People tend not to believe me when I tell them I’m severely introverted. It’s understandable, as the persona I put forward is usually that of a quirky, agreeable smart-aleck. I am animated and expressive in conversation, I engage in overtly silly play with my kids, and of course, I’m an actor and musician.
To many people, my personality simply seems too big to be that of someone who is shy, anxious, or reserved, let alone autistic. Some have even told me they find me intimidating. To me, that’s beyond ridiculous, but there it is.
When folks have trouble grasping how it is I could have had found any joy in being an actor while finding social interaction to be utterly draining and even painful, I explain that when I’m performing, I’m protected by several layers of metaphorical masks. On stage in a play, I am explicitly not myself. It says so right in the program! Next to my name will be the name of whatever character or characters I’m playing. I’m definitely not playing “Paul Fidalgo.”
I don’t have to be clever or come up with interesting things to say, because the words have been written for me, hopefully by someone who is well established as being really, really good at writing interesting things for people say, like, for example, William Shakespeare.
I don’t even have to decode any social signals or read between the lines of what others are saying in order to know when to speak, because it’s all been planned out in advance. I am forbidden from speaking until my own lines are cued. That limitation is indescribably liberating.
I don’t have to know what to wear. I don’t have to know where to stand or how to behave, because all of that will have been worked out in rehearsal. If the play doesn’t call for my presence in a scene, I don’t even have to exist.
But there’s another way to explain the apparent incongruity of my personality that flips all of this on its head, and I didn’t even realize it myself until I had it explained to me in an article by a true master of the theatre from several years ago.
I recently came across an essay published in The Nation in 2011 by the great actor and playwright Wallace Shawn, who most folks will know as Vizzini in The Princess Bride, Grand Nagus Zek on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, or the voice of the Tyrannosaurus Rex in the Toy Story movies. Maybe you know him from the 1981 film My Dinner with Andre. Oh, and he was just in Marriage Story, so that might help.
In his essay for The Nation, which is a truly beautiful piece of prose in which he explains how his art leads him to consider himself a socialist, Shawn writes:
We are not what we seem. We are more than what we seem. The actor knows that. And because the actor knows that hidden inside himself there’s a wizard and a king, he also knows that when he’s playing himself in his daily life, he’s playing a part, he’s performing, just as he’s performing when he plays a part on stage. He knows that when he’s on stage performing, he’s in a sense deceiving his friends in the audience less than he does in daily life, not more, because on stage he’s disclosing the parts of himself that in daily life he struggles to hide. He knows, in fact, that the role of himself is actually a rather small part, and that when he plays that part he must make an enormous effort to conceal the whole universe of possibilities that exists inside him.
In one version of my explanation for why such a loud, animated performer like me could be such a severe introvert is that I alone am too small and too vulnerable to be comfortable in my own skin in the midst of other humans. But what Shawn helped me to see is that this disconnect also stems from the fact that my singular, real-life self is also near to bursting with thoughts, ideas, fears, ambitions, impulses, and possibilities.
The potential energy bottled up and pressed down into this small, delicate body is overwhelming. Letting any of its pressure out brings with it the risk of humiliation, regret, misunderstanding, or bewilderment. So a single, inoffensive persona must be adopted, a safe and broadly acceptable packaging must be applied.
The stage does not solve or sort all of these parts, but it does allow them to manifest in meaningful, productive, and satisfying ways. In this way, an actor’s role is sort of like Mjölnir to Thor.
In Thor: Ragnarok, the Asgardian Avenger has lost his legendary hammer, Mjölnir, and at the edge of utter defeat, he hears the voice of his late father Odin, who asks him, “Are you the god of hammers?” Odin explains that Mjölnir was not the source of Thor’s power, but merely a means of focusing and controlling it. The real power, the “thunder,” is already inside him, coursing through him.
That’s what a role in a play is for an actor. It harnesses the lightning and thunder inside us and allows us to wield it. Shakespeare himself even wrote of “youths that thunder at a playhouse.”
It is true that for me, and I suspect for many actors, taking on a role is a way of protecting ourselves, providing armor for our fragility. But it is also a means to show our strength, to unleash a power within us that in most other circumstances would be too dangerous or destructive.
As Wallace Shawn says, we have within us a universe of possibilities. The stage allows us to live some of them out.