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Nathan Thomas

Know Fear/No Fear

I have to admit that I never thought much about fear in my life until Albert Einstein asked me to do so.  Albert Einstein in the form of Albert Brooks in the movie Defending Your Life.  In the film, Brooks’ character reviews his life to determine if he returns to Earth or “moves forward.”  It appears in the film that the major factor preventing moving “forward” is fear. (The love of Meryl Streep’s character helps Brooks’ guy find the courage to move on.  Yes, Meryl is that good!)


One of the things Brooks’ movie did was help me in my life to identify fear in myself and others. 


Stanislavsky famously wrote about fear of the “black hole of the proscenium arch.”  And it is true that even experienced actors like Lord Laurence Olivier, Sir Derek Jacobi, and Sir Ian Holm have been quite candid in speaking of bouts of stage fright.


I work with novice actors often.  Something like this happens regularly:


A scene is done.  It’s quite clear that the novice actors haven’t engaged fully with the given circumstances of the text and/or character.  So, during an opportunity for discussion after the scene I ask questions and direct the actor to textual information to draw their attention and to connect them with the given circumstances and the action of the scene. Having successfully worked with Actor A, a line reading or move is altered.  Actor B, however, responds with the precise same line reading.  The impetus for B’s line has changed, but nothing was changed in the response.


Many aspects of different kinds of training are meant to deal with this fairly typical scenario: Meisner work, improv, etc. etc. etc.


I wonder, though, if the foundation for the problem is fear.  Fear of forgetting the words.  Fear of listening.  Fear of vulnerability in public.  Ultimately, fear of failure.


The paradox, of course, is that fear of failure can be such an impediment that fear prevents success.  Thus, fear of failure self-fulfills itself.


The tough bit for the actor can be to remain strong in the face of fear, to chance failure.  Safety, in one sense, is a false exercise for the making of art.


I hasten to point out that I in no way give support to the awful practice of some teachers, coaches, and directors who feel they have to “break down” the actor.  Abuse is abuse and should not be countenanced.


I speak of the self’s finding the bravery within the self’s heart to open up heart and mind and strive for genuine communion with one’s acting partners.


This is very tough to do.  And it’s not a skill given to everyone.  Circumstances and life can provide ample sustenance for fear.


Over this summer I’ve seen a lot of fear.


I grew up in the central part of the United States – a part of the world that is having to work with  substantial and fundamental change in a not-very-pretty fashion.  And the product is fear. 


What change you ask?  Huge areas of the central U.S.A. are lands of agricultural bounty.  Miles of flat lands filled with vegetation and animals. Gently rolling hills full of corn and wheat.  These are my people.


In the early 18th century, my family came mostly from Germany to Germantown, PA.  They started going to upstate and western PA from there.  They were farmers.  And they kept going west until they ended up in Missouri and Kansas in the late 19th century.  Small towns sprung up throughout the country.  A few churches, a bar, a bank, a grocery store, a general store, and a diner/restaurant.  The schools were strong so the kids would have a better life than the parents.  The banker, the doctor and the lawyer lived in the same town with the plumbers and the car mechanics.  They knew each other from school and church functions.  The banker and the lawyer and the other folks with money in town made sure that the town had some culture since they wanted a pleasant life, too.  And they made sure that it was available to the whole town.  There was a town hall at least where a travelling theatre or opera singer could do a show.


That world is gone.


The small operation farmer is gone.  Oh, there’s a small coterie of hipsters trying to make a go of it with sustainable, organic agriculture.  But that’s very hard.  Most of the country has been given over to huge corporate farming operations.  The owner of the bank lives in Charlotte, N.C. The owner of the WalMart lives in Arkansas and decisions about the t-shirts they sell are made in New York. The managers that stayed in the town are nice folks, but they don’t have the power or the means to insure the culture of small town life like owners did back in the day.  The kids see no future in these towns, so they leave. 


In our lives we’ve seen a population shift from slightly more than 50% of the people living in incorporated towns of less than 150,000 to now when the majority of the people live in towns with more than 150,000 in the town.


Some people meet this situation with terrible fear about the future. Their personal situation is perilous. The culture they knew is gone. It’s not surprising some folks get whacked out about this.  And, of course, there’s a certain nostalgia for the time when the person was a child. Because in the “good ol’ days” a person was a child, the child didn’t have to worry about paying for housing or making sure food was on the table or that the kids stayed healthy.


Life was not easy for any of the adults in the old days.  The small town doctor didn’t have the necessary equipment to save every problematic birth.  The banker worried through making loans and having enough liquidity on hand to service his customers.  The editor of the newspaper didn’t report on some items as fully as he could have, because he didn’t want to lose what few friends he had.


The fearful, nostalgic person of today doesn’t think of those and a thousand other problems – the racism, the gender inequality, the religious prejudices – because s/he was a kid then.  Life was good in the good old days.


While the fear of such a person might be expected and explicable, it doesn’t make the fear right.  Luckily a lot of people (most people?) meet the future with optimism and hope.  But some people have to dwell in fear, it seems.


I have a small daughter.  When we watch a movie and she gets afraid, she’ll hold my wife’s hand or my hand.  We’ll help her be brave. 


And that’s one of the great achievements of live theatre.  We sit together and share the experience of being human together.  We do something very human. 


It’s like having your Mom hold your hand.  It can help you be brave.  In the audience.  Or as an actor.  The very human-ness of what we do can be enough to say, “You’re not alone.  We understand.  Be brave.”


Be brave.

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia College.
He also writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles,
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©2015 Nathan Thomas
©2015 Publication Scene4 Magazine




September 2015

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