Playing Yourself: the Public Speaking Double Bluff

I am standing in a wood, at the edge of a pool. I drop a pebble into the water, watch the rings dissipate. When they do, I drop the next pebble. Like anywhere I go in my head, I’m more aware of the place than I am of me. It’s the pebbles, not myself, I’m here for. I don’t drop the next pebble until those rings have faded to stillness. Then, in goes the next.

I’ve been using this pool for as long as I can remember. Rather than race through your lines (if you’re acting) or information (if you’re giving a speech or being interviewed) or offering all the multiple directions a conversation could go (if you’re interviewing someone else), drop one thing into the silence, let the rings dissipate around that. The space between is where the thinking happens.  

This wasn’t necessarily how I experienced my earliest performances (say, The Wicked Fairy, aged 6, at primary school), It was how I was thinking by the end of Youth Theatre (Hilda, the Ugly Duckling’s sister, aged 18) but the most important place I used this wasn’t on a stage. It was beside one. The place the penny (not just the pebble) dropped about how communication and performance fit together was the first time I knew I needed to play myself.

That place was one of the first primary schools where I ran drama clubs. I was standing at the side of the hall, listening to the head teacher introduce me. I’d recently left university and, if I’m honest, felt closer to being one of those identically uniformed and identically poker-faced, cross-legged children staring up from the floor, than to being one the smattering of adults seated around the edges of the (suddenly enormous) room. What was going on in my head went along the lines of “Oh God, what if no one wants to do drama club? What if they don’t like me? What if they realise I shouldn’t be here?” and all the other things impostor syndrome screams so eloquently as we stand at the edges of our comfort zone. Then it was time to start walking. It was also the moment I thought, “What if… I get to choose who I am and what this is?”

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