Why I Am An Actor

 AKA “push through the Fear” or “One of My Biggest Secrets”

I don’t remember my first performance, I don’t remember if acting was my idea, or encouraged by my family. All I know is that I have been acting for as long as I have been walking. When people ask why I am an actor, I rarely tell them the whole truth. Usually I say something about being a storyteller and how “I want to share the stories of the world with the world…. Art can heal us all!“ that kind of crap. I WISH that was the reason I love acting, it sounds so inspiring and idealistic. It sounds a lot like the reasons that other actors give, but I think they are lying a little bit too.

No, the truth is, I am an actor because the stage is the safest place to experience Fear.

First, let me say that until recently I didn’t think I had stage fright. I never minded class presentations, or talking to strangers. Making friends or talking up in class has always been “easy” for me. I had given some of the credit to my performance art elementary school, and those early ballet days; that I had been academically trained early on to perform, but for the most part I thought that stage fright was just something I would never experience. I had assumed that everyone enjoyed that weird sinking sensation in their stomachs after talking in class. That everyone’s clammy hands were just a bothersome side-effect. After I worked more in theater and film, and talked with other artists I realized that what I loved most about acting is what some people hate about performing in general. I didn’t realize what I was experiencing was stage fright, and that the only difference was I liked the feeling of it and others don’t.

Let’s talk about a gross part of being an actor. Most actors that I have talked and worked with, sweat buckets while working on stage – mainly due to the stage lights. Trust me, I have smelled them. They are generally in bulky costumes, and have fifteen to twenty giant lamps shining down on their several pounds of make-up… its some nasty stuff. For me however, even though I end up smelling just as bad, I’m freezing on stage. It doesn’t matter if I am wearing three skirts and a winter coat, or down to my skivvies; as soon as I step out onto that stage, it’s like I’ve been dropped in a pool of ice. My hands get that clammy feeling, but the cold kind, which almost seems grosser. While this is helpful in a show set during the winter, it’s a bit harder to feel loose and vulnerable when your instincts are telling you to curl up into a ball and roll off the stage. That’s the Fear though. That’s the part of my head telling me to run. That’s what I am fighting against the whole time I am on stage. It feels a little different working on film sets, but I think that’s because sets carry themselves differently. On a film set you, generally, are using one part of a fully lit space, and the people around you are your co-workers. In a theater, usually, only the stage is lit and you can’t really see the audience of strangers. I don’t know why people think that is reassuring?! I’m terrified onstage, I don’t necessarily want to be blinded from the looks on people’s faces.

At the same time, working through Fear is why acting is so… worth it. When I am up on that stage, I am not myself. I am someone different, in a different time, in a different place. Maybe I walk with more weight in my heels, or I am a silent prancing doe. Maybe I think about what I say in this world instead of belting out my thoughts, poorly censored. In this world, I sit with my legs further apart and take up more physical space. In this world I am soft or crude, tall or short. I wear glasses or I don’t. I’m self-conscious about my nose, or my hands, or my voice. I can fall madly in love. I can dance. I can run and jump like a child. I can cry.

On stage, I can be anything, do anything, and it is just accepted.

More often than not, no one in the audience is going to make judgements about the character I am playing and assume that I, Raelee, am like that. I could roll around on the ground and be a complete spaz, and after that performance they are going to hand me a flower and say “You were so good!” and that is that. Try rolling around like a spaz in real life and see what happens. Even though I am standing there, freezing and clammy and totally terrified, I know that nothing bad is going to happen. I can confess my love to someone and pour out all my innermost feelings, be the most vulnerable I’ve ever been, and the audience will just see the character. I can scream and fight and hurt, but even my scene partner is going to just see the character. At the end of the show, everything is left behind those theater doors and we go back to being ourselves, even if that was really our true self the whole time.

At a fundamental level, I don’t need to act. It by no means comes as easily as eating and sleeping. But if you were to ask me, right as I’m walking off stage, if I could be anything other than an actor I would laugh in your face. I’m awful at memorizing things, I’m poor at trusting my instincts, I have little to no patience; all things that are necessary to be a “successful” actor. Professionally, it doesn’t pay great. It completely messes with my sleep schedule. It is absolutely terrifying. And in spite of all that, I can’t imagine loving anything else half as much. I don’t need to act, but fighting the anxiety and Fear keeps me sane. At this point it is a pivotal part of my personality. I used to think that I just liked acting because I needed that moment of being in the center of attention, but its more than that, and its more than the high that I get after a show. Acting at its best is a chance to lose myself completely and sort through someone else’s life, while really sorting through my own. I can’t imagine having anywhere else that I can work through any and all of my own experiences, than on a stage, pushing through the Fear.

I wrote this essay for my english class last week, and I was going to post it after I got my teachers notes but he’s taking way too long and it’s been way too long since I’ve posted. Our prompt was to talk about “what high is worth its consequences” in our own lives. This is what I came up with.
Photo taken by Michael Brunk at Bellevue College’s “The Witch of Blackbird Pond” in 2015
(That’s me! And my friend Chris!)