When I was a child, I had big dreams, much more unrealistic then my current dreams. I wanted to be on SNL, and I wanted to write screenplays and act in the movies I wrote. Even though I had a speech impediment, I was a determined kid, and I still pursued theater (despite some laughing and joking about it). My dramatic flare and natural comedic sensibilities suited me well for it. Although, one teacher, Mrs. Beardsley, expressed complete surprise about my career longings since I was super shy. I had intense social anxiety in high school (after being bullied in middle school and other traumas) so her concern was understandable. I didn’t realize at the time how relevant her concern was.
One way I helped my social anxiety, was from being aloof and unreachable. I kept my head in the clouds, and I preferred being there, and it protected me from rejection. The only time I really came out of my shell, was when I was on stage and then I could transform into anyone I wanted to be.
In college, I had a very short time of majoring in theater– I was going the route to study play writing more closely, but I did take acting classes. I came to them unprepared.
To be blunt, my acting classes scared the shit out of me. It meant getting out of my head and being in the moment. We kept having these acting exercises where we needed to improv scenes around a couple of lines. We would be expected to form relationships and dive into choice making and risk taking in a matter of seconds. Um, what? I did not have super rich relationships in real life, I did not have a lot of life experience, even for my age. I was a good kid, who played by the rules, and avoided most things that would cause me distress or anxiety. I felt like I was an empty vessel, who had nothing to bring to the table.
All of a sudden, acting went from an emotional release to the scariest thing in the world. I ran away from acting. I stopped auditioning. I considered myself a failure anyways in my classes and in my auditions. I was never going to be enough to even co-exist in that world as a playwright, so I switched to being an English major.
I still like to perform. In college, I kept doing sketch comedy. Years later, I started writing performance poetry pieces and would begin to share them– every once in a blue moon– when the opportunity became easier. There were several times where I played with making it a regular thing– but then I would have one big flop of a reading, and then decide to sit back down.
So in early March, I performed a poem in a comedy show. I had to audition for it. The audition was scary for me, because it reminded me of all my failures and everything I have ever done wrong in an audition. For the next 24 hours afterward, I was in high anxiety mode. Obviously, I made the show, but my anxiety about performing skyrocketed. The night of the show, I realized I was thrusted back into the world of actors, and I wanted to run. Leave the building. Get out of Dodge.
Before I got on the stage, I was losing my voice, felt shaky, and felt like I was about to be judged harshly by everyone around me. But I went on, and I did fine. It turned out fine…and it was not the most big deal experience ever. But it busted down a wall I had up. A fresh opportunity was coming. I just had my first session of exposure therapy, and maybe I was ready to try out acting again. No big move to Hollywood dreams, like when I was younger. Just to get involved in community theater, and then maybe find ways to integrate drama into counseling.
But now I am learning to do the work of integrating drama into my counseling modalities, I have to do the good work. I have to face the fears of my past. I have to face failing. I have to become a good and resilient failure. I knew signing up for an improv class would be hard, because I am not always a quick thinker. I am better with rehearsed material. But I did not expect that the college-Janelle anxiety would pay such a strong visit on Sunday. During the class, I felt sluggish to make choices, I felt like my mind was not in it’s sharpest mode. I felt hindered from taking risks. I judged myself so harshly even in a class where we are all leaning, and do not receive a grade.
College anxiety reared its ugly head for such a no big deal class (but it is a big deal because I am pushing back demons). And even though my confidence is stronger now, this push has all the old voices speaking back out. I am well aware I am a much more emotionally and relationally engaged person than I was 13 years ago. Not only from growing up. But I mean, I am a freaking counselor now. I definitely do not spend my whole life in the clouds. But despite knowing my assets and changes, the old fears still prevailed. I left class a nervous wreck, but I was still glad to name that to friends afterwards.
So what is this good work I am talking about? To live in the moment. To be present. To truly and fully listen. To make strong choices, to act, to take risks.
This sounds exactly like therapy. Except, it’s lived out. It’s embodied. It’s why I feel this strong connection between drama and therapy. But when I feel so paralyzed by anxiety, it’s hard to move out of it to do this good work.
I went to see Jenna Fischer speak tonight with some friends. She wrote a book about acting, to be a practical guide and encouragement to would-be actors. And even though I have no professional aspirations to be an actor at this point, everything she expressed I so deeply connected to. I kept thinking to myself, how did this woman with high social anxiety stick to acting for 8 years despite all the failures and let downs? She was doing the good work, and she kept moving through her anxiety and not let it hold her back from being her authentic self.
I don’t really expect to go to a celebrity talk and be changed by it, but I made some really powerful connections to myself this evening. I am learning that the things that I considered faults from ever pursuing a career, were not indeed faults. That, yes, real actors have these hardships. I also face hardships in the road of being licensed as a therapist. It is simply not easy to do. I have to be truly be brave to pursue my dreams in this career, and not let my failures hold me back.
As someone who also wants to be published one day as a writer, I just need to sometime put words on a page, even if it is a shitty draft. I can’t expect everything I do to be golden right away. I have to keep on, fail, keep on, keep on, fail, fail, fail, and keep on. This is the hard and glorious work of creativity and living out a fuller humanity.
I also think about bravery. Bravery does notinclude the absence of fear. Bravery involves being afraid, and taking a risk anyway.
So thank you, Jenna Fischer. Your story makes a difference to me. It is a valuable lesson for my improv classes and my personhood. And maybe some day, I will audition for a play again, thanks to you and your story.
Janelle Esposito, i am a work in progress
i am a nomad
i am a child of God