For as long as I can remember, I have been a chicken. Fear is very present in my life. I was a worrier as a kid (and am as an adult, let’s be real), and for much of my teens and early twenties my fears took form in anxiety and depression. Now, even though those clouds have mostly lifted, fear remains.
I fear I’m a fraud, and everyone either already knows it or is about to find out.
I fear I am unworthy of love.
I fear not being thin enough, smart enough, hard enough, soft enough, relaxed enough, serious enough, feminine enough, feminist enough…
I fear there’s no such thing as enough.
I fear losing control.
I fear being seen.
I have distinct memories of therapists over the years saying the same thing to me: “Wow. With your anxiety, how is it possible you’re an actor?!” And each time I would shrug and say, “I dunno, theatre’s not real life.”
But now, with a little bit of distance, I can see that for me acting was mostly about running away from myself. I wanted to be someone else. I wanted to feel something else. I was scared of being seen, as I was.
(To be clear, I wasn’t a great actor. I believe great actors can play the biggest, silliest, furthest character from themselves and still reveal their hearts, their willingness to expose their connection and investment to the material. But for me, it was mostly a mask, a protection.)
Over time I started to work some shit out and found my acting work less and less fulfilling. I moved into directing. When I was solely an actor, I imagined the role of the director as powerful, invulnerable. My experience has been the opposite. I have never felt as exposed and vulnerable as when I am directing.
Communicating your perceived necessity of a piece and corralling a team of artists around that vision is an essential part of directing. I can talk ad nauseam about politics, and concepts, and form, but connecting over the emotional or ephemeral necessity of a piece leaves me feeling much more exposed. Feelings and experiences are messy, chaotic, changing. I love structure, and precision; being articulate, and understood. Talking about feelings means risking being misunderstood, or embarrassed, or admitting that often I feel like a tiny speck of dust in an unforgiving world and question the meaning of everything and, GOD, who would want to follow the leadership of someone who feels so tiny?
The problem is, every piece I’ve worked on where I haven’t pinpointed or risked revealing my personal connection to the material has ended up being a shambles. A boring or overly-intellectual mess where the poor actors don’t know why they’re doing the thing, because I didn’t know why… or was scared to reveal it to them, and, through them, to the audience.
So I’m trying something new. I’m trying to embrace being scared in my rehearsals, in my meetings. I’m trying to sit inside the fear of being seen, of being wrong, of being questioned, of not having the answers, and risk it anyway. The problem is when fear is the only voice you can hear and the walls go up. So I’m trying to notice my fear and respond with, “Oh, I’m onto something,” rather than “Abort! Abort!” It’s exhausting to build up that acceptance of discomfort and I often only feel glimmers of success with it. But in those glimmers, when I’ve made space to see the fear without fighting it, two amazing things become possible. I can listen and be present in the room, connected to my impulses without over-analyzing. And a space is created for connection. In those scary moments of rehearsal or design meetings where I dare to say, “I don’t know,” there has always been an overflowing of offers from the team. Or, we share our “I don’t know” and it becomes the guiding force in our work of investigation. And in that sharing we’re able to mine for a depth and pluralism in the work that would never be possible if I kept my mask on as the singular-visioned, impenetrable, all-knowing director.
And now for SummerWorks I find myself working on this play, Plucked by Rachel Ganz, where I am staring this fear right in the face. On the surface, the play is political. It deals with the skewering of patriarchy: women turn into chickens and men profit off their eggs. But buried inside the political is the deeply personal (and deeply familiar to me). Fear is taking control of all of the characters’ lives. Fear turns women into chickens. The daughter lives in fear of becoming her mother. The father fears not proving his manhood, not providing for his family, not being man enough to turn his wife into a chicken. And all this fear causes them to lash outward at each other, and lash inward, self-destructing.
As we craft this story, I’m coming to the same conclusions for these characters as I am in my personal life and my life as an artist (yes, I’m going to pretend I have a life outside of the work…) We’re either letting fear determine all our choices, or fighting so hard to make it go away that we’re missing all the good things (and people) around us. So maybe we all need to radically redefine the meaning of fear. Fear is not something that can be conquered. Fear can be a powerful barometer of when to run, but also of when to lean in, or at least stay still and let it be. In the Tao Te Ching they say “The Master resides at the centre of the circle.” I whisper that to myself when my fear starts making me spiral out, wanting to run, or lash out.
When I feel fear in my work and in my life, I know what I’m feeling is the risk of being seen. The risk is being seen and not being enough. But the reward is the possibility of recognition. My formative experiences as an audience member have always been when I recognize something onstage, or feel it recognizes me. Not in an experience of sameness, but an unquantifiable gut feeling that this person, this story, this song, this joke, this dance, is strange, funny, sad, confused, despairing, joyful in its own way, and I see it… and it’s okay, maybe evening thrilling. So maybe it’s okay if I am seen too.
So as we rehearse Plucked and approach opening, I am trying. Trying to look at my fear as a strength and not fight against it. I am a chicken. And that’s nothing to balk at.
Plucked is playing at the Theatre Centre from August 5 to August 14 as part of the SummerWorks Performance Festival.Click here for tickets or more information