All the World’s a Stage: Introverts & Acting

Recently I had the pleasure of attending a high school musical that my stepson was performing in (strangely enough, in light of this site’s theme, it was Stephen Sondheim’s Company). Watching the young actors onstage made me think of my own high school drama experiences, although only briefly; I don’t like to dwell too much on that painful phase of my adolescence.

For some reason, when I was younger I felt it necessary to repeatedly put myself into situations that were extremely stressful for me. Although I dreaded performing in front of others, that didn’t stop me from taking piano lessons, singing lessons, dance lessons, playing in a band, or auditioning for plays and musicals. At my most perverse, I joined the high school debate team (after my first debate, one of our opponents even asked petulantly, “Isn’t she supposed to say something?”).

I think my motivation for doing all this was a combination of various factors: a misguided belief that suffering would make me a better person; a desperate need to express myself (which would later find a much better outlet in writing); and at times, actual enjoyment, mingled with terror, of participating in the activity in question. My forays into high school drama productions were prompted by a mixture of all three, and were aided by my sheer and utter ignorance of how crippling extreme self-consciousness is for an aspiring actor or actress.

And so it was that I stumbled onward, through the roles of Soldier #2, Greek chorus member, anonymous geisha, and unnamed Dickensian waif, without realizing that not everyone had a hard time rendering their lines at a level above a whisper. The one major role I did have in those years, granted by a compassionate director who also happened to be a good friend, seemed to be written especially for me: that of a skittish and reserved housemaid.

Looking back, I really shouldn’t have been surprised by my lack of acting prowess at that age; for me, the transition from bright young girl to excessively self-conscious teen was the death knell for any acting ambitions I had. I just couldn’t lose myself in the roles I was playing, I was always painfully aware of who I was, at every single moment.

Because of that experience, I’ve always found it odd that there are so many incredible actors who are also introverts. It seems like they must be able to find a way to quiet that self-consciousness I found so troubling, and to turn their inner lives into an external craft. Indeed, looking at a list of introverts who are also actors, it seems like introversion and brilliant acting just might go hand in hand (i.e., Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, Joan Allen, Laura Linney, Ellen Burstyn, Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood, and Tom Hanks, to name only a few).

Since I don’t have their talent, I can only guess at their methods; perhaps one of them will write in and tell me just how they do it. In the meantime, it’s enough for me to ponder how most introverts are playing a role in some fashion or another. At work, and in social settings, we are often called upon to behave in a way contrary to our true nature. Unfortunately, I just never developed the knack for making it look effortless; I always seem to forget my lines when the curtain goes up.

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14 Responses to “All the World’s a Stage: Introverts & Acting”

  1. 18 Famous Actors and Actresses Who Are Introverts | SenseList said:

    […] sharing my own experience, I write about various topics pertaining to introverts in general. In a recent post, I brought up the fact that there are many famous actors and actresses who are introverts, a […]

  2. Laurie said:

    I find that, as an introvert and a dancer, that performing is an outlet for my extroverted impulses that I don’t feel comfortable with expressing in daily life. Like yourself, I find things like birthday celebrations and having pictures (especially “candid” pictures) snapped to be a stressor I’d rather avoid. (In my case, the birthday thing is very closely related to having too good of a sense of pitch — listening to people butcher music is like nails on a chalkboard — quite literally painful to listen to.) Other people have a hard time reconciling this shyness/social reluctance with my general eagerness and enjoyment regarding performance. Apparently, I seem very calm in the dressing room (other than the occasional outburst when things get to be TOO too much) and project a great deal of confidence on stage. I’ve been able to explain the apparent contradiction in this way: when I’m on stage, I’m not ME. I’m playing a role, being someone else, especially if I’m performing someone else’s choreography. (Performing my own was a totally different thing for a very long time.) And the more you fake confidence, the more confident you become, really, and you can put that cloak on quickly when you need to, to protect your real self from the audience. I do find that I have only a certain number of performances that I can do in a given time before I am truly exhausted, and that’s mostly mental exhaustion. It’s good to know your limitations!

    My general reluctance to make a fool of myself killed any hope I ever had for an acting career, however. I’m not sure how professional actors do it – probably related to really immersing themselves in a character — but I can understand how dancers and even singers can be truly introverted and still give a great performance. They just need extra time to recharge afterwards.

    Great site/blog!! I’ll have to make this one of my frequent stops. It’s nice to see another resource on the web for introverts written BY an introvert, and not by some psychologist who isn’t one but thinks they understand it. 🙂 I always enjoy your articles on ITOD; I’m looking forward to reading more here.

  3. spectatrix said:

    Laurie:

    Thanks so much for sharing your experiences. It’s fascinating to hear how you reconcile your introvert nature with your passion for performing, how you feel you are playing a role as you do it. And thanks for your encouragement about the site; it’s been wonderful to have such thoughtful comments come in from readers.

    I didn’t mention this in the post, but I once aspired to be a professional singer, even studying voice at college, which might seem an ill fit for someone so averse to performing. In my case, what I loved was making music itself, but my dread of performing came from my feeling that I was going to be judged by others and found lacking. As you mentioned, the fear of looking foolish was very powerful. I didn’t have enough confidence in my abilities to get past that fear; perhaps if I thought I was truly talented, or if I thought I couldn’t live without it, I would have perservered.

    I think I would have been happy to stay holed up in a small room, singing for no other audience but myself, simply enjoying the beauty of the music. In many ways, that describes the writing life, and I think that’s why I much prefer it to live performance. There’s no other audience, no one to distract from the making of beautiful sounds, nothing to come between me and the words on the page.

  4. I Am Joe’s Blog » Blog Archive » Blogging for Introverts said:

    […] Again, that may not be true of all introverts, but I think many people would be surprised how many actors, singers, politicians, and even high-profile bloggers would identify themselves as […]

  5. Patricia said:

    Thank you for this website. I’m an introverted waitress!!! Aspiring to be an actress. I feel working in such a extraverted job, I practice my acting!

  6. spectatrix said:

    Patricia:

    I’m so glad you’re enjoying the site. Wow. Those are two professions where you have to be “on” all the time; I’d probably find it exhausting, but if it works for you, that’s great 🙂

  7. Attention vs. Interaction | Spectatrix said:

    […] outside of their work. This certainly sheds new light on previous posts about introverted actors and […]

  8. domino said:

    i read this from somewhere. it’s a bit radical. but that article said that to a certain extent, introverts ARE actors. introverts, in their natural state, are quiet and introspective people, so every time they find themselves in a situation wherein they must interact with other people, it’s basically acting for them. so i guess it’s no surprise that some of the greatest actors out there are introverts.

  9. spectatrix said:

    Domino:

    That’s a really interesting perspective, and I think there may be lot of truth to it!

  10. Malcolm Gladwell: Speaking as an Introvert « Everyday Intensity said:

    […] Jahnke ponders in her blog Spectatrix: The Passionate Introvert “how most introverts are playing a role in some fashion or another. At work, and in social […]

  11. Blogging for Introverts | JoeKissell.com said:

    […] Again, that may not be true of all introverts, but I think many people would be surprised how many actors, singers, politicians, and even high-profile bloggers would identify themselves as […]

  12. Phil said:

    You said,

    “Since I don’t have their talent,..”

    You will probably be surprised to learn that TALENT is probably a myth. But once you know this, you are no longer ‘constrained’ by the idea of talent. You no longer wonder or doubt if you have the talent for something, and therefore avoid committing to some activity. See:

    Talent Is Overrated – Original Article in Fortune Magazine: http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2006/10/30/8391794/index.htm

    2nd Article (after book release): http://money.cnn.com/2008/10/21/magazines/fortune/talent_colvin.fortune/index.htm

    Articles on ‘Deliberate Practice’: http://www.hooversbiz.com/2009/03/04/deliberate-practice-in-a-nutshell/ http://www.hooversbiz.com/2008/04/14/deliberate-practice-in-the-working-world/ Will Smith and Deliberate Practice: http://www.hooversbiz.com/2007/12/05/the-work-ethic-of-will-smith-deliberate-practice-in-action/ More on what exactly is Deliberate Practice: http://www.hooversbiz.com/2008/11/12/this-is-how-you-get-better-deliberate-practice/

    Phil

  13. Morgen Jahnke said:

    Phil:

    Thanks for submitting these links. I find this argument really interesting.

  14. Introverted dancers | Theaom said:

    […] All the World’s a Stage: Introverts & Acting | SpectatrixMar 21, 2007 … I find that, as an introvert and a dancer, that performing is an outlet for my extroverted impulses that I don’t feel comfortable with expressing in … […]