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I’m an Agilist, a former software engineer, a gamer, an improviser, a podcaster emeritus, and a wine lover. Learn more.

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« Two Years On | Main | Quick, Often, and Clean »

Lost in Translations

Valerie asks:

How about a piece on bombing — on stage, at a party, as a presenter, whatever. Clever fellow that you are, your jokes are mostly met with appreciation, but we’ve all been there.

I struggled to come up with something for this. I don’t know if improv taught me this, or my natural comfort being the center of attention has something to do with it, but by and large it doesn’t distress me overly much when things don’t go right in performance or a social function. I’ve certainly been in my share of improv scenes that have gone off the rails, and I mostly don’t remember them. One of the beautiful things about improv is neither your triumphs nor your failures last long. It’s ephemeral, which is one of the things that makes it magical. Sic transit gloria mundi, for tomorrow we die.

But there is one particular event that does jump out at me, where I would say that I bombed. In fact, it was a series of repeated events, which made it even worse.

My sophomore year I was in a production of Brian Friel’s Translations, a wonderful play set during the first Ordnance Survey of Ireland. It’s about language and culture and identity, and I loved the script. I wasn’t actually supposed to be in it, but one of the actors originally cast had to back out just after auditions, and I was the director’s choice to replace him. It was my first real dramatic role, having played a stock villain and a Shakespearean rogue in my first two college shows. And I struggled with it. We had a crazy short rehearsal schedule, and while I never had difficulty learning my lines — including the correct pronunciation of several dozen Gaelic place-names — I had trouble making parts of it real.

In middle of Act II, there is a pivotal moment. I mean that quite literally: the whole momentum of the show shifts and the trajectory of the character I played changes over the course of about two minutes. There’s a point where he hits bottom and finally lets loose with all of the anger and frustration that’s been building up. And then, because of the relationship he has with the poor fellow he unloads on, — and because they’ve both been drinking Irish moonshine for the whole scene — they both collapse into laughter, come to an understanding, and patch things up. Which, of course, sets up the tragedy that occurs in Act III.

I could not get that explosive transition from resentment to camaraderie right. It haunted me every night in rehearsal, and it never rang true. There was always something inauthentic about the way that I played it that I couldn’t shake. Come opening night it was still there. Closing night, eight performances later, same thing. Every night I would into that scene, hoping that I find the key to unlock it, to make it work. And every night I would come off stage after that scene practically in tears, angry with myself for not being able to get it right. One night I nearly smashed up a bit of furniture off-stage I was so upset. Of course, I would channel that into my appearance in the final scene of the show, when I presided over the unfolding disaster that we had inadvertently set in motion, so at least I had a use for those feelings of inadequacy.

The kicker, of course, is that I was my own worst critic. Sure, the scene wasn’t a tour de force of thespian-ism, but I didn’t exactly ruin the show either. No one gave me notes about. No one said, “That was great, except that guy who played Owen.” Audience members told me after the show that they loved my performance. There’s nothing quite like having a group of Irish nuns tell you that you’re good lad and that they enjoyed the show. The only place I really bombed was in my own head. Which, I’ve come to realize, is the only place it can hurt you.

It was only years later that I realized we should have rehearsed the scene drunk.


Fitness: Ran 2.25 miles + 30 minute workout
Writing: 300 words, 273 average

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