Fear and The 1st Day Workshopping a New Play

There must be people out there who can relate to this. It’s a personal thing, so WHY post it on the damn internet? The answer is simple: If I don’t confront this at some point, I’ll never get over it. Read on to find out what I’m talking about, but know that the point is I’m not afraid of this feeling, or ashamed of it. It simply IS.

I read a play with some friends & colleagues last night, written by a friend. I don’t know yet if I’ll actually be involved in mounting the show, as it is in very early stages of development.

That said, there’s this thing that happens to me when I’m in a situation where I provide feedback about a play…or really, any kind of literature. I went to good schools, have read plenty of books, and generally understand themes, character archetypes, and story breakdown. Why is it, then, that I always feel like I’m the least intelligent person in the room? Why do I feel like the thoughts I’m having or choose to contribute are paper thin?

This isn’t new. I remember Comp 101 in college. It was a required course for all freshmen, and being that I was lucky enough to go to a good, competitive high school, the class was an absolute BREEZE, bordering on the completely mundane. It was one of those classes for which you could scrape together a paper in a couple hours the night before it was due. And because of the seemingly inept reading/writing level of the other students, I never felt like my work was “less” than any of the other students… Even if I didn’t throw the full weight of my ability toward the assignment. Granted, that’s not a good way to learn or improve. I tend to need to be challenged by my peers in order to grow. Like basketball – the better the competition, the better the player I would become, even if it meant getting destroyed on the court.  Class discussions were often just as tedious as the homework: We would sit in class (mostly dreaming of being outside in the CA sun) and discuss one another’s work & ideas.

Despite my feeling that I was perfectly capable of excelling at the class, I never felt like I was doing very well. And when discussion time rolled around, I would do “the thing”. The trick. It goes like this: Be patient and wait until the discussion gets moving. Eventually, someone says something utterly beside the point, or simply doesn’t understand whatever the writer is getting at. That’s a good time to pounce. That’s when it’s time to throw an idea out there; One that may or may not be exactly what the writer intended readers to consider. As long as it’s a weighty notion, or a grand theme, it would make me “seem” smart and involved.

Keep in mind, this is only a trick. Mostly based on social anxiety and fear of being exposed as a fraud and an idiot – two of my biggest fears (and, I suspect, not unusual fears). So that’s what happened last night. We read this play, which happens so the writer can get a sense of what the play sounds like out loud since, until that point, it had all been a writing exercise. Atypical of my usual M.O., I had actually prepared for this by reading the play before showing up, expressly so I could participate in the talkback. But what happens if I don’t immediately understand what it’s all about? What happens when the inevitable “wrong” thing gets said, exposing my lack of understanding how storytelling works? After 20 years doing show after show after show, a degree in theatre, and a lifetime of reading, how can it be that I am unable to see the basic themes & ideas in a 60 page play?

The writing could be to blame. It could be that the actors didn’t convey their parts “correctly”. But that’s all bullshit. For God’s sake, my senior thesis in high school was about how the same basic themes tend to cross over time and space from Homer to Shakespeare to Mamet. Its about the fact that clearly, there are people who can see right through writing & story to the basic line of thought. And for whatever reason, I feel like I get lost before I reach that plateau of understanding. So I need to pretend. And in faking it, now that I’m working with professionals instead of students, I MUST look like a complete moron. And who likes feeling that way?

What then? Stop participating? Avoid doing new work? Sit in the corner and keep quiet? Or put on my big boy pants, get that zen-cow-eye focus that so many athletes have and plow through, unafraid of failure? I’m gonna run with the latter and hope that it makes me a better player in the long run.

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