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"Vigils" and the Pre-Show Jitters
by Jim Kuenzer 12 Sep 2009

Those of us daring and/or foolish enough to call ourselves “actors” are funny (not in a ha-ha way) people. If public speaking is a fear greater than death, then why would anyone in his or her right mind knowingly pursue a life in the theater, which is nothing but public speaking? My fellow cast mate, […]


Those of us daring and/or foolish enough to call ourselves “actors” are funny (not in a ha-ha way) people. If public speaking is a fear greater than death, then why would anyone in his or her right mind knowingly pursue a life in the theater, which is nothing but public speaking?

My fellow cast mate, Matthew Gray, told me about a study done on the physical state of an actor, including blood pressure, heart rate, etc., right before going on stage and how actors are at the same stress level as a person about to get into a car wreck.

I found this surprising. I would have thought the driver would be far more relaxed.

Stage fright is a tough racket. On the one hand, it makes you feel horrible, physically, emotionally and mentally. On the other, without it, you’re probably not on your toes and your performance will suffer.

I am now less than five hours away from the opening of Vigils, this season’s opening show at Kitchen Dog Theater, and I think I may die. For real.

To be fair, there are both good and bad things going on in my brain right now. First, the good:

  • I have a lot of friends coming to the opening. I’m excited for them to see it and hope they enjoy it.
  • I think it’s a first-rate show. The actors are wonderful, the set is amazing, the seats in the theater are quite comfortable. Also, there will be a post-show reception that promises to be quite delicious.
  • I can imagine the reviews: “First rate!” “An acting tour de force!” “Move over, Gielgud! Step aside, Olivier! Kuenzer is regal!” And so on.

And then there’s the bad. In Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, Pressfield encapsulates all of the artists’ fears under one title: resistance. Resistance is the inner voice that tells you not to quit your day job, the inner voice that tells you napping is a better choice than writing or painting, the inner voice that always gives you two enthusiastic thumbs down.

For me, Resistance is the voice that hears all of the positives about hitting the stage and counters them with more than valid speculation. So as I tell myself the above positives, my Resistance rebuts with the following negatives.

  • Yes, you have lots of friends coming. Don’t embarrass them by screwing up that speech in the first scene that you have yet to get right once.
  • Yes, it’s a first-rate show, if you don’t blow it by dropping that line in the second scene that you always seem to drop.
  • Yes, those reviews might happen, but only if you hit your entrance on time after the nearly impossible costume change, which you probably won’t. I’m not going to hold my breath.
  • Yes, your costume makes you look fat.

And this is what’s going on in my head right now. I will soon travel to the theater and get warmed up and changed and exchange hugs and high fives with the rest of the cast and the crew and we will go through our rituals and there will be last-minute confusion (“I’m missing my pants!”) and last-minute reminders (“It’s 1, 2 and go on 3.”) and the tensions will mount and people will smile hollow smiles as they think the same thing I do (“I hope I don’t screw this up.”) and then the stage manager will call for “places” and we will all say “Thank you,” since that’s protocol (Honestly, why would we thank anyone sending us to our inevitable death?) and we will take our places.

I’ll take my place. I’ll go over everything I need to do and hope I do it all right. I’ll say a little prayer, part “help me” and part “why me?” I’ll be appreciative of the opportunity but curious what this serves in the Grand Scheme of Things and I’ll wonder if it’s too late to quit and become an engineer.

And the lights will go down. And I’ll make my entrance. And once it’s all said and done, I’ll wonder why I can’t do this more often.

We actors are funny people.

Kitchen Dog Theater opens its 2009-10 season with the Southwest Premiere of Vigils by Noah Haidle and directed by KDT company member Aaron Ginsburg. The show runs through October 10.

  • You’re the man now, dog!

  • Hello Jim

    Thanks for your story about pre-show anxiety! I know it so well. The juxtaposition of tension/fear/anxiety and energy/emthusiasm/passion is interesting, isn’t it? For much of my experience as an actress, I did not know how to transform the former into the latter. The anxiety took over and distracted me from giving my full talents onstage.

    In 1985, I had an experience onstage while performing Morgan Le Fey in Camelot that transformed my relationship with the audience. An accident with my costume happened and I almost lost it in front of 200 people. The accident caused me to snap into a state of total presence, and I was all of a sudden in touch with the audience in a palpable, spiritual way. I was no longer performing, no longer acting for them, I was being with them.

    This experience of presence onstage planted a seed of awareness for what was possible for me to expereince in front of others. Over a 20 year period, it has flourished into a method to help people transform stage fright into authentic presence and has become a system to help speakers develop an authentic style of speaking.

    I am now so grateful for all the resistance I experienced and for the opportunities I now have to guide talented people through the resistance and into the ability to shine in front of others. Thanks for allowing me to share a little about myself, my stage fright and my work with this. I am also in Texas!

    Sandra Zimmer
    website: http://www.self-expresssion.com
    blog: http://self-expression.com/speaking-freely