The worst is not
'And worse I may be yet. The worst is not
So long as we can say, 'This is the worst.'
Edgar in King Lear
When I last reported in on my adventure acting with my students, playing Gloucester in a production of King Lear, I was going down for the count. I couldn’t sleep, my anxiety level matched what I felt the first week of basic training, and the lines I had memorized for months were suddenly like the land of Brigadoon—not to be found on any known map of the region. To compensate, I was meditating every day for at least a half hour, and doubling up on my line study.
Somehow I was functioning in rehearsal, though, and my director didn’t seem have anything too terrible to say to me. My students were collegial and had no problem looking me in the eye. I couldn’t detect any significant change in their attitude toward me. When I would express my fear and concern to them about my abilities, they looked at me like I was fishing for compliments. I stopped sharing my feelings of panic, and started pretending that I was okay with it all.
Then it was time to do the designers’ run. We were only ten days or so into rehearsal and we were going to do the whole play in front of all my design and production colleagues and my department chair. I didn’t sleep the night before and I shook through most of the day. I was finally going to be exposed. I could hardly breathe as I waited to go on. My heart was in my mouth, tap dancing like Donald O’Connor on my dry and heavy tongue.
And then it began. Kent and Gloucester open the show and my mouth started moving. The words were often ahead of the thoughts behind them, but I survived the first scene. And then I survived the second, and then I survived the rest of the play. I screwed up lots of lines and several pieces of blocking, but there were a few spots that I actually enjoyed—what’s the term—acting. At the end of the run, one of the design professors, a colleague famous for a dearth of positivity, came running up to me and whispered in my ear that I had nothing to worry about. It was about the kindest thing ever said to me.
I sucked that night. But even my department chair told the director that I was pretty good. Between my nerves and all the errors, I couldn’t quite understand how that reaction was possible.
But on the drive home it began to make some sense. My students are fearless. Many of them are far more naturally talented than I am. But I have something that most of them do not yet possess. What I have is a lifetime of craft. The tools that I teach obviously are coming through for me. I know where the moments are. I can physicalize them. I understand the arc of character. I know how to shape a Shakespearean line. I can hit the operatives. I can speak clearly, and communicate my character’s thoughts and feelings through what I do and how I do it. I can even listen and react when my nerves allow me to do so.
My acting smarts allowed me to fool my colleagues. My craft helped me fake out the audience. And so, my imagination was far worse than the reality. I was still standing. I had survived another hurdle. I ain’t dead yet! But when does the fun start?