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Transforming The Actor’s Nightmare

The Shift From Anxiety to Calm On And Off Stage

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Photo by Julia Bordenaro

The actor’s nightmare is not just a short comic play written by Christopher Durang. It is a recurring phenomenon that reflects the anxieties of being on stage with a live audience and not remembering your lines, or even having a rehearsal. 
My version rotates between an actor’s and a musician’s nightmare. Usually, there is an enthusiastic packed house waiting for the show to start. Behind the curtain, I am ready to go, but there are major technical difficulties, or a vital prop is missing, or one of the musicians is not ready/hasn’t arrived. The sinking feeling sets in that we will not be going on at all.  In truth, these scenarios have occurred in some fashion over the years.  More than once, in my former slam-swing band, Comfy Chair, a drummer didn’t show up for gigs in which there were packed houses waiting for us to go on. In one of these instances, another drummer sat in with us and the resulting train wreck has haunted me ever since. Certainly, this year has presented various technical difficulties online that have postponed the beginning of a broadcast. 
Comfy Chair- Photo by Dana Davis
So, these dreams could be explained away, yet I decided to consult my inner therapist. I approached this reoccurring phenomenon from the perspective of Dr. Carl Jung, the father of analytical psychology. From what I understand, Dr. Jung felt that it is valuable to look at everyone in our dreams as ourselves. I figured I could afford to take a half an hour on the old proverbial couch.  So, analyzing these dreams, I considered that perhaps there is a part of me that is still holding myself back, or is not fully prepared to face the larger audience. 

I have felt an ambitious drive to be an acclaimed performer since I was young. I was reared with Broadway albums on constant rotation in my house. I performed for audiences large and small in theater productions, one-man shows, and concerts. My drive used to be for notoriety, whatever that meant.  It wasn’t until I decided that I could use my talents to be of service that I gained a modicum of peace.

My friend George D. says there are two kinds of music. In the first kind, the artist is saying, “Here is something that has inspired me that I want to share with you.” In the second, the artist is saying, “Look at me, look at me!”

This, of course can apply to not only every creative action, but every interaction. On the surface, not everything seems to be inspiring and worth sharing, but curiosity, consideration, and service are powerful sources of inspiration.

My uncle Jeff’s headshot from his acting days greets me daily from a cabinet door in our kitchen. I reflected recently on how he had carefully cultivated being comfortable in his genuine self for many years. I would often become aware, when we were together, that I was struggling and reluctant to be my genuine self. Still, I was always truly delighted in his presence.

During his last performance, (He was portraying Fagin in Oliver), he said that he realized the key was to allow the performance to flow through him, rather than feeling that he had to carry it alone. 

Although he was dying of cancer, he would go back stage, between scenes, spent and exhausted and ask for the energy to flow through him for the audience. What we received from his performance went beyond the character. He transformed the villain into a mirror and an invitation to playfully consider our motivation in life. He asserted, with marked emphasis afterwards, that it was a privilege to tread the boards.  That is, to perform is not just vanity or a job, but a sacred form of service. 
Jeff Abbot as Fagin from Oliver
Since I started playing music with Julia, my former ambition for acclaim became tempered with the privilege of treading the boards. The music we play has become, albeit slowly, not about me, but what lies between us. It is the harmony-driven aspect of the music that has allowed for a success that I couldn’t see before. 

Robert A. Johnson, a Jungian analyst and author, talks about a concept that really struck a chord with me in regards to this shift. It is called “3 into 4” and addresses the shift from anxious striving into allowing ourselves to experience a spacious wholeness, so that we can be a conduit for inspiration. 

In his words, “Three is the symbol for urgency, incompleteness, restlessness, striving accomplishment. Four is the language of the collective unconscious for peace, wholeness.”
Really, what I think “3 into 4” means for us individually and for our society is to stop leading from our “testosterone fueled-have to dominate” mind-set and incorporate more of our innate feminine perspective. Expand out past our drive to take as much as we can without giving anything back, so we can inhabit our world and our lives in an organic way.

If I look at this from a global perspective, this notion of “3 into 4,” speaks to my belief that we have been in overdrive as a species for a long time. The urgent restlessness described above can be applied to humanity’s natural desire for progress, which can resist change and become driven by fear and an intense feeling of separation. I believe our grasping for power is a byproduct of a patriarchal structure that is trying to hold on to its power by any means necessary, while humanity is unconsciously crying out for greater balance. 

Photo by Henrikke Due on Unsplash

This pandemic has allowed us, really forced us, to slow down and consider the larger picture of our lives. Certainly there has been push back, as some in power do their best to keep things status quo, but many are breathing into a more inclusive, collaborative approach that sees real power as a something that we gain in our connection with one another and all of life.


Photo by Faye Cornish courtesy of Unsplash

“It seems that it is the purpose of evolution now to replace an image of perfection with the concept of completeness or wholeness. Perfection suggests some thing all pure, with no blemishes, dark spots were questionable areas. Wholeness includes the darkness but combines it with the light elements into a totality more real and whole than any ideal.” -Robert A. Johnson

Allowing ourselves the relief of expanding our definition of success to reach out past the confines of personal interest and ridged beliefs, we may begin to accept ourselves including all of our faults and shortcomings. With enough room around our hearts, we might even start to see one another clearly and be willing to be a conduit for something really worthy of sharing.
The last time I had the musician’s/actor’s nightmare, there was a twist. I was in charge of putting on a play/concert at a college and I was racing to get everything set including the seating arrangement.

Someone gave me a ride to get essentials.

But, this time, instead of the usual packed house waiting for the performance to start, the audience hadn’t arrived yet.
Instead of my usual panic, I was trusting this woman who was helping me. I felt we were partners. When I woke up I had the overwhelming conviction that this woman had been the personification of contentment. That was a strange thought, especially since I usually have forgotten the details of my dreams by the time I reach for my robe.
Arranging the play/concert in my dream with contentment, things were working out; even though the task seemed impossible.  The shift was that I was not anxiously striving under the gun, but was acting from a sense of peace and being alright with the process. 
Regardless of its true significance, what I am choosing to take away from this last dream is the image of partnering with contentment. While I have not “arrived” at the place where I am fully free of my personal ambitions and anxieties, I want to proceed with a reminder that I can drive along with a greater sense of calm. May the 3 of our restless, striving accomplishments, roll into the peace and wholeness of 4.
However we are privileged to tread the boards of life, here’s to sharing the stage with contentment. 
Ira and Julia- The Levins- Amy Rose Photography

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