Banish Your Fear of Performing in Public with This 1 Weird Trick

Making theatre isn't the most natural fit for me, personality-wise. I'm normally pretty quiet, mostly introverted, prone to feelings of anxiety in social situations among strangers, and totally happy to spend a good chunk of my days hanging out alone, making art and listening to podcasts. I have a similar relationship to acting on stage as I do to working out - it can take major motivation to get going, but I do it because pushing myself into uncomfortable terrain helps me grow and gain flexibility, and because I feel amazing after.

But it's still scary! On stage, you're under the spotlight and all the attention is on you. What if you forget absolutely everything and just run out the door? How weird is it that humans pay money to sit in a dark room and watch other humans play pretend? Those are real thoughts I've had on occasion. While onstage.

But I have one weird trick for making performing way less scary: put on a mask.

A mask is a fantastic tool that contains a beautiful paradox within it: it's a shield that enhances both strength and vulnerability, it serves to simultaneously conceal one side of you and to reveal another. When I do Commedia with Tut'Zanni, I relish doing scary stuff with people I love; I relish letting the protection of a Capitano or Arlecchino or Zanni mask give me permission to step momentarily beyond the limits of this so-called Liam guy and try out characters who do and say things I never would. It's a hell of a workout, always a growing experience, and an insane amount of fun.

When I found out I got cast in the US premiere of the new Irish play Leper + Chip, here are the things that daunted me: the cast was just two actors, my character, Leper was a wild, swaggering character totally unlike me, it was 60-pages of mostly monologues to learn, there'd be audience on all four sides of the stage, it was a direct address play (i.e. no imagined "fourth wall" separating actors from audience), a minimal set, and I'd need a thick modern Dublin accent. And on top of that, no mask to hide behind and give me courage. Or so I thought!

I discovered one of the keys for unlocking the physicality and confidence of the character was finding new kinds of masks. The biggest one was the accent. After honing (or at least approximating to the best of my abilities) the sound of it with the help of some local Dubliners via YouTube, I realized hearing a different sound come out of my mouth was impacting my physicality. The more I practiced it, it gave me a confidence and even swagger with which to confront a new audience every night. With an accent unlike my own, I felt a new permission to be bigger, louder, more sexual, more profane, and more wild. 

Another more subtle mask I employed was the St. Christopher amulet on a necklace that was part of Leper's outfit. It was a cool little accessory but something I would never wear myself, so putting it on felt like slipping into someone else's skin (okay, that sounds a bit gross). When it was on, it gave me the power to say and do things I, Liam, wouldn't dare but I, Leper, definitely would. 

The accent, the amulet, the power posing in my dressing room just before stepping onstage - these were all just tools I used to muster up the courage to do something daunting. I'm well aware it was all a trick I was playing on my own mind. But that's the truth about any mask, even a Capitano with a crazy long nose. The tanned and weirdly-shaped piece of leather you put on your face is just a bit of imaginary armor, a key that can unleash a character a world away from the actor behind the mask. But as I've learned from my adventures in Commedia, Capitano doesn't exist inside the mask. Capitano was inside me all along. (Gross)