Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: An Introvert’s Guide to Theater

Marissa Skudlarek, helping from the wings.

Theater Pub’s August show, the Pint-Sized Plays, had two very successful, well-attended performances on Monday and Tuesday of this week. We packed the venue; extra chairs were brought out, people sat on the edge of the stage. Since I am the Pint-Sized Tsarina (i.e., producer), this made me feel incredibly gratified and excited. But it’s also left me feeling a little run down.

You see, I’m an introvert, which is a personality trait that you might expect to be rare in the theater world. At least in the United States, the stereotypical “theater person” is a brassy, extroverted show-off. I’m not actually sure how true that is. I don’t know a lot of people who conform to that stereotype, and I tend to find it incredibly annoying when people do behave that way. There probably are a whole lot of introverts involved in theater, but it’s not something that we talk about much. We put on a charming, sociable facade in order to schmooze and network (we are actors, after all) — and then we go home and crash.

I’m using the word “introvert” in the classic psychological sense, here: someone who is worn out by social interactions, particularly those involving large crowds and lots of small talk. I’m not particularly shy, and I don’t get stage fright, as anyone who saw me singing Beatles karaoke on Monday night can attest. And I’m not a recluse: I enjoy emotional intimacy and time spent with close friends, and it’s a very bad sign when I withdraw completely from human interaction. But large-scale socialization wears me out, and I do best when I have mentally prepared for it. (For the love of God, do not throw me a surprise party.) Lately, I’ve tried to become more aware of where my tipping point is – I refer to it as my “introvert crash,” by analogy with “sugar crash.” There comes a moment where I know that I’ve had enough socialization, and if I don’t smile and say goodbye right then, I will become tired and crabby and disgruntled.

In the case of the Pint-Sized Plays, I was so busy overseeing all of the different elements of the show that I neglected to give myself the mental preparation and self-care that I need before dealing with crowds. I’ve found it very hard to get out of bed the last few mornings, and it’s not like I’ve been staying up till all hours. It’s just that spending a couple of nights in a row at a crowded bar will wear me out.

As Pint-Sized producer, I actually have to go from extreme extroversion to extreme introversion as soon as the stage manager calls “Places.” Before the show, I bustle about, trying to make sure everything is in order, handing out drink tickets to nineteen actors and one musician, making sure the audience knows Theater Pub is about to start and has a comfortable seat, greeting old friends and briefly catching up with them. During the show, I stand by the light switches, dimming and raising the lights to call attention to the plays being staged in different areas of the bar. It’s enough to give you whiplash — but the quiet, introverted part of it is where I feel most at home.

Recently, The Atlantic published an essay by novelist Meghan Tifft complaining about how, especially in this age of social media, writers are expected to be more extroverted than they were previously. Her introversion sounds much more severe than mine; she gets nerves and stage fright in a way that I don’t. While I sympathize with her plight, I don’t agree with her ultimate conclusion. “Since when does making art require participation in any community, beyond the intense participation that the art itself is undertaking? Since when am I not contributing to the community if all I want to do is make the art itself?” Tifft writes. And I kind of want to answer “Well, since forever.” (I also wonder how Tifft’s fellow writers feel about her suggestion that all authors are pasty, mousy-haired types who should never be seen in public.)

I do think the arts community – whether it’s theater, literature, or anything else – is healthier when its members socialize and connect with one another, rather than keeping to themselves. And one of the things I like about playwriting, as opposed to other forms of writing, is that it allows for a short, intense period of human interaction (staging the show) after the long, arduous, introverted process of writing the damn play. I may be an introvert, but I was never so lonely and unhappy as I was during my first year or so in San Francisco, when I dearly wanted to become involved in theater but didn’t know where I could find my community.

I don’t want to stop socializing and attending events and making human connections. I like human connections; that’s why I’m a playwright. I just wish that the effort didn’t tire me out so much. Any fellow introverts have any tips on how to manage this? Come on out; don’t be shy.

Marissa Skudlarek would love for you to come see the Pint-Sized Plays on August 24 or 25 — just forgive her if she doesn’t want to make small talk afterwards. You can also find Marissa online at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud. 

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4 comments on “Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: An Introvert’s Guide to Theater

  1. I’m not sure which of the two I am really, but I have noticed that there seems to be a dearth of knowledge culturally lately about how to smooth over the awkwardness of human interaction to make it less stressful. A few common rituals go a long way in easing everyone’s stress. Perhaps because there is too much time spent communicating through written personally expressive words online and not enough basic socializing and training in the simple arts of saying “Hello” warmly and “How are you?” Listening for a few moments, sharing something small of one’s own, and then moving on as needed. Repeat. Might be a West Coast thing too… Individualism is so highly prized here that there seems to be no need to reach out to acknowledge others, as everyone is standing around waiting to be acknowledged. Or perhaps there is some inevitable consequence from the Me Generation of children raised to be waited on and indulged and not taught to consider the feelings and needs of others. I’m straying off topic, but I think my point is that if you have to reinvent a way of speaking each moment to each person, it’s stressful. If there are some culturally common and courteous conventions to fall back on, there’s more mental energy left for other things, such as perhaps actually enjoying a particularly pleasant or meaningful exchange.

  2. Colleen Egan says:

    Hi Marissa,
    I am also an introvert and I completely understand where you are coming from. I go out to shows and events like Pint Sized and I see all these people that I respect so much and I stress about not sounding like an idiot. I love being out in the amazing Bay Area, seeing performances, getting to know artists but the little voice in my head is always lowly humming “where is the door? How fast can I get under the covers back home in Alameda?”

    I get painful stage fright, I have since childhood. It does not matter how long a show has been running, I feel physical nerves before every performance. I would now be concerned if the nerves didn’t show up. I have a number of pre-performance rituals that help a little.

    I find that my confidence grows the more I get to know all you cool people but I still need to be myself. After intense exposure to big groups I need to take the time to spend hours at home with my doggy Jack (and husband) or to just enjoy some silence on a walk or at the gym.

    You’re not alone. There are way more introverts in the performing arts than you would think.

    Best,

    Colleen

  3. If you have not yet read it, I highly recommend a wonderful book by Anneli Rufus entitled “Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto.”

    http://www.amazon.com/Party-One-Manifesto-Anneli-Rufus/dp/1569245134/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1440104019&sr=8-2&keywords=anneli+rufus

    It was of great help to me in explaining why I was so unexplainably ill at ease in certain social situations.

  4. Rebecca says:

    Thank you for this! I am definitely an introvert by the definition you mention- I think I might qualify as the some times mentioned “extraverted introvert.” Discovering that I can step on stage and perform as someone without my hang-ups for just a while has been such a gift. I find that the theatre world is the most comfortable setting for me to socialize in- and I often see it as a substitute for going out- maybe because of the recovery time I need to myself as rehearsals/performances get more frequent.

    I live for those moments when I get some downtime with 2 or 3 of my peers- but when it’s time for an outting with the group, and heaven forbid it’s karaoke, which it almost always is- the recovery is immense! But always worth it. Maybe saving up energy for those special moments is an ok strategy. I had to learn to stop giving myself a hard time for turning down other invitations when I really need the time for myself. And to stop comparing myself when it seems that others in a community are out together all the time and I’m the only one who isn’t. I just gotta try to make the time I can give count!

    Now networking- is a work in progress. Unfortunately, trying to “play the role” of a confident networker never works. It really helps me to have a job to do at an event, and it’s always best if I have a current project or goal I might enjoy talking about. I think, situation depending, I pursue an aggressively complimentary strategy and/or try to focus on whomever I’m talking to first. And sure enough, I don’t end up in the corner alone the whole time like I think I will- thank goodness for theatre folks!

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