I was eleven years old when I performed in my first “real” play. I’m twenty-three now, meaning we’ve officially passed the “more than half my life ago” mark, which I’m realizing now for the first time and it’s blowing my mind a little.
For my entire childhood, I was plagued with severe anxiety, so the fact that I would A) voluntarily choose to be onstage in front of several hundred people, and B) enjoy it as much as I did, was shocking to anyone who knew me.
At the time, I didn’t understand it either. All I knew was that the second I walked onto that stage, I felt more at home and in my element than I maybe ever had in my life. Looking back now, I think it was the first time my brain was truly silent in a room full of people.
It seems contradictory, to be a person with social anxiety who loves getting up and performing in front of crowds of strangers. It’s not nearly as bad as it was in school, but I still have a very hard time letting myself be seen and fully letting loose or expressing my emotions in front of others (at least, not without overthinking it for the next 3–5 business days). But to me, the stage is a safe space to do exactly that.
When I’m onstage, I’m playing a character, and the things I do are directed by someone else. So I can be loud, or messy, or ugly, or imperfect, and subconsciously, it feels safe. My social anxiety quiets down and steps out of the way because it can hide behind the idea that it’s a performance, and I can let myself do and be these things because even though everyone is watching me, they’re seeing a character.
And the thing is, it’s not that I didn’t ever want to be those things. In fact, growing up, I wanted desperately to just once be the life of the party somewhere, and have everyone think I was fun, and cool, and laugh at my jokes, and want me to be around them.
It wasn’t even that I was bullied, or was made to believe I couldn’t do that, but social anxiety convinced me that I had dug myself into a “quiet weird girl” hole, and any attempt to break out of that would be met with instant ridicule and judgment.
And that’s why theatre appealed to me. Because more than anything, I wanted - and really, needed — to be seen. I needed some way to let the world know that this other girl, the dynamic, fun, loud, emotional girl, existed somewhere within me, even if I had to shield her behind the invisible fourth wall of a plywood set.
Fast forward twelve years, and I’m an adult now with a pretty active social life, full of friends (none of whom I would have met if I hadn’t joined community theatre after high school) who make me feel that level of safety even when we’re not performing. I’m able now to go to parties and join conversations and laugh and be loud and a little messy and feel more loved than I ever thought was possible, and do all the things I was too afraid to let myself do when I was growing up.
I still struggle with reminding myself that I can be that vulnerable of course, although I’ve reduced the overthinking time to about 1–2 business days, which is definite progress. But I don’t think I would be anywhere near where I am today if I hadn’t put my name on that audition sign up sheet twelve years ago.
Theatre has time and time again given me the opportunity to safely shut off the anxiety noise and openly explore parts of me that have spent so long locked away. With every show I do, every bow I take, another bar is removed from that girl’s cage and it’s just a little easier to bring her to the surface.
I have always been that dynamic, fun, loud, emotional girl. She just needed some stage lighting to guide her way out.