In Amanda Palmer’s book The Art of Asking, she puts into words something that I’ve slowly, very, very slowly been discovering over the past five years or so. Probably even longer.
Professionals know they’re winging it. Amateurs pretend they’re not.
At David Lawson’s Astoria Bookshop Storytelling Show the other day, I told a story about setting a toilet on fire in middle school. And just as I paint a picture of sitting in the principal’s office, I blank. Completely. It’s almost like I forget I’m telling a story. I’m just looking out at the people in the chairs.
I start to see the concern in their faces.
I get it. Everyone has this fear of blanking in front of an audience. Forgetting your lines. Getting it wrong, or worse, not getting it perfect.
When I’m younger, I’m on stage a lot, and I do worry about being perfect, and since we’re being honest here, I judge the people who aren’t. It’s even possible I make a less than charitable comment or two behind their backs.
But when I go back on stage after 15-year hiatus, I notice something I never did before. Those foibles, the mistakes, the unpredictable moments? They’re amazing.
If you learn to embrace them, that is. And yes, that’s scary, but it can be so cool.
I’m on stage for Bye Bye Birdie nine years ago, playing Albert Peterson, and I’m on the phone with Henry Luce. The prop phone falls off the wall to the ground. “I’m sorry about that Mr. Peterson,” says Mrs. MacAfee (my brilliant actor friend Lisa Lynds). Without thinking, just being me, I say, “It’s okay, I’m pretty sure he’ll call back.”
That laughter from the audience was so real. And in the second act, I walk out for a scene where I sing Talk to Me over a prop pay phone and it crashes to the floor. I look at it for a second, turn out to the world and ponder: “What’s up with the phones in this town?”
Those are the two clearest memories I have of that show, and they get me the job that gets me into Equity.
I guess it’s living in the moment, not hiding anything from the audience, just allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Here we go, and we have no idea what’s gonna happen. Or in Palmer’s words, we’re winging it. Together.
And in Astoria, when I see the looks of concern, I know you’re all on my side. You want me to get this because you can feel this moment a little too acutely. And it feels vulnerable.
How about that, I say. Completely forgot where I was for a moment, a 13-year-old boy at the Georgia State Latin Convention with a pack of matches and a toilet to burn.