What It's Like To Be Shy in the Performing Arts Industry

I'm terrible at improv, so how do I market myself?

For a moment before the ghost story takes over, Phantom of the Opera is all about Christine finding her voice and making it heard. For aspiring performers, this is a dream that is becoming increasingly important—not just in the spotlight but particularly in their lives offstage. 

I'm a student, currently in my third year of a four year degree in Music and Theatre. Tonight, I attended a production put on by my upperclassmen, written by a graduate of (the Theatre half of) my program. It was an absolutely phenomenal production. Both the actors' performances and the play itself were truly beautiful, heart-rending, and human. I cried (a lot), and gave them a rousing standing ovation of my own volition, which is rather rare. There was a reception after the show, and I knew I had to use it as an opportunity both to congratulate my fellow actors and especially to reach out to the playwright and let her know how exquisite her work was. 

There was only one small problem with this plan. I am a fairly socially awkward person, and the playwright was a complete stranger to me—and more importantly, I was a complete stranger to the playwright. But the importance of getting to know other people in the local industry has been drilled into me for the entirety of my degree, and this woman was a recent grad, who may have countless words of wisdom to impart, and may even be open to forming connections with other artists on their way to emerging from the program. And all this aside, how hard could it be to give someone a compliment? I was determined to succeed in my mission, because at the core of it my goal wasn't related to networking at all. I simply wanted to communicate how genuinely moved I was.

So I forged ahead. I began by congratulating several of the actors that I was already acquainted with—baby steps, but important ones. Then I began to wander, slowly stockpiling reception nibbles (because free food is very important to an aspiring artist) and following the playwright around. But to my chagrin, it seemed that she was always in a conversation with a) someone of importance in the local theatre community, b) somebody she actually knew, or c) someone who fit both of those criteria. I would hover in the periphery of these conversations, listening for suitable moments to cut in (while simultaneously admiring the cheese board—subtle, I know.) I made eye contact with the playwright on a few separate occasions, but each time I chickened out of interrupting to approach her. I commented to a few of my friends that the poor woman must have thought I was stalking her. In the end, I decided to bring a socially confident friend with me to speak to the playwright, for moral support. I said my piece, more or less, explaining when she asked who I was that she had no reason to know my name, and after the tiniest fragment of awkward silence my friend stepped in to offer her praise for the work, in the most eloquent and emotionally intense way imaginable. 

And I was crushed. 

It was completely ridiculous. That moment wasn't about me. It was about giving an exceptional artist the appreciation they deserved.  But if I was attempting to network on any level, I felt as though I'd completely failed. My friend's endless charisma had upstaged me at a time when I hadn't necessarily been trying to be "staged" in the first place. And instead of continuing to reflect upon the beauty of the production, for the rest of the night I was fixated on the horrible notion that nobody in this city would ever remember me or want to know who I was. And as I bit into a mini quiche I imagined myself dying of malnutrition or even undiluted starvation in a tiny, filthy, run down apartment, and saw my brittle bones being picked clean by feral cats. 

Of course I see the rampant melodrama in this reaction, but my affinity for the dramatic arts has to manifest itself somehow, right? It appears as though I drew the short straw and got all the elements of the "theatre kid" that make my life seem soooo difficult (swoons) and none of the qualities inherent in extroversion or even pretended confidence. Often, when I speak with people from outside the theatre community, they tell me that Drama intimidated them in high school because the people involved seemed to have such huge, bubbly, over-the-top personalities. And there are definitely people like that in the business, but I also have plenty of colleagues who are quiet and reserved like me. And this shouldn't necessarily be a problem. But time and time again it is impressed upon us by all of our professors and mentors how competitive this business is. And we're told that because of this, actors are less likely to be hired based on their talent but will more often land a job due to their reputation. Directors want to work with people they've worked with before, have heard good things about, or have interacted with, liked, and remembered at some point. 

So how do I or those like me market ourselves to our potential future coworkers when we can barely work up the courage to give a writer who's brought us to tears (and we're talking racking sobs) a few words of praise? And even if we do manage to speak up, how do we know any recollection of such encounters won't be wiped out by the louder voices in the room? 

As clearly demonstrated by the scenario I described above, these are questions that I am still seriously grappling with, and probably will for some time. But I have a few vague ideas that may at least send me in the right direction. 

I know I will never be an overtly commanding, assertive person. Nor can I aspire to be a laid-back charmer who can weave their witty way through a conversation with effortless off-the-cuff remarks. But I do know that I am a genuinely compassionate person with a large capacity for empathy. It is this emotional receptivity, in fact, that draws me to both music and theatre. The clearest and most important goal I have in life is to make people feel. So rather than pretend to be something I'm not, I believe it would serve me best to find a way to let these elements of my character shine through. I have a couple of truly remarkable colleagues who I think have high odds of really going somewhere in the business because they are genuinely sweet people whose pure, honest compassion is obvious in any interaction with them. They never appear to be trying too hard, nor are they charged with an exhausting volume of natural social energy. Theirs is an understated vivacity, a simple sincerity that is far more appealing and memorable, to me at least, than the vigorous outbursts of even the kindest extroverted people I know. I think I may have the foundations of a similar sincerity within me. My task is to learn how to simply, but openly, reveal it to the world. 

I recognize that an undertaking such as this may be a lifelong journey of self-improvement. I know also that my livelihood may depend on its continuous progress. I must let the excitement of this prospect outweigh the pressure attached to it, and make a conscious decision to embark on this journey right now. 

Wish me luck!

Though this story and its conclusion are personal, I hope that they might be of some help to anyone who, like me, finds having to be their own PR manager on top of working creatively in the arts industry overwhelming. To those people: you are not alone! Let's all stumble through this hectic world and its artistically taxing demands together! We can do this!

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What It's Like To Be Shy in the Performing Arts Industry
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