“Do you ever get stage fright?”
One of the most common questions an actor is asked. Entirely understandable, since many people have a fear of speaking in public. Anyone who is not an actor might imagine that it must be terrifying to step on a stage in front of an audience.
My answer? Never. Not ever. To me, the stage is the safest place in the world.
One of my favorite things to do is stand in the wings during a performance and watch the scenes that I’m not in. Assuming I’m not changing costumes for my next scene, moving a set piece, raising a backdrop, or running up to the light booth to cover a cue. (All things that are sometimes asked of actors, especially in smaller budget productions.)
It’s not just to watch the other actors work. Although I have done that, too. In my first production of Hamlet, I stole backstage every chance I got in order to study the actor playing Hamlet. I’d always felt that role was untouchable, and was fascinated to see how the actor was approaching the task. It was a valuable experience, since I realized there wasn’t anything he was doing that I couldn’t do myself. I don’t mean that in a competitive way. What I mean is that by watching him break the role down into smaller, achievable steps, the overall performance no longer seemed as daunting.
Or, maybe a performance was every bit as daunting, and I felt thrilled to be so close to a major talent exploding like fireworks on the stage. There is one singer in particular who comes to mind. He was the musical opening act for a short play series I was in not long ago. Each night, I would find a spot in the black velvet shadows, as close to the light falling on the boards as I could, without being seen, and listen to that whiskey-voiced southern boy pour out his soul. There was magic happening, and maybe some of it would linger on me.
Then there was the time I was hired to run an ancient light board for the Russian Ballet. No, I’m not making that up. It was for a theatre in New Jersey. The Russian Ballet was on tour, and had been booked at an old vaudeville house, where the lights were run by levers that had to be pulled by hand from a booth in the wings. The manager of that theatre placed a call to a theatre where I was working, looking for anyone who might have experience with such a system. I did, and was happy to take the gig.
The dancers were clearly used to much bigger venues, but took the experience in stride. They were as good humored about it as possible, considering they were professional dancers with the Russian Ballet. They chose which numbers to cut, since the conditions were not ideal, and which numbers to add, giving them a chance to play with a modern piece here or a comic piece there.
One guy had the job of standing in the opposite wing, with a white towel. His sole responsibility was to be there when the big time Russian leading male dancer made an exit, and reached for the towel. That was all.
No, the reason I love to stand in the wings is not just to watch a performance. It’s something more. You can feel the audience. Watching the show. You can feel them when you are onstage, certainly, but also from the wings.
You know how you can tell when someone is looking at you from across a room? Let’s say you are at the library, or in a quiet restaurant, or waiting room, and you look up to find that someone has been watching you. Without making a conscious decision, you just happen to look up to meet their gaze. You felt their attention on you.
Well, imagine feeling that from a few hundred people who are seated in the theatre, watching a performance on a stage. Not only are they watching, they are engaged. They are feeling, thinking, imagining. Giving their full energy to the performers.
It’s a thrill. A rush. What’s more, it can be felt through the curtains. Sure, you can feel the energy intensify the moment you make your entrance, but even in the wings, it’s palpable.
Those people are giving you life. They are lifting and carrying you through the performance. One of the reasons actors peek out to check the house before the show is because a packed house is much easier to play than an empty one.
This is the thing actors usually mention when comparing theatre to film or tv. That they love being in front of an audience. There are few experiences more satisfying than making an audience laugh. It’s instant approval. Encouragement. An unmistakable signal that they like what you are doing, and want more of it.
Perhaps I shouldn’t limit that to laughter. Making an audience cry, or gasp, can feel pretty good, too. I’ll never forget a scene I was in as a very young actor. The play was a dark drama (although I played the comic relief.) In this one scene, which took place in the middle of the night, I slowly climbed a staircase, with my back to the audience. At the top of the stairs was a door I was told never to open. The set was lit with green footlights, casting spooky shadows up onto the walls.
With each step, steadily, cautiously, I could feel the audience climbing the stairs with me. Their pulses quickening. It was such a great exercise in acting with your back. Slowly, ever so slowly, I reached out for the door knob. My hand shaking. The tension almost unbearable. Then the door was flung open from the other side and the audience jumped right out of their seats.
No matter what happened for the rest that evening’s performance, I would be glowing from the audience reaction in that scene. It was just so much damn fun.
Sitting in a darkened movie theatre a couple of weeks ago, I found myself only halfway paying attention to the images up on the screen. This theatre is the oldest single screen movie theatre still in operation on Long Island. It has a stage below the screen, and black velvet curtains in the wings.
Through those curtains, I could catch a glimpse of blue light. Some old theatres still use a blue ghost light backstage. A tradition I love. As the movie played, I kept gazing stage right, and had to fight the strongest impulse to get up and walk through the wings.
It’s an impulse I’ve had ever since I was a child. To go backstage. To see what’s behind the set. Do the characters live there? Are there rooms behind those doors? A theatre inspires fascination and triggers the imagination. At least it does in people destined to become actors themselves.
Now, at this point in life, I can add to that the nostalgia that comes with having spent so many moments hidden in the wings. Watching the show. Waiting for an entrance. Feeling the love emanating from the seats in the house. It’s a nice image to take with me into a new year, I think.