Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Overcoming Performance Anxeities: Finding Solace in the Circus

Traveling brings with it a wave of triggering emotions and experiences.  While in theory I love how travel to foreign countries expands my worldview, it exposes some huge insecurities for me.  As a writer, I like to use language and words to not only express myself, but also control others' perception of me.  
Basically, using big words makes me feel smart.   

When I am in a foreign country, however, that tool is suddenly gone from my toolbox.  Even if I have some knowledge of the language--I no longer have the guarantee that when I open my mouth it will make me sound intelligent.  This issue is even more compounded on my current trip to Israel, where my Hebrew is embarrassingly elemental.  Not only that, I also insecure about my lack of Jewish credentials in comparison to others in my group here, who range from rabbinical students to directors of Jewish youth programs.  

Ironically, it was a an almost completely non-verbal experience that helped me feel centered again.  

This evening we had a program where we visited the Galilee Circus, a group that brings Jewish and Arab youths together to collaborate on performance as a way to build community.  While I had assumed we were simply going to watch the show, the troupe leader had us begin by playing some theatre games to get us in the spirit.  As he started to pull out a set of foam balls and have us toss them to each other and play name games, I suddenly felt a sense of reassurance and calm:  I had played many of these games before in various movement and clowning workshops since undergrad.

My heart sang even more after the circle games, when they told us to take a few minutes and try our hands at some of the various circus activities scattered throughout the gym.  I immediately darted for the flower sticks, which I had been doing since I was about twelve.  There was something so gratifying about having others in the room--the young Arab circus troupe members, our Israeli program director, being impressed by my skill at something after having spent two days trying to follow Hebrew conversations.  In a week full of new and challenging experiences, it was nice to momentarily be in my element.

I had a similar experience with physical performance when studying abroad in France. I was auditing a circus class, which was one of my few opportunities to take a class alongside French students (most of my other classes were with other foreign students and made me feel a bit special needs).  While my French language skills were not the greatest I felt solace in my familiarity with some of the commedia and clowning techniques I had experienced as a theatre major in my acting classes.  Since this was a general education course, these were all new experiences for most of the French students, and it was comforting to feel on more of an even playing field.

This is all extremely ironic, because "comforting" had never been the word I would associate with that kind of performance during most of my time trying to be a theatre artist.  

I've always struggled with physicality as a performer.  Probably why I decided to focus on writing--you don't have to worry about people judging what you look like when you're making your art.  Freshman year of college, I took a week-long commedia dell'arte workshop followed by a semester of movement class, both of which were highly uncomfortable experiences for me.  At a time when it was important for people to find me sexy and attractive, I was afraid every time I moved it looked like I was having a seizure.

Maybe as I get older I'm becoming more comfortable with myself.  Maybe experiencing actual personal failures and professional disappointments has helped me put performance failures in perspective.  Though I initially moved to writing as a way to avoid exposing myself, in the past year my biggest creative breakthroughs were when I allowed the characters in my play to express their awkward, bizarre, messy selves.  

I often have these moments of realization when I suddenly "get" what a particular theatre game or lesson was supposed to teach me and wish I could go back and do it over and not be so lame at it.  But I guess that's not the point: the point is I got it.  And hopefully I can use these lessons and apply them to future, inevitable "failures"--and celebrate them.  

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