Last week I went onstage for the first time in 24 years. I had been a choreographer and performer and I was thinking about performing again, so I wanted to see if it was still as thrilling, and as terrifying, as I remembered it to be. What I discovered was that performing is still thrilling, but it’s terrifying in a whole new way.
I had volunteered to be a member of the community ensemble for a professional theater company that was workshopping a new performance at one of the major universities here in the city. There were 6 members of the community ensemble and 6 real actors, and I was a good 30 years older than the next oldest person in the cast.
The performance was complex. It lasted about an hour and included almost 100 scenes. I had 12 tasks that I was asked to perform onstage. Most of the tasks involved handling props or altering my costume in some way, and they all required me to execute precise entrances and exits, and to adhere to specific paths across the performance space. That was what happened onstage.
Offstage, everyone in the performance had to be aware of where we placed ourselves in the wings, so that we didn’t collide with anyone making a quick crossing and possibly changing a costume or reaching for a prop at the same time, or moving furniture off and on the stage, or hurtling on or offstage. And, just in case all that wasn’t complicated enough, most of the crossings and entrances and exits happened in complete darkness.
The community ensemble had three rehearsals with the company, and then three performances. The first performance went pretty well for me. I made all my entrances and exits. I was where I was supposed to be when I was supposed to be there. But I didn’t feel like I was really inside myself while I was onstage. I wasn’t thoroughly inhabiting those 12 moments I’d been asked to perform. So, for the second performance, I decided to focus on trying to be fully there for the performance moments. I did that, and things went a bit better than the day before, except that I messed up 2 of my 12 cues. At the third performance, a Sunday matinee, I tried to put it all together: to make my marks, and act my parts as fully as I could. And, again, things went a bit better. I was more inside of my parts, more fully myself in them, and this time I only screwed up about 75% of one of my cues.
Late Sunday afternoon, I got home from the theater and started putting my things away and I realized that, after I’d ironed my costume that morning, I’d left the iron on. (It had turned itself off, thank goodness.) Hmm, I thought, did I do that because I was distracted and worried that I’d be late for the theater? Or was it something else?
A lot of dramatic events had happened in my family in the 24 years since I’d last been onstage. Among the most dramatic was that my mother and most of her nine brothers and sisters had died of Alzheimer’s disease. So, it is, to understate, a looming presence.
The incident with the iron brought to the front of my mind a whole set of the worries that had been bouncing around in my head that entire week. Was the material hard to learn just because it was hard? After all, I wasn’t the only person who was madly taking notes. Or was it hard to learn because it was hard, and I’m older and not as quick at anything as I used to be? Or is this it? Am I dementing?
I don’t know what will happen to my brain. I can’t really know.
But what I do know is that I don’t want trying new things to become like taking medicine. I don’t want to do new things because they’re good for me.
I want to learn how to ride a scooter when I’m 62 (which I did) and I want to throw myself into a crazy theatrical experience when I’m 63 (which I did).
I still want to learn how to fly a plane.
But, if I want to keep doing new things, I think I’ll have to accept that I’ll be terrified. If I get dementia, it’s possible that being terrified is just going to become normal. I saw what happened to my mother. She lived in fear for 8 years, knowing that something was wrong but not knowing what it was or how to fix it.
The great choreographer Trisha Brown said that performing happens, “when all of the person’s person arrives at the same time.” That’s what I want from performing, and that’s what calls me back to the stage. Even if I forget everything else, I want to remember this one thing: I want to remember being my whole self, in that theater, and here in this room, now. I want to use that feeling as a method or a pathway: I want to stop worrying so much about missing my cues.