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.