The first time I ever appeared on stage was in a high school play. I was at the time, a nerdy, nervous 15 year-old with bad skin who had only auditioned because of a terrible crush I had on a fellow cast member. As our opening night performance neared its end, I felt hugely relieved just to have just gotten through it without forgetting any of my lines. Finally, the last bit of dialogue was uttered and the stage lights blacked-out. As rehearsed, we scurried into our positions for the curtain call. Suddenly, the lights snapped back on and for the first time that evening I found myself face-to-face with the audience. I'd been told by my drama teacher to ignore the audience during the play, but now we were acknowledging them. We were looking right at them. And they were looking back at us and clapping. I suddenly felt flushed with embarrassment. I didn't think I'd been terribly good in the play and felt I had no right to be accepting this applause.
After the show, my family and a few of my geeky friends said many flattering and totally untrue things about my performance. I nodded and mumbled my "thank you's," but it was awkard. I wanted to believe what they were saying, but knew in my heart they were lying just to be nice. Then, as I was climbing into my family's battered Impala, an extremely shy girl from my Algebra class rushed up and slipped me a note. I stuck it in my pocket and didn't remember to read it until late that night. In the note, she said that I was very good in the play and had "real talent." I must have re-read that note fifty times before I went to bed that night. It thrilled me to my core; mostly because it had come from someone who was basically a stranger. To my 15 year-old ego, it was the equivalent of a rave review in the New York Times. As I drifted off to sleep, the words "real talent" rang in my ears like wedding bells. Maybe I would audition for the next play.
I did audition for the next play. And the one after that. High school plays became college plays. College plays turned into summer stock. Summer stock evolved into high-prestige, low paying New York theatre. Throughout this journey one thing remained constant: my fear of curtain calls and my inability to accept anyone's praise. Acting in itself, felt safe. While performing, I had the protection of pretending to be a character. However, once the show was over, it was just plain old me standing up there. I knew I was supposed to enjoy this moment, but it always felt like somebody had just yanked open the shower curtain at a particularly inopportune moment.
I marveled at the actors who could embrace the crowd. I once worked with a Tony-Winner who used to throw up her arms like Eva Peron and acknowledge the cheers of her fans. Once when I was a young actor, I ducked out the back of a theater to avoid seeing friends who'd come to see me. I felt like the show hadn't gone well and couldn't bear the idea of forcing them to say nice (and untrue) things to me. They were, of course, extremely pissed-off since they had waited to say hello to me and let me know about it the next day. It was the last time I made that mistake. With performance comes responsibility.
For years, I wondered if my fear of face-to-face praise was rooted in my religious upbringing. Proverbs 16:18 ("Pride goeth before a fall") is a little gem that has haunted me my entire life; the general idea being that God only favors those who never acknowledge their talents or successes; only their failures and shortcomings. In the Kentucky of my youth, the one thing you never wanted to be accused of was being "too big for your britches." This was a fate worse than death; a slow execution by ridicule.
Lest you get the wrong idea, I'm not actually opposed to praise. I like it. Frankly, I need it. Being a creative artist requires guts and often the only reason I can stick my neck out again is because the last time I did it somebody was kind enough to say "Good job, David."
I wish I could say that this issue has resolved itself over time, but sadly, it hasn't. Last week, I appeared on a TV show and received many more compliments than I'd expected. Although part of me was delighted that all these people took the time to call or post a comment on my Facebook page, I was so also slightly mortified. My new manager sent me a lovely email that (as opposed to being gushy) was smart and observant. I read it proudly and then instantly thought to myself "Well, she's my manager. What else could she say? That I sucked?" So, perhaps there might be a little work yet to be done on this issue.
At the risk of sounding egotistical, I actually do believe I have "real" talent. When given the chance to work, I take it seriously and try to deliver. Do I deserve a little applause? Of course, I do. We all do. Many of us creative types grow up hovering on the fringe of things; the observer along for the ride. When we discover that all of that stored-up information can be crafted into some kind of art, it's a revelation. Suddenly, out of nowhere, we're the class clown. The girl who can sing. The ballsy truth-teller. It's a little taste of the most seductive idea on the planet: that people can transform themselves. No wonder people like to praise artists - We perpetuate the idea that the audience too can change.
Performance is a comfortable coat. It's warm and it keeps out the elements. Having to hang it up and face your fans on their terms is, for many of us, a bit awkward and unsettling. But being a performer also means being willing to be "seen" - thoroughly, truthfully, warts and all. That's not always an easy thing to do, but it's necessary; especially if you want to improve your game. I know I'm not alone in my phobia. There are plenty like me. It's ironic that so many artists, who took this path because of a deep desire to be acknowledged for their talent, try to avoid experiencing it. Take a bow, Hollywood. You've earned it.
Copyright 2010 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
David Dean Bottrell is an actor ("Boston Legal") and screenwriter ("Kingdom Come") who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at http://www.partsandlabor.tv/