The undervalued, overlooked influence of a brilliant mentor

I’ve been doing theater for 20 years. That sounds impressive, but it’s not. I don’t do it professionally – never have – and there were a few years in there that I hardly did anything. So, 20 years, on and off. I didn’t go to school for theater, as in, I don’t have a degree in that discipline. I learned from observing, reading, and from doing it.

My interest in theater goes all the way back to early high school, when most people discover the stage for the first time in the form of a high school musical (Little Shop of Horrors, in my case. I played the dentist, Orin). The reason that I continue to do it now is because of the motivation, knowledge, and inspiration that I received from my high school play director. Who, like all good teachers (in my opinion), continue to mentor and inspire long after graduation. My mentor/teacher, Sal, passed away in 2013. Strangely enough, he died the same day that one of my shows closed. A passing of the torch, maybe? I’m probably just reading too much into this. Second to my parents, he’s most responsible for helping to shape who I am.

He had a teaching career that lasted decades. I don’t know the exact number of years. He was well known – some may say infamous – within the school and throughout the community. I’m certain there are a few of his former students that grit their teeth at the mere mention of his name. This was his reputation, and that reputation was what I was expecting to meet upon starting high school in 1995. Sal taught Global Studies, a social studies class that explored the world and its people. As a 13 year old, I was convinced this guy knew everything. I’m still convinced he knew everything; he was a walking almanac and depository of theatrical knowledge and history. But, his reputation certainly preceded him, and for a kid like me – short, skinny, shy – having a guy like Sal was scary.

As a teacher, Sal had a rough exterior. He was an intense man. You didn’t mess with him. He had a huge personality, but one of his easiest lessons was learning that his compassion matched. He was intense because he cared. There’s no question I learned a lot about the world from his Global Studies class – most of the information I’ve retained, believe it or not, despite a poor grade on the final – but there was little in that curriculum that taught me how to be a part of the world and engage life (I don’t think the curriculum has changed much to that effect).

However, his greatest lesson came when he stuck me in the middle of an empty stage and shined a spotlight in my face.

In November of 1995, I approached him about wanting to be a part of that year’s show. I had seen the high school’s play the year before and felt inspired to be a part of something like that. I can’t explain exactly how I felt, or knew, but I just did. I asked about stage crew, run crew, and stage managing. Not acting. Following an informational meeting, he asked me to stay late with the guy who was cast as Seymour (the lead). He stuck a script in my hand and say “go”. I had no idea what I was doing. My “audition” was awkward and lacking any and all knowledge of how to create a character. To top it off, every other member of the cast and crew was standing outside the room listening. I found out afterward that some of these people were making comments about how I wouldn’t be able to handle the part. Of course, this is hearsay, but it motivated me nonetheless. Somehow, I got the part. I still don’t know how. Somehow, he saw something in me that I didn’t see. His talent was seeing talent. And it was at that point that I reluctantly agreed to appear on stage in Little Shop of Horrors. 

As I said earlier, I had no idea what I was doing. Acting was something totally foreign to me, though it felt natural. I was always a creative kid, and I enjoyed playing different characters around my house. Anytime we had company over, I would put on shows: magic shows, musical performances – even scene by scene recaps of famous movies (famous to an 8 year old) in which I played all of the characters. Even with babysitters I can remember using my entire house as the stage for The Wizard of Oz. I would assign parts to everyone, including myself, and “direct” the action. And believe it or not, this is the first time that I’ve ever made that connection.

It took a guy like Sal to see that I had it in me and take the chance to hone my talent into something that could be used in an actual play. Until that point, I was just a shy kid with an imagination. Shy being the key word. No one thought I’d be able to transform from that person into a sadomasochistic, drug-addicted, chauvinistic dentist. I was my biggest critic. He was my biggest advocate.

Fast forward. No need to get into the details about how it felt, because anyone reading this knows that feeling. We’ve all been there: the coughing of the crowd, the adrenaline rush, the spotlight hitting you for the first time, ever. Either it makes you or breaks you.

Following that show, I realized a few things: suddenly, I wasn’t as shy anymore. In fact, I bordered on arrogant (talk about zero to sixty). I had a new group of friends. And, most importantly, I had a new way to express myself. Theater became less of a new school activity, and more of a craft. I began to see it as something worth studying. I wanted to get better and challenge myself. It was less about the school and social aspect, and more about the art. The stage and the audience were all that mattered for the next 3 years of high school. My grades may have suffered a bit. But, my true education happened on that stage. Without the experience of standing in a spotlight, exposed, with nowhere to hide, I’d still be that shy kid who never had the foresight to realize his own potential. As a teacher and director, Sal taught me self-confidence. He taught me the value of self-expression. He taught me public speaking. He correlated theater to life, and through theater and his direction, I learned how to live in the real world while playing in the fantasy world of the stage. Without real life, there is no theater. I learned the true value of art at a young age.

Any performer that I’ve helped in the past and every performer I help in the future owes Sal a thank you. Without his help, I wouldn’t be able to help them.

And with that, his legacy lives on.



Tips to help overcome stage fright

Going on stage can be terrifying, and this apprehension isn’t reserved for first timers. Acting and public speaking are very similar, in that there is a group of people watching you and reacting to what you say and do. While I do have public speaking experience (in that I’ve spoken in public before – so I guess that counts) performance is really what we’re going to focus on here (although the skills are transferable and a great reason to take a theater class).

It’s important to remember how powerful the stage is – it can (literally) make or break a person. I was inspired to write this piece because of a recent situation. A couple of months ago I was doing a show, and a young actress was to perform a monologue – this would be the first time she ever performed on stage. She was nervous when she went on, blanked on a line, didn’t know how to recover, cursed, panicked, and ran off stage. She collapsed in a corner and didn’t move for 20 minutes.

It was a horrible experience. I didn’t see her for 4 days, by which time she had recovered (as best she could, I suppose).

I realized that part of the problem rested with me – I hadn’t prepared her properly. Not only was she unprepared to go on stage, but she also didn’t know how to recognize the signs of stage fright, cope with them, or recover if something were to happen while performing. All of these factors added far too many variables and certainly worked against her having a relaxed, successful performance.

Similarly, another young actress, in an audition, was so terrified that every time she went to open her mouth she broke down and cried. We were there for an hour. She wanted to audition, she wanted to do the show, but the fear of even auditioning for less than a minute completely crippled her. I tried my best to talk to her and calm her down, but that level of stage fright is something that is beyond my knowledge. Never had I seen something this serious before (update: she eventually coped with her anxiety and successfully auditioned).

So, inspired by these incidents, I decided to do some research and read up on stage fright. I’m still learning, so I certainly don’t have all the answers (and won’t pretend that I do). I decided to use this post as a source of information, and the following links lead to resources that I’ve found helpful. For additional help, I’ve summarized some points below and added a few of my own observations and strategies that have worked for me that have more of a theater angle.

Here are the sources:

Why do people get stage fright?

For plenty of reasons. For actors, perhaps the biggest fear is blanking. That is, forgetting a line or where to move and not being able to recover. There is probably nothing more terrifying than going on stage and not knowing what to say or do. And this is even worse if you knew what to say and do, but forgot.

No one likes to feel like they aren’t in control, and panicking on stage, in front of an audience, creates a vicious circle of anxiety. The fear of this happening is one of major causes of stage fright.

What happens? What are the symptoms?

These fears may materialize themselves in several ways:

  • elevated heartbeat

  • sweating

  • accelerated speech

  • hyperventilation

  • panic attacks

  • loss of muscular control (freezing)

This is the body’s “fight or flight” response, and these physical manifestations enabled our ancestors to run from Woolly Mammoths, velociraptors, and ancient aliens. It either gives us the necessary tools to run far away very quickly, or stand our ground and fight. Our brains and bodies work together, telling us that we’re in a dangerous situation and that we need to prepare for battle.

 How can we cope with it beforehand?

Since theater is hardly a life or death battle (insert your joke here), we need to convince our bodies and minds that we’re in no physical danger, and remove any of the potential stressors that could be causing the anxiety.

The best way to de-stress is to over prepare. Know your lines cold. Nothing adds or detracts from confidence more than preparation. Leaving little doubt to your personal level of preparedness helps you to relax and gives you confidenceboth elements are essential to quick thinking on stage.

If the above isn’t enough, take steps to deal with the stress:

  • Exercise: Work out the extra adrenaline and feel physically and mentally stronger. This includes vocal exercise.
  • Breathing exercises: Breathing properly helps to focus us and get essential oxygen to the brain
  • Arrive early: Give yourself time to get into the mindset of performing. Walk the theater, the stage, and get acquainted with your dressing room. Acclimate yourself into the environment before the craziness begins. A little stress-free quiet at the venue is much, much better than rushing to try and get there on time.
  • Diet: Avoid eating heavy meals on performance days. Stick to protein, keep it light and healthy, and stay hydrated. Being a little hungry is good (but not to the point of light headedness) – it makes sure the blood goes to the head and not to the stomach. Trust me on this one. I’ve seen it proven over and over again.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol: An upper and a downer. Both affect the way we function.
  • Avoid dairy: It creates unpleasant phlegm and can upset your stomach.
  • Focus on your character and performance: Getting into character early, visualizing your performance, and having positive thoughts about the entire experience will help you transition from backstage to onstage smoothly.

How can we recover if something goes wrong on stage?

Improvising: Know all of the subtleties of your character, the other characters, the scene, and the play (this goes back to being prepared and confident). With all of that important information at your disposal, and the confidence that comes with knowing it, you’ll be in a much better place to improvise, should you have to. It’s a powerful tool, but one that should only be implemented as a last resort (i.e., if there’s absolutely no other way to stay on script). That being said, knowing you have the ability to seamlessly – and in character – improvise your way back into the scene is another way to build your confidence (there isn’t enough room in this post to go into how you build that ability – but look into improv if you never have). Another way to look at this is through a simple metaphor: build a bridge. A bridge takes you from where you are to where you have to go. Get to the next part of the scene as quickly, strategically, and logically as possible. This means staying in character, relaxing, and making it look like nothing went wrong. In this moment, knowing your character and the play exceptionally well will be your savior (see the part about “overly preparing” above).

Final words

If you’re struggling with stage fright, or know someone who is, remember that the audience is really on the side of the performer – the audience wants you to succeed and they want to be entertained and moved – so you’re really at an advantage already. You’re there to have a great time on stage and the audience is there to watch you and feel like they are a part of something. That’s really the best part.

Stage fright plagues even the most seasoned performer. If you are having serious anxiety problems, you should probably seek professional help. I am not a doctor. I can’t guarantee that these methods will work for you.

Do you have any other suggestions?