Glossophobia is one of the most common fears amongst humans. For most of us, it eclipses snakes, heights, and for some, even death. I signed up for a weekend workshop on acting and improvisation in the late 1970’s, in an attempt to conquer it in myself. It seemed in my best interest to retain fear of heights and snakes don’t need my affection.
I arrived at the designated classroom a few minutes early and sat with the dozen people who had arrived before me. Ten minutes after the workshop was to have started, we began to question the date, time and location as the instructor, who had billed himself as an accomplished stage and film actor, had not arrived. We confirmed that we were in the right place at the right time and minutes later a disheveled man, perhaps in his mid-60’s burst through the door dressed in grey sweat pants and a dirty t-shirt.
In a thick Cockney accent, liberally seasoned with profanity, he blamed both the traffic and his unreliable car for being late, from what we could understand. With no explanation, he turned and walked back out of the room, leaving all of us stunned. Five minutes passed and we began speculating whether this was part of the workshop and what our reaction was supposed to be. Moments later he re-appeared dressed in a tailored Savile Row suit, highly polished shoes and an ascot, speaking in what I considered a pleasant, highly educated English accent. I’ll call him Arthur.
The workshop was as bizarre as I’d expected. With our mentor’s wild encouragement, we “acted” various roles that were tossed to us by our smartly dressed Director, with an ever changing flow of feelings we were to emote. We worked without a script… “Welcome to the magical world of improv”, he’d told us with a graceful bow and ascot adjustment.
There were a wide variety of scenarios provided to stretch our acting abilities beyond our imaginations, all coloured by the the warm, sickly effects of Glossophobia. I watched with morbid fascination while three strangers were thrown together to do a “scene”. Knowing it was a “scene” we were again reminded to act, just as he had done at the start of the workshop. His Ego was bombastic and we were regalled with numerous stories about his stage and film experience. But then with a clap of his large, ringed hands, we were set adrift in an imaginary lifeboat… six of us.
Two of our boatmates were dead. With a booming handclap and a hearty aaaaaaAAAACTION!!! we were deciding whether cannibalism was OK under the dire circumstances. CLAP!! We’re almost out of food and water. Who wants to volunteer to slip overboard? aaannnnddddaaaAAACTION!! After a few minutes he clapped and stopped our awkward attempts to MAKE IT REAL and USE THE FEELINGS DEEP IN YOUR GUT!!
He asked us to write down three adjectives we would use to describe both of his earlier characters. The Cockney guy got Sloppy, Stupid, Uneducated, Rude and a variety of others, nearly all negative. The Savile Row guy was all thumbs up… Smart, Educated, Polite, even Erudite, according to the bearded math teacher, who was there to become a better teacher for his largely inattentive group of students, we’d learned earlier.
Arthur smiled and reminded us that he wasn’t either of them, nor was he the wildly enthusiastic director we’d been experiencing. They were all characters he was playing. “Not even close to the real me”, he said stroking his trimmed silver goatee. “I was acting then, and I’m acting now. I’m just playing a different part. That’s the way life is….. You probably won’t ever appear in movies or on stage, but you’ll still be acting”. He slowly let his pin stripped jacket slip from his shoulders. “If we interact with other humans, we’ll always be acting a certain way. How we act depends on many factors”.
As he made eye contact with each of us, his rich baritone voice gave an example of the myriad of factors that influence how we act…
“Our moods. Are we happy, angry, afraid, sleepy?”
“Who we’re with… a friend, a group of strangers, our boss, our mother, our dog”. He smiled and made a whimpering sound while engaging me.
His eyes settled on the math teacher. “The setting we’re in at the moment. Perhaps trying to teach a group of disinterested students, having a conversation in the teacher’s lounge, or explaining your frustrations to a spouse. All different characters in different situations.”
“Our level of maturity”, his eyes now burrowing into the face of the petite blond woman who lowered her head and smiled. “If you think I act like an ass now, you should have seen me 30 years ago”, he roared with a voice reminiscent of Lovitz’s Master Thespian.
“You will be very different characters between contacts. Casual contacts will remember you as you were acting at the time, but in reality probably won’t remember you at all. Sorry. Intimate contacts may feel they know you well, but this will only be because you act in a similar way with them and have given your performance repeatedly. We’re always acting and everyone’s perception of us will be different. None of them will be an accurate representation of who we are.”
I’d had no intention of becoming an actor, and had only wanted to minimize any glossophobic fears I’d developed. Instead, I’d had one of the most profound epiphanies of my life. The feeling that my human experience was illusory and disconnected from the complex reality my Mind created, was understood and accepted. It has minimized beliefs that would have otherwise altered my perception of this three dimensional matrix we call the Human Experience.
The hardest part about acting is realizing it doesn’t matter. Jonathan Rhys Meyers
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow,
A poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more:
it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Macbeth (c. 1605), Act V, Scene 5, line 23.
Life’s like a play: it’s not the length, but the excellence of the acting that matters. Lucius Annaeus Seneca
You know the circus performer who spins the plates in the air you know, and he’ll spin six or seven plates in the air? Acting sometimes is kind of that guy spinning all those plates in the air but in your head and in your body. Philip Seymour Hoffman
No one is truly free, they are a slave to wealth, fortune, the law, or other people restraining them from acting according to their will. Euripides
Acting is not that far from mental disease: An actor works on splitting his character into others. It is like a kind of schizophrenia. Vittorio Gassman
Acting is magical. Change your look and your attitude, and you can be anyone. Alicia Witt
Men acquire a particular quality by constantly acting in a particular way. Aristotle