Lee Child once said that “writing is show business for shy people”.
This quote resonates with me, particularly at the moment, as I am performing in The Phantom of the Opera at the famous Civic Theatre in Auckland.
I’ve been doing musical theatre for many years, but a year or two ago I pulled back from it almost entirely. My passion for being onstage was waning, and I was finding it more and more difficult to “put myself out there”. The pressure I placed on myself to be brilliant was crippling. Auditions were a nightmare. Performing was still a joy, but one that was tempered by shaky self-confidence and an overwhelming fear of being not quite good enough.
My writing career was flourishing and I was taking tremendous pleasure from losing myself in words and stories. It felt more “real” than the world of theatre. Writing is deeply personal and deeply revealing at the same time. You are at one remove, and yet every word, every phrase, and every storyline reveals much about your deepest self: your fears, your longings, the ugliness that resides in all of us, the beauty that can overcome it.
I preferred this “reveal” to the one offered by the theatre, which was feeling more and more inauthentic.
I qualified as a proofreader and editor and couldn’t believe my good fortune when I realised I could work for myself, every day, by myself, with words and stories, and make money from it. Acting and singing took a back seat. I didn’t miss them.
Then I heard about auditions for Phantom: my favourite show ever in the theatre of my dreams. Despite a level of fear not experienced since Shane Cameron dragged me behind the bike sheds at primary school and tried to stick his tongue down my throat (I was 8; it was terrifying), I put myself out there one more time and was lucky enough to be cast in the ensemble.
And things are very different this time around. The pressure is gone. There is no falseness. I’m not there to impress (Oh, alright then, maybe a little bit. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the curtain call), nor to prove that I am the perfect performer (no chance). When I’m on stage, I’m thinking of the words and the music and the fact that the audience needs to hear and see this wonderful story, and it’s my job, along with my fellow cast members, to bring it alive for them. Although I’m playing a part, I’m telling it authentically, from the heart, wanting to give the audience something rather than simply asking them to offer up their adulation.
It’s interesting that the show is, in part, about the masks we all wear to hide our true selves. Ironically, this show is the one in which I have felt most real, and most true to myself.
Back to Lee Child’s quote. A writer is indeed an actor, albeit a shy one: he or she reveals his or her self, creates new worlds and narratives and fires the imagination, but is always able to hide behind the linguistic props and the smoke and the magic. The words take centre stage.
My passion now is writing – but it has been a joy to discover that acting, too, can be authentic and generous and deeply rewarding if you just move yourself to one side…and tell the story.