Confidence is an elusive savior.
It comes when you’re most vulnerable, when you’re staring at the underside of a black velvet curtain waiting for it to part, as you’re praying the lights will be bright enough to distract you from the hundreds of eyes staring right back at you. It tiptoes into your consciousness and assuages your doubts with a comforting whisper. Hey, you’re gonna be really good at this. The voice quiets just as the lights blast your face. You’re alone, but not really.
The performance was a blur, because all you can remember is the feeling of all those eyes watching you. They paid attention. They witnessed your greatness and your genius themselves. Yes, genius. You’re not exaggerating. You fucking killed it. You’re pretty sure somebody called you the next Kate Winslet, and you’re not at all concerned that maybe you kinda made this up. You’re awaiting a call from the Darien Doings, because you know the small-town newspaper is definitely gonna do a profile on their hometown hero/star. Can you convince your parents to let you move to Hollywood? Is this how Kate Winslet got started? That little voice never shuts up, and it tells you to chase more, more, more opportunities to stand with those lights on you and force everyone to listen.
I’ve known since I was a kid that I wanted to be an actress. Check my fifth-grade yearbook, and under the picture of my chubby, bespectacled little self, you can find a caption saying that I wanted to be a “dolphin trainer and a movie star” when I grew up. But that yearbook is a dumb liar, because I didn’t just want to be an actress. I wanted to be an actress, with every fiber of my heart and soul and being.
But I mostly kept quiet about those ambitions, bottling up all my schemes in my head like some diabolical movie villain. I auditioned for smaller roles in elementary school plays, choosing to let my star dim and allow the lesser beings to showcase whatever lame talent they had to offer. I was biding my time, waiting for my big breakout role to come along. But that little voice always crept around, whispering that I was better than all these fools and deserved to be the one in the sparkliest costume.
My childhood best friend was a natural onstage, her singing talent carrying over into charismatic acting. Where I had the precise and methodical brilliance of a Winslet, she was a bright and charming Julia Roberts, lighting up every stage she walked on. She didn’t actively seek out leading roles, but they always happened upon her. She rarely had to audition, and people approached her to star like she was the only natural choice. Cleopatra in our fifth-grade ancient Egypt pageant. Rosie in “Bye Bye Birdie.” Mary in our church’s Christmas play. Meanwhile, I stood in the background, a seething Christmas Angel plotting her revenge.
See, I knew I was never going to play Mary. I was kinda intense and not a particularly smiley or maternal 12-year-old. Objectively speaking, even though I had far more talent than my competition, casting me as Mary would be a mistake. But then I got to thinking. What Christmas role is perfect for a stoic and flat-chested kid? I was sick of being an angel, singing in a chorus with two other girls who picked their noses and didn’t read for fun. I was sick of being lumped together with losers when I should be the one with the lights on her face, the one the whole audience stared at.
I was cast as Joseph, father of Jesus Christ. (Also, none of the boys were interested, but I like to think I’d have gotten the part anyway.)
In my biblical headdress and cloth robes, you could hardly tell that the father of the Lord and Savior was being played by a vaguely Jewish little girl. I practiced diligently with my best friend, who was — surprise, surprise — Mary again. We really listened to one another, bouncing back flawless performances as a realistic husband and wife. In my free time, I taught myself to cry on cue, because even though nobody in the audience would be able to see the minutiae of my facial performance, I couldn’t realistically act out the birth of my son without shedding a hard-earned tear. When the time came to actually perform, I did so without abandon or embarrassment. I was an amazing Joseph, and as I let go of that practiced single tear, I knew the audience was weeping at the vastness of my raw talent, and could care less that I was a girl.
Some friends and family may tell you that this performance was the highlight of my career. They’re probably right. After I hung up my Joseph robes at age 15 (when even the loosest garments couldn’t hide the fact that I was definitely a lady), I mostly retired from the stage. I liked to think that inherent desire to be in the spotlight was a silly childhood dream, akin to my yearbook wish of being a dolphin trainer.
But I missed it. I tried to channel the same confidence I had onstage to other areas of public performance and failed every time. As I’d walk up to the podium at a Model UN conference to address the general assembly about the importance of nuclear power development in Kazakhstan, I’d look out again at those hundred eyes staring right back. There was no drama, no curtain pulling back, no bright lights. Here, people cared only about the words I said, not how I said them. I couldn’t be great. With my heart pounding and voice cracking, I addressed the assembly and wished I had the comfort of everything being pretend.
I had to get that feeling back. Confidence, or maybe something greater. Maybe the feeling of being truly great at something.
It strikes you when you need it most. Sitting at a desk behind another black curtain, dressed in a blazer and heels. You know there are probably 200 people sitting in the audience, but you’re not nervous. You let the energy feed you, fill you with light and squash your nerves until they’re imperceptible. The feeling is indescribable, but you can only compare it to leaving your own body. You aren’t yourself anymore. You could be anyone, everyone.
You become like one of those stage lights, a shining object that grows brighter with each smile and each laugh. This might not be where you belong, but it’s where you need to be. Somebody might tell you you’re the Next Tina Fey. The little voice in your head tells you anything is possible.