When the Actor's Nightmare Becomes a Reality

As a former actor, I often had what is commonly known as ‘the actor’s nightmare.’ It’s a dream where you’re on stage, and you have no idea why you are there, or what you are supposed to say. You’re suspended in this long, awkward, uncomfortable terror. The other actors are looking at you, waiting for you to speak. The audience is staring at your with crossed arms and bored faces. Absolute silence. Eventually one actor says a line that makes no sense at all. You try to speak, but you can’t make a sound. Nothing comes out. Finally, you wake up, in a cold sweat, with your heart pounding, giving thanks that it was just a terrible dream.

And then, there’s when it happens in real life. And it’s terrible. You feel humiliated. You feel like a complete failure. This happened to me after getting accepted into a highly competitive MFA Graduate program for acting at the University of Washington. We were presenting our first performance with an adaptation of Kafka’s “The Trial.” My turn came to speak and I simply couldn’t remember what to say. The actors nightmare came true. I muttered a thing or two, made something up and the show went on, but I was completely horrified. In the moment, you have to let it go and move on because you’ve still got the rest of the show to do. Save beating yourself up for later. And boy did I make good on the promise to beat myself up. That night, I thought to myself, “Did I make a terrible mistake by enrolling in a graduate acting program? Did THEY make a terrible mistake by accepting me to this program?” I was devastated. I felt like a complete zero. The only consolation I could come up with the next day was “well, I didn’t actually die.”

 But my confidence did die. And were I not signed up for a three year program, I might have just hit the road and called it quits right then. But the next day, the sun rose, I got up, and went back to school, and with the support and encouragement of my classmates and teachers, re-gained my confidence. But had I not gotten back up on that horse, I would forever have branded myself as a failure, and not found my way to the work I so passionately love — presenting, teaching and coaching others to move beyond their fears and limitations to find their voice and speak with confidence.

William Smartt

99 Madison Ave, Suite 623, New York, NY 10016