Higher Education: Meeting the Fear Barrier

Barbara Jwanouskos ponders when and why we push ourselves.

Interestingly enough, Howlround posted an article on two theater artists’ journey to create a new play about female boxers this week right as I am also working on a new play with a female martial artist as the protagonist. I found myself relating on many levels as they talked about what it was like to box, what stories from real life to bring into the rehearsal room, and how exactly the story should be told.

When Suli Holum (of Pig Iron Theatre Company) described her experience working with her boxing trainer and being ashamed of crying in front of him, I thought of the times in both training in martial arts and in working on a new play where the same thing has happened. Holum says:

I had to overcome my aversion—which manifested as a wave of nausea—at throwing a right hook to my trainer’s head. And finally I had to be willing to move towards risk, to lean into fear. To box is to be vulnerable, radically vulnerable—it’s an intimate agreement made between two people to push each other to their very limits. It reminds me of acting, until I get punched and then I remember the difference.

I’ve been writing and thinking a lot lately on the need to push yourself. When you spar with someone, there is no way that you cannot address the fear of getting hurt and also hurting someone. As Holum describes, it’s this weird contract you make with your partner that you will hurt one another physically in order to be ready to defend yourself if that ever is called upon. I absolutely can see how to people who don’t train in martial arts or fighting skills, the idea of this is completely masochistic and insane.

The truth is, I am not a violent person. In fact, I find it to be one of the most all-consuming upsetting things about the world we live in. And while I may have fun as I playfully spar with my trusted friends in kung fu classes, there is a difference between that and real violence. Because ultimately both a sparring session and a play are pretend. For the survivors of physical and emotional violence, I think is essential to acknowledge this important distinction because real violence is never agreed upon by both parties.

Like Holum, I find the connection between training to fight and in creating theater. When we put an event on the stage, just like when we square up with our training partners to spar, we have a contract with our audience and ultimately that is an implicit promise that they will get something out of sitting there for an hour or two. The audience trusts that this is going to happen (whether it does is another thing entirely). Everything in theater requires a kind of vulnerability that is so difficult to bear sometimes.

Artwork by Annie Yokom, part of the cast of "The Imaginary Opponent"

Artwork by Annie Yokom, part of the cast of “The Imaginary Opponent”

As I head into the last week of rehearsals for my thesis play, “The Imaginary Opponent”, I have to remember not to beat myself up for the times when my own fears have pierced through and caused me to express emotions in a way that I am not usually comfortable doing. This vulnerability of showing something that you’ve created, worked long hours on, and struggled time and time again to understand is why I think we need to be confident, but also humble as artists, as Ashley Cowan grappled with in her article for this week, “A Confidence Question”.

The humbleness, for me, comes from acknowledging that there is intense fear in putting an event on stage, because you never know what is going to happen and how people will react. The confidence goes back to pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone. To me, it’s recognizing that “this is something I’m afraid of and uncomfortable with” but still gently telling yourself that whatever happens, it will ultimately be okay. Good, bad, success, failure… it’s all relative. But at some point, it has to be done. A choice has to be made about whether you will continue forward or not – like an on/off switch.

In martial arts we train a fighting technique over and over so that once we spar we can address the attack from our partners. The repetition of it becomes routine. It becomes easier to stay relaxed and not freeze up once the attack comes, and then we learn that we can react quickly in the moment. It’s the repetition that builds up our confidence with squaring up against our training partners. We do the same thing in theater. We rehearse a play over and over again so that it becomes routine. Every move, look, word and feeling is mapped out. We bring in people to watch us during the process so that an audience feels routine. Everything we do helps us feel more comfortable and more confident for the actual performance.

For me, the repetition proves to me that it’s okay to be vulnerable because whatever I’m afraid of, I can handle. It absolutely is a privilege to get to that state and I am consistently impressed by the people around me who demonstrate this quality with fears and experiences much greater than mine. It’s inspiring that I too can meet my fear barrier and, yes, take a foot across.

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One comment on “Higher Education: Meeting the Fear Barrier

  1. […] especially want to highlight Barbara’s piece “Meeting the Fear Barrier,” from toward the end of her time at Carnegie Mellon. In the past few years, Barbara has […]

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