How Performing Became a Selfless Act of Love

Photo from CU Boulder's Fall 2013 production of "These Shining Lives"
Photo from CU Boulder’s Fall 2013 production of “These Shining Lives”

I kinda have this weird love/hate/also-really-scared-of relationship with theatre. Anyone who knew me two years ago knew that I was absolutely obsessed with performing and understood that that was the only thing I wanted to do with my life. And anyone who’s spoken with me in the last six months about my performance endeavors learned that I’ve really been struggling with my role in this business, if I’m supposed to continue with it or throw in my towel.

I’ll admit that lately, talking about performing has been a sensitive subject. When people ask me about it, I often am at a loss for words. “So, Claire, you love to perform?” “Uh….yeah. Kinda? Well, I used to. A lot. Now…I’m not sure.”

After numerous audition failures in the past couple months, I felt like I was losing “it,” that special thing I thought I possessed that led me to shine onstage. It was leaving me, and I believed there was nothing I could do about it. Time to move on, end of story.

And then in May, I had a mind blowing 24 hours of being asked to come to callbacks for a production, showing up to callbacks completely unprepared, barely scraping together enough confidence to even stay for the entire callback without running out of the room and going home (I legitimately walked through the door and almost turned right around to leave), and then being offered a role that I couldn’t refuse but barely accepted, for fear of letting everyone down. For the first few weeks of rehearsal (actually, more like up until tech week), all I could think the entire time was “I don’t deserve this part; I’m not good enough anymore for roles like this. I’m going to let everyone down. I can’t do this. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t. Don’t make me. I can’t.” Even after hearing such kind and beautiful words from my director, music director, choreographer, and fellow cast-mates, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t good enough to be performing onstage anymore. [if any of you are reading this, I want to publicly apologize for not fully showing up emotionally to rehearsal; that wasn’t fair to anyone, and I now know that that cannot happen anymore]

And then…and then, everything changed this past weekend, when the beautiful girls of Heritage House came to see the show. Heritage House is the non-profit I’ve been interning at this summer; it’s a safe haven group home for at-risk teenage girls. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster to spend time with the girls there, and it’s been a true privilege to get to know them. Anyway, the night they came to the show at one point during a musical number, I glanced down into the audience and saw one of my girls beaming from ear to ear like I had never seen before. Let me just quickly explain that this girl has had a horrible hand dealt to her; she is barely a teenager, and already healing from the worst sorts of emotional wounds imaginable. In my weekly interactions with her, she’s often verbally harsh and sassy; she barely ever smiles, and I have a difficult time finding moments where she’s truly joyful. And yet…this little musical that we put on, this happy goofy cheesy show, made her smile more than I had ever seen her smile before. I’m not one to cry very often, but tears started forming in my eyes at that moment.

Grease the Musical did not heal her scarred and broken heart. Grease the Musical did not take away all the things that have happened to her. Grease the Musical did not save her that night. But that evening, the show – those two hours of singing and dancing and dialogue – gave her an opportunity to stretch the muscles in her face in a way that she hardly ever does, and filled her with some sort of unspeakable joy and that. Was. So. Worth. It. Seeing her smile like that was worth every minute of rehearsal, all the hours of feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, all the sweat and tears. And when I saw her face, I felt this presence in me that wasn’t just my own self-talk, a voice that said “This. This is what it’s about. Do this for her, and others like her.”

For the rest of the show, I did it for her, for that little thirteen year old sassy lady that I love, and for the rest of the Heritage House girls who came to support me that night. And I blew them a kiss at curtain call, thanking them for things they had no idea they’d helped me through. That evening changed the way I see theatre – hopefully forever because I don’t want to go back – because now I know it is something that I am meant to continue, in a different light than I have ever seen it before.

You see, over the past few months my idea of theatre started becoming tainted. Maybe it was some of the company I was keeping, or maybe just my own mind, but something was nagging at me to stop doing theatre because it was all selfish, all narcissistic, all negative, all dramatic. And that’s simply not true. Some parts of theatre can be selfish and dramatic, some people who do theatre can be toxic and negative, but it’s so much more than just those aspects. How could I possibly think the world would be better off without it, when it changes lives and brings joy to all kinds of people?

I’ve heard it said that musical theatre – and performing in general – has been life changing for a lot of people, and I do believe that to be true to an extent. In the same breath, this I know to be certain: musical theatre is nobody’s savior. It can’t actually heal anyone. But it can bring up emotions that are otherwise stagnant or forgotten in everyday life. And that’s a pretty important thing, if you ask me. That’s why performing is essential to culture; society says “stuff your feelings inside and get on with your day.” The theatre says “it’s okay to feel what you’re feeling, and to let it be known.” Your emotions are validated through the performances of the people onstage. You feel what they feel, and they feel what you feel. It’s a powerful experience, one that I thought was easy to just let go of and move on without; now I realize that I can’t and don’t want to do that.

I think I’m finally getting to a point where I know this is something I need to keep doing, but now my motives and goals look different.

Maybe this is a really obvious thing for a lot of performers already, but it really did hit me this weekend: I’m no longer performing for my own glory, to gain my own worth by hitting a quota of compliments. I’m doing it first and foremost as praise to my God, who has already given me all of my worth and shows that by giving me the love of singing and performing, and secondly for all of the people who need the comfort of a good performance to settle into their hearts; for all the people who need to carry a show around with them when they’re feeling blue, as we’re taught in The Drowsy Chaperone. I used to see being an actress as a self-focused, self-centered, inward act of praise. Now I see it as a selfless act of love; love for fellow performers and creative team members, love for audience members, love for the show itself. It’s been said time and time again in so many ways: when love is your top priority, everything else falls into place. Theatre is no exception. When loving people is my main focus in theatre, I cannot fail.

I’ve been so caught up in figuring out what theatre means to me personally, and while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that in itself, at the same time it’s also caused me to be blinded by my fear and lack of confidence in this business, and it’s validated my thoughts about theatre being narcissistic. What will help motivate me to move forward is getting out of my own head and remembering that I can make little girls with hurting hearts smile as they watch a show that I’m in. It doesn’t matter what my part is; if I am asked to contribute to a beautiful piece of art that I believe in and love, I will do it. I will show up because I know I’ll be able to spread that love thick so everyone can feel it, and by not worrying so much about how good I am, I free myself up to be completely unafraid to let everything go and give a performance my absolute all.

I still don’t know if I am meant to focus on theatre completely as my career and I don’t know if I’ve quite gained all of my stage confidence back or if/when I will get better, but what I do know is that I’m not meant to stop now. I have to keep going, and not for my own glory. I have to keep going because this is a way to selflessly love others that I know I can do a good job at, and I can’t say no to that.

–claire