When you have Anxiety you always need an escape plan.
Not one or two, you sometimes need a backup for every everyday situation you might find yourself in. Just in case. Just in case, what? Well anything, the very worst of anything could happen in the mind of someone with Anxiety. If it doesn't happen, then you might just have an anxiety attack anyway and you need to be prepared for that.
It's just one of the self-comforting coping mechanisms that someone with Anxiety will build up to relieve the mounting pressure of uncomfortable and triggering situations. Sometimes knowing you can get out of an anxious predicament, quickly, quietly, safely and with the least amount of fuss is enough to help you feel confident to enter it in the first place. It becomes a behaviour that is instant, automatic and reflexive in the day to day anxious dealings.
Going to the shops - know exactly how far away the exits are. Drive on the motorway - visualise getting onto the hard shoulder safely. Sitting in a class at school - knowing how long you can last sitting there before you ask to go to the toilet to get a breather.
You're a performer with Anxiety and you're doing your first solo show?
Yep, we best have an escape plan for that as well.
Just in case.
This is the dilemma I had to face when I started to perform Do You Mind? I think it’s a universal experience to feel anxious and to wildly prophesies some catastrophe before stepping on stage - forgetting a line, missing a step, coming into early, someone else skipping a whole page of text, all in front of an audience - that feeling doesn’t come from a disordered Anxiety. It’s the healthy kind, which makes it pretty easy to resolve if you know what you're dealing with. I'm not really worried about any of those situations, I'm a performer and I've trained to deal with them.
For me, every time I walk onto the stage I am absolutely convinced I'll be violently sick on stage or pass out or something equally embarrassing. I work past these fears because I love what I do and because I suppose I just embrace the concept of suffering for your art.
But these worries aren't completely irrational or without basis, as a lot of my anxieties turn out to be.
Last year these fears came true.
Which is a pretty big deal when I spend most of my time talking myself out of believing the worst will happen (while trying to look like I’m not having a severe panic attack)
However, this time I had been wrong. I stepped on stage and instantly knew I was going to throw-up. Not the usual pre-show adrenaline induced nausea that I (and so many other people) go through. This was a gut clenching wave of nausea.
I had to walk off before the performance was over (although what I didn’t realise was I had gotten a good 3/4 of the way through it) and put my head in a toilet. I had a good cry. My nightmares and phobias had come true.
I wasn’t sick, in the end, and we’ve had to put the episode down to a manifestation of the massive stress I had been experiencing that year. Which is, and continues to be, a bit daunting if I’m honest. When/how can de-stress?!
I got back on stage the next evening (with some anti-nausea drugs designed for migraine sufferers in my system) and since then it has never happened again. I survived. It was okay. I didn't ruin my career.
I can’t tell myself now “you’ve never almost thrown up on stage before” which had been my mantra before. And “Well you’ve never actually thrown up” doesn’t quite cut it. My poor Anxious brain won’t be able to stop itself from reminding me of that one performance. It’s not it’s fault (or mine) it's only trying to keep me safe after all.
So far, it hasn’t stopped me from performing again but it has changed how I approach the stage. There is a difference between moving forward and getting back on the horse and completely ignoring what happened. I’ve had to learn.
So, I’ll let you into a little secret. We have a secret escape plan for Do You Mind? and we’ve had it from the first I performed it.
The premiere of Do You Mind? coincided with a big bad bout of Anxiety nausea and I was, understandably, scared. I've got a good imagination which is great for most of my creative activity but not for visualising the world coming to an end. I can feel and see myself throwing up in front of an audience with Cassandra-esque clarity.
This was my first solo show and if it went wrong, it would be all on me.
I can’t remember when but I asked Calum, "What do I do if I'm unwell/too anxious/have a panic attack on stage?". His answer was quick and unhesitant.
He would go on stage and tell the story. "What would you do?" He didn't know. He'd improvise something. It would be fine.
This blew my mind a little bit how simple it was but I also completely trusted his answer. He knows Do You Mind? as well as I do, we devised it together, we go and do shows together, he is working the tech while I perform, we experience this show together. It is our show.
So I've been able to go on stage, still anxious, but comforted that there's the escape plan. If I feel too unwell, I explain the situation and I leave the stage. Simple.
Want to know another secret?
I kind of want it to happen.
Obviously, I don’t!
I don't want to be in the distress or pain that I went through that one time and neither do I want to do that to the audience who have come to see the same show that everyone else has in the past. Every time I go on stage it is to give the show I know in my heart.
That doesn't stop me thinking how cool it would be for it to happen.
Firstly, if I leave the stage it'll be because of Anxiety and the show is about Anxiety and let's face it there something very authentic about that from a theatrical sense. You want to see how much Anxiety affects my life, come see it happen in real-time! Calum will always tell me, if I'm panicking but I'm able to stay in control, not to run away and to be honest. "Just tell them that you're panicking."
Secondly, when I leave, it would open up a very special moment of performative potential. Calum is an excellent improviser and he has all the elements of the show (the puppets, lights, sounds and the lines he's heard a dozen times) at his fingertips. Will he take the show in a different direction, will he try and recreate it? It would be raw, it would be full of choices and it would STILL be good. We have never spoken about what will happen and we never will. What will happen will happen but it'll be the strongest and smartest piece of improvising Calum has to offer; just like my Do You Mind? is the smartest and strongest performance I can give that night.
Thirdly, it is the clearest example of why I am so lucky to have BearDog. BearDog makes real, honest theatre. I always put a big chunk of my own history/personality/into my theatre-making. So, instead of my Anxiety being an issue or a problem to deal with it is embraced and accepted.
It has never been a problem and we put whatever plans we need to keep the show going and the work being made. We make concessions, we rearrange rehearsals, we make sure everyone is content. This has been vital for someone like me while dealing with chronic Anxiety. I can still make my work.
It isn't just something that is just extended to me but to Calum and our growing list of artists. We make work because we want to and we don't let it get to the point that we are suffering beyond our means (a situation I have been in before. It's not great). It's like watching a circus performer fall into the safety net but then bounce straight back up into a set of twirls and flips. A moment of fear becomes a moment of opportunity.
I will never force this to happen. I will never just decide I can't be bothered. This is reserved for an extreme situation which I hope never happens. But if it does, the last resort is not the worst resort. With a brain full of worst resorts this is the most comforting thing I can have.