the -vert scale (ie. intro/extro/ambi). She believes in magic and snow-days. She knows the two often combine. She believes that to love and be loved is perhaps our greatest adventure. She knows that there is yet so much she doesn’t know.
It’s five minutes ’til, and I’m still dancing around in the wings. Maybe wishing I had peed sooner, but also knowing I’ll forget all about that tension shortly. I have no idea what the final act will look like, or even where I’ll be at intermission.
If I understand correctly, my 22nd year falls somewhere in the rising action. The muddy middle where you keep looking at your watch, wondering how many more slow love ballads you’ll have to sit through before you can run to the lobby and grab some Skittles. It’s painstakingly slow and ardently necessary, but carries the reassurance that I have time to figure things out before the denouement.
So, yes. Go ahead and cue the lights. I’m nowhere near ready, but I’m ready as I’ll ever be.
Thank God for that semester of improv.