OnStage Massachusetts Columnist
Barbra Streisand has openly discussed her experience with anxiety and stage fright, saying that she could never perform in a person’s living room despite her prowess on stage and screen. Though in most ways, Streisand is in a category of her own, in this, she is not alone. Many performers report struggling with anxiety and generally being shy off the stage. This confounds most people - surely, performers are loud people who need to be the center of attention at all times. When it comes to the narrative of theatre people that non-thespians compose, shy performers are often left out. Allow me, as one of them, to attempt to write us back into the narrative (while acknowledging that my experience may not be the same as all others’).
First, let’s get on the same page as to what “shy” means. I look at shyness from a social anxiety slant because that’s what I am familiar with, but a DSM-verified diagnosis is not necessary. I’m talking about shyness as a disdain for social situations. This may be as severe as avoiding such situations altogether, or it may be just feeling a bit uncomfortable but tolerating them. Such people do not go out of their way to socialize and may not have many friends. While in school, speaking in class may be difficult. As for giving presentations, this can vary. I know I personally hated it and would do everything in my power to get out of it, but I know of people who link these more with performances and therefore do just fine with them. Though there is variation, what we have in common in a nutshell is that we do not seek the spotlight in everyday life.
So why would we seek the actual spotlight on a stage? Well, the glaring difference is that on stage, you are not yourself. Interactions are predestined to go a certain way - you are given words to say and things to do. Things are so much more orderly on the stage than in life; it’s easier for someone who struggles to navigate their way through chaotic social worlds to be given that direction. There’s nothing to lose because you are not you, and when the show is over, you get to hang this persona up and go home without enduring the repercussions of any of their actions. Being someone else is freeing, especially for a person who may feel trapped within their shyness.
Realizing my need for scripts and predetermined order has been tremendously helpful in completing tasks that are anxiety-provoking for me. Making phone calls or giving presentations is so much easier with the precise words I need to say laid out in front of me. Of course, you can’t script everything in life, so this doesn’t solve every problem. I imagine trying improv could bridge this gap, but I personally cannot speak to that.
What theatre also does for shy people is give them a community to be a part of. In high school, my only friends were members of the drama club. Now, anyone who has been in a show knows that a cast makes for a dysfunctional family - there are a lot of easy-to-bruise egos around, and tensions run high when it’s the week of the show and people still don’t have their lines memorized. Shy people make the perfect foil for the stereotypical theatre person who always needs to be the center of attention. We are often content to be in the background. This is not to say that we can’t benefit from being in the spotlight or that none of us are cut out for the spotlight - that is certainly not the case. More than anything, we just want to be a part of it, big or small. When we’re among our people, we are in our element.
If you’ve ever befriended a shy person, you know that friendship is not something we take lightly. We don’t make friends easily, but when we do, we cherish them, and we go above and beyond to maintain them. It’s the same thing with theatre. When we’re in a show, we make it our life. We work hard, we pour all of our passion into it, and we feel immense pride in being a part of it. We’re easy to overlook, but we’re dedicated, and I may be biased, but I think that matters. We care deeply - perhaps even more than anyone else, and perhaps because we need it the most. Theatre to shy people is a chance to slip into someone else’s skin, to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, and to prove that we are more than what we seem.