Monday, January 19, 2015


Hey everyone! So, this is a very special blog post.

Recently, a couple people commended me on being a "fearless artist." I was incredibly honored by the complement and also a bit...taken aback? See, I very rarely feel like a fearless artist. Often I feel like a very scared artist who just "sucks it up and does what needs to be done anyway." I guess part of me has always viewed fearlessness onstage as completely following your impulses and never censoring yourself (yet somehow still also being completely aware of the safety of you and your fellow actors and not "crossing a line.") I remember when I was a kid and first doing improv it was drilled into us that we needed to not censor ourselves, but "don't touch, kiss, etc. your scene partner without first working it out ahead of time." I always erred on the side of safety (I mean, of course.) But how were you then supposed to be impulsive and in the moment if you were constantly thinking: "Is this ok? Am I going to offend someone? I don't want to make anyone uncomfortable..."

I've always wished that I could feel as fearless onstage as others seem to be naturally. So I decided to interview five of the most absolutely fearless artists I know. I aspire to be like them. I've also worked with all of them as both a fellow performer, and a writer, and I've found them to be, in addition to truly courageous, some of the most sensitive, giving actors I've ever worked with (I've worked with some truly fearless actors who didn't give a damn about the safety of their fellow performers and were truly terrifying to be in a room with.) Instead of me pontificating on the subject, I thought I'd let you (and me) hear straight from them.

Scroll down to see their interviews. These are truly brave artists in the truest sense of the word. Lauren Lopez and Synge Maher are "legit" actresses who are brilliant at both comedy and drama. Lauren's ability to truthfully disappear into even the most outrageous characters is unparalleled (as her numerous fans can attest,) and Synge (though she performs many different types of characters with incredible honesty and craft,) is the best female villain I've ever seen onstage. Ada Westfall (who often performs as her alter ego Minq Vaadka,) is a performance artist at ease in everything from musical theater to punk rock cabaret - and from what I've seen, Minq truly has no inhibitions. Shereen Hickman is a phenomenal comic performer who has starred in multiple shows with Cirque du Soleil (she's currently on tour with Amaluna.) And her fearlessness comes, most often, without the help of a script. Martin Landry is a brilliant performer, and composer/lyricist who, especially in much of his writing, truly walks the comic line in the best and most daring sense of the word.

Looking over all the responses, two things stick out in my mind. The first is that we should collectively replace the term "fearless artist" with "brave artist." It seems EVERYONE just has to "suck it up and do what needs to be done anyway." Also everyones fears seem to come from a different place. Some of my deepest artistic fears were never mentioned by any of the interviewees. And some that terrify them don't personally cause me much concern.

I hope you enjoy the responses of these brilliant artists as much as I do.

And THANK YOU Lauren, Shereen, Adam, Martin and Synge. You inspire me. 

                                                                         Lauren Lopez
Lauren is an actress, singer, dancer, and writer who was born and raised in the suburbs of Michigan. She attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she studied acting in the Department of Theatre and Drama. Lauren graduated in 2009 and immediately moved to NYC where she had a great year of acting, working with kids, and honing her cockroach-eliminating skills. In October 2010, Lauren moved to Chicago, IL to work with her artistic family, StarKid Productions. As a member and company manager of Team StarKid, Lauren has spent the majority of her time in Chicago working on their latest original musical, Starship, while auditioning and performing on the side. Lauren is passionate about empowering young people to realize their own potential, especially in the arts. Lauren is also a lover of prancing and all things unicorn-related. Her favorite color is sparkle.

As herself....
And as Draco Malfoy in A Very Potter Musical
How would you define fearlessness onstage/in the theater?
I think it's different for everyone, but I think in a general sense it means being able to trust yourself and your scene partner(s) with each moment and be open enough to roll with the punches while still focusing on each moment. I think that "fearlessness" can be misconstrued as recklessness, though, so I like to think of it as "trusting" and "trustworthy", as this puts more emphasis on how you treat your scene partners.

Do you consider yourself a fearless artist? 
Why? Haha well, I will admit that before my first entrance into every show I've done, I have a moment in the wings where I think "I should just bolt outta here, change my name, and live a different life" but once I step on stage I relax. I consider myself always striving for honesty--this usually means letting go of fear and judgement and being present in each moment, so a lack of fear definitely plays into that.

Why do you think others consider you a fearless artist? 
Do people consider me a fearless artist?! I'm not sure! 

What allows you to be fearless? 
I think it depends a lot on the environment and the people I'm working with. More often than not, the amount of fear an actor has is directly related to the environment set up by the director and other actors in the rehearsal room. I've been in rehearsals where I'm paralyzed because there has been an environment set up that is not conducive to play, trust and experimentation. Needless to say, those are the saddest rehearsals.

What's the bravest thing you've ever done onstage?
In the theater in general? I don't know that anything I've done is "brave"...I think I save that word for people like firefighters. However, I do think it takes courage to make yourself vulnerable in any situation, including acting. I think the constant striving toward emotional intimacy and truth with another person is courageous for an actor.

Was there ever something that kept you from being fearless on stage?
Yes, I've had to perform with actors who were not present (and didn’t care to be) with the people they were sharing scenes with. This makes you feel very disconnected and therefore unsafe with another performer.

How do you define the line between being a fearless, in the moment artist, and reckless, or dangerous ? How do you walk that line? 
Oooo I didn't even know this question was coming up when I mentioned this in the earlier question, so I might be a little redundant! I think being reckless and dangerous comes from a place of selfishness and a disregard for your fellow actors (do I sound like a broken record yet? I clearly feel very strongly about this). Fearlessness should come from a place of actors having each other’s backs and supporting each other through their choices; being with them each step of the way. The danger comes in when an actor disregards that responsibility and goes rogue in a moment, leaving the others to fend for themselves/clean up after them.

Do you have a personal boundary of lines you won't cross as an artist? 
Basically just physical stuff. I am very cautious about doing anything physically with/to another actor that hasn't already been agreed upon. Not just for physical safety but because this can set up a feeling of distrust between you, which will no doubt hinder your performance and experience.

Do you ever get scared or uncomfortable onstage? How do you react to/deal with it?
I've definitely been uncomfortable! I think every actor has; learning to work through that discomfort will make you a better performer. I always try to work through those moments in the most logical way that I can in hopes to do my part to keep the story going.

                                                                Shereen Hickman
Shereen Hickman is a world renown comic performer, most well known as a principal performer with Cirque du Soleil. With Cirque, Shereen has starred as Ginger in Zumanity, Margaret in Banana Shpeel (a role which she created,) and is currently on tour playing Deeda in Amaluna. Shereen created the role of Libby in Parallel Exit's I <3 Bob, and has appeared in The Trip To Bountiful, A Christmas Carol, Harvey, Alice in Wonderland, and The Imaginary Invalid among others. Film and TV highlights include: A Clean, Well Lighted Place, Kitchen, and Revenge
As herself

                                   And as Margaret in Cirque du Soleil's Banana Shpeel

How would you define fearlessness onstage/in the theater?
By being generous and utterly truthful, even when it hurts emotionally. It is the fearless vulnerability that allows those watching to hopefully relate and come along on the journey.

How is theatrical fearlessness different as an actor, director and creator?

As an actor - I hope I don't screw it up
As a director- I hope they don't screw it up
As a creator- I hope I'm not screwed up

Do you consider yourself a fearless artist? Why? 
Anyone who puts themselves out there for criticism, be it on stage, on screen, on paper, on canvas or some other public venue in an attempt to reach many people, cannot afford to care what others think. 

Why do you think others consider you a fearless artist?
Because they see me Go For It, they see that in spite of certain show conditions, bad material, bad management, aches and pains or unreliable partners, I still try and give my all. Its not the audiences fault and they deserve my best.

What allows you to be fearless?
A tapestry of patience, practice, excitement, acceptance and truth

What's the bravest thing you've ever done onstage? In the theater in general?
Chosen it as a career...

Was there ever something that kept you from being fearless on stage?
Yes, an inability to trust those I was working with. A little flutter in my stomach that said " if you throw it out there, *bleep* will not catch it."

How do you define the line between being a fearless, in the moment artist, and reckless, or dangerous? How do you walk that line? 
Fearless can turn to stupid if one is not paying attention. Arrogance can get you hurt. Listen! To your gut, to the crowd, to others around you. Learn to gage. 

Do you have a personal boundary of lines you won't cross as an artist?
Nothing for the sake of raunchy gratuitous sexual behavior. Nothing that harms either myself or someone else.

Do you ever get scared or uncomfortable onstage? How do you react to/deal with it?
Run off screaming like a Drag Queen who lost her wig or just pause for a moment, assess, breathe, identify trigger and continue.

                                                                   Martin Landry
Martin Landry is a NYC based actor/musician/writer. New York credits include Till Divorce Do Us Part (DR2 Theatre,) It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play (Harbor Lights Theatre Company,) Son of a Gun (Theatre Row,) Dear Edwina (DR2 Theatre,) Brunch - The Musical (ATA - Chernuchin,) and The Ohmies (Peter Jay Sharp Theatre.) He also appeared in the world premier of Of Mice and Manhattan at the Kennedy Center, debuting previously unheard Frank Loesser songs. As a composer/lyricist, his full-length musical Esther (co-written with his wife, Janice) has been produced over 40 times in five countries. As a musician/music director, he has worked Off-Broadway and regionally, most recently as Associate Music Director for Grease at Paper Mill Playhouse.

As himself....
And in Brunch: The Musical
How would you define fearlessness onstage/in the theater?
First off, all of these wonderful questions are ultimately subjective, so I'm sure some will disagree with my answers. However, I'm going to be fearless (HAR!) and answer them the best I can! Fearlessness onstage happens when you let go of the idea that your self-worth is tied up in your performance or what the audience thinks of you, and you commit to telling the story. it doesn't mean what you do is perfect, but the fear that comes from "how-do-I-look-what-do-they-think" isn't there. It's a complete banishment of self-awareness.

How is theatrical fearlessness different as an actor, director and creator?
If we're continuing with my previous definition of fearlessness, it can look like a million different things, but the same basic qualities will apply to all three of those areas; you're not afraid to try something new and crazy, but you're also not afraid to take a note, change your vision, and accept criticism. You know whether you succeed or fail doesn't change your worth as a person. 

Do you consider yourself a fearless artist? Why?
More and more, yes. Especially if I'm working with a director/other artists that I trust. In rehearsals, I've found that the rewards of making bold and (sometimes) crazy choices are enormous if they end up being successful and met with enthusiasm. They make the show more exciting, and it inspires your fellow artists to take risks as well. If my bold and crazy choices wind up being utterly wrong, I find that the fears that may arise (fear of rejection, fear of mockery, etc.) are rarely justified. Why be fearful when the rewards outweigh the risks??

Why do you think others consider you a fearless artist?
I honestly don't know if anyone gives it much thought! However, although I'm nowhere NEAR famous, I do work consistently, and the people who've hired me multiple times are the ones who know I'm willing to make a fool of myself in an effort to make a play/musical the best it can be.

What allows you to be fearless?
Well, THAT'S a can o' worms if ever there was one, and I imagine most people won't necessarily go for my answer...In short, although I'm very passionate about acting and doing the best work I'm capable of doing, I don't define myself by my career. David Foster Wallace gave a commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005 (I recommend googling it,) and while it's kinda "out there," at one point he talks about how everyone worships SOMEthing. It's our default setting. There's a lot of heady tuff in there about how worshiping anything outside of a deity will eat you alive, but I find it to be true. "If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you should have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you." Or, "Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out." Apologies for the lengthy nature of this answer, but I think this is rather important. If your career is of ultimate importance, how can you "take risks" and live with even sporadic failure? It will crush you. I HAVE to end this eternal response, so I'll finish by recommending the book "Counterfeit Gods" by Timothy Keller to all artists (Side note from Ashley: This is the book that largely inspired the creation of "Forever Deadward.") It deals with all that stuff. Look it up! 

Was there ever something that kept you from being fearless on stage?
It's difficult to be fearless when working with people you don't trust. If you're working with a power-hungry director who uses mockery and condescension when giving notes in front of a company, or a fellow actor who enjoys gossiping about people more then they enjoy working on the show...maybe I like being liked too much, but it's difficult to take risks if you feel like a crucifixion is always waiting around the corner.

How do you define the line between being a fearless, in the moment artist, and reckless, or dangerous? How do you walk that line?
When there's even a SLIGHT chance your choices may affect the safety of yourself or someone else, you have to proceed with extreme caution. I talk a lot about trust, and for good reason; if, in your quest to be fearless, you're inspiring fear in everyone else, you've crossed a line!

                                                                   Synge Maher 
Synge is an acclaimed actor and director who has worked professionally in NYC and regionally for almost 20 years. As an actor, both her dramatic and comedic skills have garnered critical praise and her versatility and courage in attacking roles broad and subtle make her a director's actor. As a director, Synge has enjoyed directing farce to high drama to classics, she uses her extensive training, experience and love of storytelling to help actors create their best work,honor the playwrights' story and advocate for a wonderful experience for every audience. Synge also uses those skills as a graduate school audition coach, with her students now attending MFA programs coast to coast. In addition, Synge is Founder and Artistic Director of

As herself
And in The Hothouse

How would you define fearlessness onstage/in the theater? 
I suppose when consequences of one's actions or performance don't matter, or at least are not of the actor's concern. But I think there is a marked difference between fearlessness and courage. Fearlessness is just that- without fear. 

How is theatrical fearlessness different as an actor and a director?
The duties and scope of those roles are so incredibly different. I am not generally fearful as a director, in fact I don't think of that at all. I want to serve the story and be the very best advocate for the audience that I can. I don't find that fear factors into that process because of where my focus is with the work. Similarly, if I can remove myself, my ego, from my work as an actor, I will almost certainly deliver a truer performance that honors the words, the other humans on stage and the people that want to hear that story.

Do you consider yourself a fearless artist? Why?
Nope. I have fears. I have doubts. I work very hard to make me into what's needed for the role. Sometimes that process is terrifying. I just do it anyway. 

What allows you to be fearless?
Semantics, but, what allows me to have courage on stage is the trust in my own work made with the ensemble and the careful eye of the director. 

What's the bravest thing you've ever done onstage? In the theater in general?
This is so dumb, but it's public speaking. I am terrified of it! being myself on stage is really scary.

Was there ever something that kept you from being fearless on stage?
I think self-consciousness is the death of creativity. I suppose what feel like my biggest failures on stage have been when I have been too self conscious to get out of my own way.

How do you define the line between being a fearless, in the moment artist, and reckless, or dangerous ? How do you walk that line? 
I suppose this is about taking big risks without being a jerk. I hope I can do that. Of course safety is first, but that of course extends way beyond just the physical body. I am incredibly sensitive about abusive emotional practices in acting.And the thing is, it doesn't have to be so hard. I like to take big risks, because there is a greater reward, but not to the detriment of the story, the other actors or the audience. yes! Acting feels good, but it's not about you. You serve as a vehicle. 

Do you have a personal boundary of lines you won't cross as an artist?
Yeah. I will not kiss someone with herpes.

Do you ever get scared or uncomfortable onstage? How do you react to/deal with it?  
Yes I do. Often actually. I try to breathe into the experience and if I am really nervous I put LASER focus onto my scene partner. That connection of one human to another is real, the sense of fear as a result of some adrenaline dump is not. 

Why do you think others see you as a fearless/courageous actor? 
I wasn't aware that people did! But I think likely because of bigger risk-taking and possibly because of the amount of comedy I do. I have always thought that comedy is ugly, or that situations and characterizations in comedy can be unflattering to a female performer. If you're going to do it right, you might have to be "ugly" and I don't mind that one bit.

What do you consider the difference between being fearless and being courageous? 
Fearless is the absence of fear, whereas courageous is being scared and doing it anyway. Sometimes I do that to myself on purpose. Often on my first entrance to the stage I enter a fraction of a second before I am "ready" psychologically. I sort of force myself out there to just do my work instead of focusing on me as the performer.

A general question filtered through a specific one: I remember in "Peter Pan" you had to utter the truly awful phrase will be "a Holocaust of children" with absolute delight and glee. How are you able to commit to difficult moments like that, get out of your own way, as it were, in order to be truthful as the character? 
I did a fair amount on research on Hook and I think he felt terribly bullied by children in his experience, he likely had a rotten childhood and Pan, to him, is a jerk! So I never felt uncomfortable, I was just speaking his truth. Also, I am NOT method, so I didn't actually have to hate children to say that line, I just had know that there would be a massive relief for this man if children were gone from his life.*
*I have played several male characters, but this Hook was played as a woman. To be fair, I learned fairly early in my career, that it's not any different in terms of character development. Just different information on which to make choices.

                                                                     Ada Westfall 
ADA WESTFALL is a 2010 Drama Desk Award-nominated composer and musician for Outstanding Music in a Play in NAATCO's A Play On War (Connelly Theater), a two-time winner of the Blank Theatre's Young Playwrights Festival(2003 & 2004) and a member of the American Federation of Musicians (Local 802). Westfall received her BFA in Theater from NYU and has been commissioned by both NYU and NYU Abu Dhabi as a composer and teaching artist for their main stage productions. She has also composed for Brooklyn-based Built for Collapse and New York/Abu Dhabi-based Theater Mitu, with whom he participated in a developmental residency at Robert Wilson's Watermill Center and was an associate artist for eight years, traveling with them internationally to generate and perform new works, facilitate training and research, and engage with communities in an effort to transliterate ritual and performative traditions. In his time with Theater Mitu, she met collaborator Jenny Waxman, with whom she helped create two Mitu shows (A Dream Play & Juárez: A Documentary Mythology) and, outside of Mitu, co-wrote two new works: a one-act, Inhale, and a full-length musical, Leaving Eden, which had its first major developmental workshop and concert reading in Hamilton, Canada in August 2014. As his punk-burlesque persona Minq Vaadka, she has independently released three albums, played many NYC venues including Joe’s Pub and Mercury Lounge, and wrote and starred in Minq Vaadka’s Narcischism: Un Cabaret d’Adieu (Robert Moss Theater). An accomplished performer as well, she was most recently seen in Michael Kimmel and Lauren Pritchard’s Songbird (Joe’s Pub, 54 Below) and Kimmel’s The Last Goodbye (The Old Globe), directed by Alex Timbers. Additional credits include The Apostle Project (New York Theatre Workshop), Hamlet (Galapagos Art Space), Wyoming and Parts of Kansas (Barrow Street Theatre), Pageant (Stoneham Theatre), One Night Stand: An Improvised Musical (Edinburgh Festival Fringe), Nuclear Love Affair (Prague Fringe Festival), Juárez: A Documentary Mythology (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater), A Dream Play (Abu Dhabi, UAE) and DR.C (or How I Learned to Act in Eight Steps) (3LD Art & Technology Center).
As herself...

And her alter ego Minq Vaadka
How would you define fearlessness onstage/in the theater?
I hate to say it, but I’ve immediately got a semantic objection. I think by “fearlessness,” you mean “fortitude.” I don’t believe in fearlessness. I don’t believe there is anyone who is able to quit the experience of fear: fear of embarrassment, fear of reprisal, fear of death, fear of something. Fortitude is acting in spite of fear, pain, doubt, adversity, etc. Call it what you like. Pluck. Mettle. Grit. Guts.
Rubén Polendo, a great teacher, director, and mentor of mine for many years, does this really simple and elegant illustration of what fortitude means in the pursuit of art. He’ll say to his congregated students something like (NB: these aren’t the questions he uses; I’m totally making these up), “I’m taking a survey. Who here can play the piano?” and all the kids who feel comfortable with their musical training will raise their hands. “Okay, who can speak French?” Different hands; less, but confident. “Great. Who can juggle?” Probably one excited hand in a sea of averted eyes. “Ah, but who can say the Periodic Table backwards in Cantonese?” Obviously, nobody budges. Coughs. Shuffling feet. “All of your hands should be in the air,” he will reply incredulously, “why aren’t all of your hands in the air? They should be raised for every question I ask.” This is because in art (especially theater), we’re not performing delicate brain surgery and we’re not conducting geopolitical summits (tell that to Seth Rogen & James Franco). No one dies because of our actions (usually; talk to the staff at Charlie Hebdo). We do our work, instead, on the planes of imagination, fiction, misdirection, coincidence and possibility. 

Possibility: that’s our medium. We in the theater paint with possibility. When Rubén Polendo asks an actor (or a designer, or a director, or a writer, or a musician), “can you play the piano?” the answer is always “yes.” Nothing is stopping you from generating some kind of tune with the available ebony and ivory. Choose some keys and press them down. Who knows what we’ll discover once you do? “Can you speak French?” “Yes.” Make it up. Purse your lips. Form syllables with your mouth. Nobody knows who or what it might inform. What dots can be connected in some aspect of the work by some talented gibberish? Juggling? Yes. Periodic tables? Yes. Transubstantiation? Yes, yes, yes. The more impossible the task — the greater the gap between the imagined goal and an artist’s ability to realize it, the more potential there is for something interesting and unexpected to manifest when the artist attempts to bridge that gap. Possibility is paint. The unexpected is a brush stroke. Rubén often asks his students and collaborators to “remain in the attempt.” Therein lies conflict, tension, a story, a soul.

Fortitude in the theater is being willing to unshackle oneself from the chains of the everyday, the rules of polite society. This is inherently scary and uncomfortable. To counteract this, improv troupes use a phrase (a mantra, really) that I think is beautiful and perfect, though folks often make fun of it these days. It goes: “yes, and…” That is to say: accept the impossible as truth and add to that truth. If we don’t ask the impossible of ourselves, then we are not stretching the (highly malleable, nigh unbreakable) canvas of our craft to its limit. If we don’t, if we succumb to our fears and expectations, how can we ask American society to take theater as seriously as brain surgery? (I am asking society to take theater as seriously as brain surgery.) Artists in the theater often talk about creating “safe spaces” in rehearsal rooms. Throw that idea out as often as possible; I imagine it used to function as a common sense warning against physical injury but, all too often, it is repurposed as a oversensitive shield for delicate emotions and stockpiled insecurities. A rehearsal room should seem intense, electrified, challenging… positively dangerous. Anything but “safe.” Fear dampens this. “Yes” dampens fear.

How is theatrical fearlessness different as an actor and a creator?
It isn’t. Though you’ve written “actor” and “creator,” my brain is reading the same word twice. I think it’s all too easy to imagine a theatrical Venn diagram in which the Actor circle only partially coincides with the Creator circle (or, in some people’s minds, maybe doesn’t touch at all). This seems ridiculous to me. The Actor circle, to my understanding, resides completely within the boundaries of the Creator circle. Now, I already hear the semiotic rebuttal: “that still leaves a very fat edge on the outer circle comprising a great many folks who are distinctly not actors — designers, directors, writers, etc.” My response: it doesn’t matter. Theatrical (read: artistic) fortitude (as it owes no allegiance to any particular artistic practice or technique) is applied using great feats of mental and emotional control and it is my contention that these feats are the same across all disciplines. It is only the various crafts, themselves, that are different. 

I think fortitude begins with a series of beliefs — artists who act courageously have often figured out a method for building a shrine in their heads (instead of a physical shrine to a Buddha or a Shiva or a Jesus, say) — a mental shrine to mindfulness (“be here now”) populated by the qualities and behaviors, actions and axioms in which they believe. On the occasions when I am fulfilling my potential and behaving courageously: I believe in practice. I believe in preparedness. I believe in my ability to identify cognitive distortions and thus dispel them. I believe in patience. I believe in the cultivation of good taste. I believe in experimentation. I believe in listening (with all one’s senses). I believe in embracing the dichotomy of givens and variables. I believe in joy. I believe in the allowance of coincidence. I believe in the Socratic method. I believe in instincts. I believe in mentorship and books. I believe in the ever-increasing capacity of consciousness.

One might disagree with items on my list, or maybe see them as offensive or unimportant. Fine. But you can’t read the list of the things I use to construct my fortitude and say they don’t apply as appropriately to a painter as they do a songwriter, a dramaturg, or an actor. What’s your list? What do you believe in? 

Do you consider yourself a fearless artist? Why?
No. I experience fear constantly. I am most likely going to spend the rest of my life in a struggle against my own fears. They range from the banal: I’m terrified I’ll forget the lyrics to a song or trip on a shoelace and break my face on the stage; to the existential: I suspect I have nothing interesting to say/write before I die. I am willing to accept the fact that, in the past, my own fears have hampered choices onstage and choices in my career at large. They probably will in the future, too. Such is life. But accepting that my fear is a permanent fixture has allowed me to begin learning to regard it less as a ferocious monster in the house of my mind and more as a dreadfully ugly lamp I can’t get rid of because it’s a family heirloom. When the monster comes out of the broom closet, I’m getting increasingly better at turning it into Lladro (poof!) and putting it back next to the mops and dustpans where it belongs. I think we all arrive as cowards; some of us just choose to do everything we can not to leave that way.

What allows you to be fearless?
When I do manage to conquer my fears, a great many things are working in concert; my beliefs are winning the war against my doubts (see my list of beliefs in answer #2). But some other practical things help. Therapy: for a little over a year, I’ve been seeing a psychologist who specializes in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), which is a type of psychotherapy developed in the late 1980s to deal with borderline personality disorder (which I don’t have) — I’ve found the conservative use of these techniques to be incredibly helpful. I’m learning to identify the bad mental habits I’ve formed, the ways I cognitively distort the world around me. It’s incredibly hard to do. You really have to start questioning and examining some of your deepest-held beliefs and superstitions but, through this, you start to learn that we truly do create a lot of our own pain, sometimes simply by magnifying pain that already exists. It’s a scientific road that very quickly and uncannily begins to resemble what I understand to be the tenets of some gorgeous eastern religions and ideologies. My therapist is awesome; I think everybody should do it. The most difficult things are the sometimes prohibitive cost when you find somebody great and the realization that not all therapists are created equal. I had to go through two or three before I found someone who really, truly helps me.

I’m also fascinated with this idea of creative “flow.” Apparently, this word comes from athletes who use it to describe the feeling they get when they’re performing at the top of their game. They’ve practiced and practiced and, in this moment, the feeling of employing technique melts away. Muscle memory kicks in. Maybe inspiration, too. The ball seems to simply float into the basket… or the net… or the wicket or whatever. I don’t have much of a love affair with sports. But I have experienced this a great number of times in myriad artistic settings and the most striking characteristic of these moments is that fear — miraculously — seems washed away in total. I feel like human beings who perform (although I’ve also experienced this in solitary exploits like songwriting or drawing) become these discerning, twitching alchemists over time: how did I get there? How did that happen? What combination of elements allowed me to glimpse the soma of perfection for that instant? Those twenty minutes? Those two hours? We’re addicts. Part of it, I’m sure, must be adrenaline. But that’s easy. A “gimme” of the human physiology and the autonomic nervous system.

I think “flow” and the resulting absence of fear is achieved at an intersection of opposites (which is why it can be very hard to expect or recreate). On the one hand, I think there needs to have been discipline and practice. On the other, there must be improvisation and almost reckless abandon. To complicate it further, during the prior stage of practice/discipline, there must have been a willingness to embrace the unknown; to make a primordial mess. And then, in the later stage, as one summons their immediacy and abandon, one must simultaneously engage a discriminating eye and an organizational impulse. Right-and-left-brain. Double hemisphere shit. Difficult to write about. More difficult to make happen.

Stanley Kubrick, an artist of immense fortitude — seemingly fearless, I’d say — had a lifelong obsession with chess. He said it helped him develop “patience and discipline” in making decisions. He would do an incredible amount of research, generate a huge mess of wonderful ideas (read: potential moves to make) and ultimately discern the immediately attractive from the truly outstanding. This was reportedly true on and off the film set and I think proof is in the proverbial pudding. But I also think performers are tasked with the challenge of synthesizing this process into individual moments.

What’s the bravest thing you’ve ever done onstage? In the theater in general?
That’s a great question. I think that I’ve done lots of things onstage that folks might call “brave,” for example: stuffing my body into various tight spaces (e.g. suitcases, trash cans), improvising hour-long musicals in front of drunk Scotsmen, performing drag in the Middle East, playing multiple instruments at once (e.g. piano, drums, and kazoo), having my lines fed to me through an earpiece, jumping backwards off an eight-foot platform, wearing a costume covered with sharp glass, performing in an abandoned mansion in Beirut on power we were siphoning from a nearby construction site, or for an audience full of armed bodyguards in Juárez — haha — but I think these mostly just make for great stories and a bizarre resume.

I think the times I’ve been bravest onstage are the times I’ve allowed myself to embrace the possibility that the moment won’t go the way I want it to. I’m such a raging control freak that it’s incredibly hard for me to let go of the steering wheel, as it were, and just… be. The best performers in the world, in my opinion, are by definition the bravest. Instead of wringing the life out of every moment of their performances, they imbue them with sheer possibility — there’s that word again — and relax into that possibility. That’s where truth is. That’s where the soul is.

I get there eventually in most shows I do. Sometimes it’s every night. Sometimes it’s for a few seconds of the whole run. 

Was there ever something that kept you from being fearless onstage?
Yes. To harken to Mr. FDR — fear, itself. Cognitive distortions; my mind is highly prone to harsh judgment, quick assumption of the worst, and the conviction that it can read everyone else’s mind. (It can’t.) Thinking like this kills moments… and gives me highly unnecessary panic attacks.

How do you define the line between being a fearless, in-the-moment artist, and reckless or dangerous? How do you walk that line?
Common sense. It’s easy: if it puts someone else’s life, limbs, heart or reputation at risk, don’t do it. Similarly, if it causes someone else to experience physical or mental pain, don’t do it. It’s also about knowing your limits: if you can’t sing a high C without shredding your voice before your audition-of-the-century tomorrow, don’t do it. If you can’t get at the heart of a dramatic role without generating a deep and unnecessary sense of hatred for your grandmother in real life, don’t do it. If you’re not trained to perform six backflips and you think the attempt might break your legs, don’t do it.
Courtesy dictates that you place a tremendous value on your collaborators’ happiness and well being. Self-respect dictates that you place a tremendous value on your own. After you make that clear for yourself, anything else is just an excuse. If something is scary, try to find a way to say yes to it.

Do you have a personal boundary of lines you won’t cross as an artist?
Nothing that doesn’t sound ridiculous and obvious when you type it out. I don’t want to be part of work that promotes sociopolitical agendas I don’t agree with. I don’t want to be injured, literally or figuratively. Maybe I’m not thinking hard enough about this one?

Do you ever get scared or uncomfortable onstage? How do you react to/deal with it?
All the time. Although, for me, it’s a much bigger issue in auditions. I have two problems: anxiety… and anxiety. The first kind hits me as a version of stage fright. It has to do with anticipation. Waiting for the potentially unknown drives me absolutely crazy. I was the kid who would get sweaty in class while the teacher called attendance. All I had to say was the word “here” but the imminency of the event would open an entire mental inquiry, complete with judge and jury, into what the outcome may be: on what pitch will I say the word?; what if I jump the gun and interrupt the teacher or respond to the wrong name?; what if my voice cracks?; what if I space out and neglect to respond at all?; am I spacing out now? Holy shit! Every time I’m about to enter onto a stage, I go through a version of this to varying degrees of severity. In long performances, I’ll have something like a full two hours to adjust. So, after ten minutes or so, I can vanquish most of the anxiety — after all, anticipation no longer makes sense if the anticipated event is safely underway! In auditions, however, I get a few minutes. Tops. So I freak out before, freak out during, and probably continue freaking out afterwards. It’s a big problem for me.

This is compounded by anxiety number two, which has to do with memory. I am absolutely loathsome at remembering words. I’ve been known to forget the lyrics to my own songs. The best way for me to achieve the memorization of a text is to spend a lot of time with it. That is, I need to work on it, forget the damn thing completely, and come back later to discover that I have, in fact, absorbed it by some kind of silly time-release osmosis of the brain. Again, in performance, not such an issue! In an audition, though, it’s almost always an issue. 

So, combine my general anticipative anxiety with my additional anxiety about my hampered ability to quickly learn text and it’s often a bloodbath. Or at least, I perceive that it is. See, it turns out there’s actually a third anxiety and this one gets me in any kind of performance. I become irretrievably convinced that everyone’s bodies and faces in the room have transmogrified into books written with a very cruel pen. Open to the most immediate chapter of their thoughts, it turns out I can read these books (or so I believe) and, in so doing, gain access to the audience’s most intimate and biting criticisms. You know, the scathing remarks they reserve for loved ones, private company, and their diaries. This is an example of what I’ve been referring to as a cognitive distortion. It’s not that I actually believe I possess these powers of a psychic. I don’t. But the way my mind tells itself deceitful tales about the collective experience in the room is like being under the influence of a very potent drug. My distortions are like thick fogs that roll in off the bay of my subconscious. And I have peered out through this fog on stages big and small, famous and unheard of, domestic and across the world.
You’re probably going to laugh when I tell you what I’ve started doing to deal with this fog of distortion and anxiety. I’ve started imagining a big, firetruck-red, hexagonal stop sign. And as it appears in the fog, I’ve begun saying (or thinking): “not now.” (Wondering if I arrived at this technique by way of therapy? You betcha.) Simple though it seems, the image and its accompanying mantra have proven powerful. They’re not a sure-fire solution, but the success rate has been highly encouraging, from behind the curtain of The Old Globe in San Diego to a blackbox stage in Abu Dhabi. I think the genius of the suggestion lies first in the icon of the stop sign: solid, sharp-edged, brightly colored, tangible, two-dimensional. It’s everything that an imperceptible fog isn’t: it’s bold, it’s material, it’s simple and (bonus points) it’s even linked with a literal reflex. When I see this shape, I literally hit the brakes in real life. But it’s combined with a gentler assertion: “not now.” No pressure to kill this line of thinking entirely or push it deep down, repressing and invalidating my feelings. It’s simply an invitation to indulge in my bad habit at a later moment. You know, one when I’m not standing in front of at least a hundred people, trying my damndest to be present.