#1373: “Help me with this awkward stage fright.”

Dear Captain Awkward,

I have a performance in two weeks where I have to do a romantic scene with the best friend of one of my ex girlfriends. Usually when I’m on stage I’m cool calm and collective but it’s too awkward between me and her. The two of us are friends but it’s still awkward to sing to each other and dance with one another. I want the show to go perfect because everyone is counting on us. However I can’t get past this wall of awkwardness.  What do I do?

Greetings, I hope we’re getting back to you in time! I asked my spouse, Jeremy, aka Mr. Awkward who is an actor to give you a little pep talk. His words are below:

Hello, I am Mr. Awkward and I have a three decades-long experience in acting in theatre, improv, and acting on camera. Some of that experience is in musical theatre as well. I’ve also dealt with a bit of stage fright in my day. I think that I can help you get past this wall of awkwardness.

I have acted opposite my exes (and their best friends) on a number of occasions. Including in romantic situations. I will not lie to you, it is awkward as hell. But if awkwardness alone could kill, I would have cringed out of my skin long ago. You can make this work. I promise.

So, how will you make it through this performance with all this free-floating awkwardness? The first thing to do, if you are not so far along into rehearsals that it’s impossible, is to ask your director, musical director, and choreographer to give you very specific directions on how to act, sing, and dance this role including how and when you touch the actress opposite you, and then focus on making as precise a performance as possible. I know that it will only make you feel more awkward in the short run to ask for more direction, but these professionals want only to help you give the best performance. Let them help you do just that. Taking any ambiguity away from the performance will only help you get through this.

You say that you are friends with the ex’s best friend, but that it is too awkward between the two of you. How much of this is just your own awkwardness spilling onto the friend? Really examine this and see if it is your own projection or if she is also feeling this awkwardness. If you truly feel that she is in the same awkward boat, then a frank clearing of the air may be warranted, but only if you think that a conversation will improve the situation. I would personally avoid this for fear of adding to the drama, but I am not you and I don’t know the exact dynamic.

Lean into your technique and craft. Think of the years of training that you have and let it guide you. Use every relaxation, movement, and breathing technique at your disposal. Focus on giving a technical performance—this is not the place for The Method, improvisation, or ad-libbing. Focus on precision, not perfection. I know that sounds kind of paradoxical and even corny, but if you just focus on making small parts go well, the whole performance will be great. Go through your scene, line-by-line and beat-by-beat looking for places to anchor your performance to. The hard performances are why we do the training. Let it lift you up.

Lastly I am going to evoke the most shopworn of all cliches in the performing arts:

The show must go on.

Please do not do what I did once when confronted with the prospect of being in a show with an ex girlfriend of very recent vintage—rage quit the show and fuck off to California for a few months. Twenty-plus years later, I truly feel that I had no choice, but I still regret how unprofessional and disrespectful it was to my fellow cast. Even now, thinking about it makes me sick to my stomach. 0 out of 10, would not recommend.

You and your acting partner have committed to this show, and unless you want to carry around shame old enough to vote like I do, you will find the way to make this work. I believe in you and I want you to have a good show. Not because everyone is counting on you, but because you deserve to have a great performance. You are working with so much extra stress and awkwardness, but you will get through this. I want this to be a story that you tell younger actors for years to come about how you were seized by stage fright, but triumphed.

Jennifer/The Captain here: What I would add, as an erstwhile director, is that a little bit of human awkwardness makes romantic & sexy scenes better than they would otherwise be. Most big romantic moments on stage and screen involve first times and realizations about feelings, where it’s compelling precisely because these two characters don’t (usually) have much confidence and experience together, they don’t know for sure how the other person feels, and  — even though the script makes the inevitable happy ending visible from space — the characters don’t know for sure how it’s going to turn out. Unless you’re literally playing Gaston, being completely suave and smooth and sure of yourself is probably going to work against you and the truth of the moment you’re trying to create. So find your light, hit your marks, and use all the adrenaline, uncertainty, nervousness, inside you etc. to make it feel raw and real. That hum of nervous energy you are feeling is most likely going to read to the audience as a different kind of electricity (a good kind!) when you’re actually on stage.

You can do it! Break a leg!

P.S. They cast you for a reason. They cast you for a reason. Your interpretation of this character and these scenes (nervousness and all) is better than some theoretical “ideal.” Use what is yours, including your fears.

P.P.S. A reader wrote in with an important update/correction:

I can’t find a place to comment on this and there is a critical piece missing from the response. I am an actor, director, dramaturg in the US and I am acquainted with the founders of the movement on intimacy for the stage in North America.

It is incredibly important that the two scene partners establish what is and is not acceptable contact between them. This is a basic consent issue that prevents potential sexual harassment issues from arising. In addition, it prevents the awkwardness of the actors from becoming the awkwardness of the characters when they need not—and should not—be identical. The actors are in control of what happens even when the characters are not.
I recommend the following websites for basics on the conversation: idcprofessionals.com and intimacyforstageandscreen.com. There are several other organizations, including in the UK. A Google search should find them. In addition, there is a basic guide developed for a particular theatre that is available online: https://www.adctheatre.com/media/4545/intimacy-direction-guidelines.pdf.
Thank you for your time and work.
Anna Holloway
Making sure that you and your scene partner have consent about any and all touching and stick to the agreed-upon, rehearsed action is extremely important, and not something to improvise or leave to chance. Thank you, Anna.