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Creating a new show and the taxonomy of terror

Last night was the opening night of the showcase run of nerdfucker; not the premiere, but the preview, where my director and I get to see what it feels like doing the play for an actual audience in an actual theatre space, as opposed to doing it in my large but still nontheatrical living room for just him and the dish rack and the huge indifferent eye of the washing machine.

So, even though for publicity purposes the full-out premiere is at the Montreal Fringe Festival in a month and a half, the emotional truth is that last night was the premiere. Yes, I was nervous. For a couple of weeks I’ve been nervous. No, years. I meant to say years. I have been nervous about this play for a couple of years. It’s entirely possible that it took me this long to write because I was nervous about it, and it’s been really interesting, almost clinically so, to watch the different kinds of nerves develop.

For example, yesterday, when I was sitting outside of my flat having a cigarette 45 minutes before leaving for the theatre, I realized that I couldn’t feel the afternoon sun, even when I tried to focus on it. Huh, I thought with a sort of bemused detachment. That’s interesting. This must be an out-of-body moment.

I can catalogue my theatre terrors now.

The jumbled panic of mid-script line-learning. The stoic, chronic yet low-grade clicking of expenses adding up. The trembling awe of wondering if anything I do ever can live up to a really good show title. The cold looming shadow of growing older and staying poor in pursuit of my art.

These are all valid anxieties and fears; I say this as much for a needed self-affirmation as for any of you who are struggling with the same shit. But oh, Christ, I’ll be honest: some days I long for simpler fears, like the kind I had when I was getting ready to perform Phone Whore for the first time, in February 2010.

My first solo play, my first solo tour, hell, my first solo performance longer than 4 minutes and 35 seconds … it was all so new that I hadn’t learned to discern the differences in my feelings. Everything just coalesced into a giant leaden mass inside my chest: WHAT IF I CAN’T DO THIS?

The question was big, bold, and simple, like chunky words carved from cartoon blocks of stone and landing with a boom in a children’s TV program. And the answer was similarly simple: then I won’t do it anymore. I had nothing invested in it, if I couldn’t do it. I was just trying it out. I had no way of knowing until I did it. Empirical, simple, done.

Six years later, I know. I have many ways of knowing. I have my own experiences to draw from, five plays, three recurring events, countless gigs and media interviews and promo stunts… I can look at all of it and have a pretty good idea of what’s going down, what could go wrong, and what rough spots lie ahead. I know where I want to be, personally and professionally, in a year, five years, maybe even 20, and I have an increasingly clear idea of what it’s going to take to get there. I know how much posters cost to print in 50 cities around the world. I know what red flags to look for in co-producers. I know what the air in a theatre feels like when an audience is bored, and when it’s on the edge of its seat.

As my self-knowledge grows, so grows my taxonomy of terror. That sounds like a geek horror movie, but really, knowledge is power. It’s how I can have those moments like yesterday, when I couldn’t feel the sun on my skin, but managed to avoid a secondary freak-out of WHAT IS HAPPENING TO ME. Ah, I nod my head. This is another manifestation of nervous. And when my fingers could not stop shaking for the first half of last night’s show, I didn’t beat myself up for it. That’s where the stage fright is going, I thought, not my lungs but my fingers. Okay.

I don’t get any more scared than I was six years ago. I just get different kinds of scared. I’ve developed discernment, which helps me better sort out solutions and coping mechanisms. I’m not going to downplay it: some of the fears are seriously primal, survival-level shit, especially the stuff to do with money. But at least now I know what’s happening, I know what these feelings mean.

And breaking the fear down into its component parts changes the basic question from WHAT IF I CAN’T DO THIS to HOW CAN I DO THIS.

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