Conquering my fears of performing ... and water slides
At the Raven Narratives storytelling event Saturday night at the Durango Arts Center, the theme of the show was “Cold Feet” and the format was different than their usual productions. Instead of soliciting pitches, screening and workshopping with storytellers in the weeks leading up to the show, audience members who had a story to tell on the theme were encouraged to put their names into a hat before the show. If your name was drawn, you walked onstage and told a six- to eight-minute story.
Well, in the midst of some great stories, my name didn’t get drawn. But I won’t let that stop me from telling it. I present my “cold feet” story here:
It was one of my earliest memories, one of those memories that jolt you into further awareness that you are, in fact, alive. And when you combine life with irrational fear, even at the earliest of ages, death is always waiting around the corner.
I was 3 or 4 years old and in the shallow end of a community pool with my best friend and fellow toddler, Matt. Our mothers were dutifully watching. Somehow I went under water unexpectedly, floundered around, and came up with water uncomfortably up my nose.
This lone experience may be the root of my lifelong fear of water. At that age, with so few experiences of any kind, when all or most of one’s experiences with something like water are negative or unpleasant, it might have lasting impact.
I remember not long after being taken to one of those ball pits found at indoor play places that are supposed to be fun. I was terrified, thinking that hidden underneath the balls was a pool of murky water of unknown depths.
It was with this burgeoning fear of water that I was invited in first grade by my friend Robby to his birthday party at the Denver indoor water park and fun zone, Celebrity Sports Center.
I remember about six of us being there, all accompanied by Robby’s dad, walking up the switchback ramp to the top of one of the snaking waterslides. Every other kid gleefully disappeared down the slide. But I couldn’t do it.
Robby’s dad walked me down the ramp and back into the massive, shallow pool that the slide emptied into. I’d work up my courage and Robby’s dad would walk me back up the ramp, I’d stare at the entrance to the slide and opt to walk back down the ramp. I couldn’t see the bottom of the slide from that vantage, didn’t know how and where it would snake, or what my fate would be at the bottom, perhaps a big drop-off into deep water?
This happened three or four times before I and Robby’s dad gave up on me.
Thirty years later, I got it in my head to audition for the Durango Arts Center’s 10-minute plays and ended up being cast in two. I’d never acted before and had less than 10 minutes of experience performing on stage.
Every rehearsal, and every time I ran lines alone in my bed or walking the Animas River Trail, it felt like I was 6 again walking up that ramp to the waterslide. I often weighed my options of if I could still turn around and walk back down, effectively getting out of the commitment I’d made.
I didn’t think back to my waterslide memory until the moment before I made my first entrance onto the stage for that first play. I began to understand why that waterslide was so scary: once I stepped foot on the stage, there would be no stopping until the end. The play was set in motion and I would be on the ride until it was over.
It’s something common in a lot of thrill activities, being on a ride that doesn’t end until it’s over: skiing, roller-coasters, sky diving. The unknown of the journey is part of the exhilaration.
Or it can be fear-inducing.
I made it through those plays, never flawlessly. But over the course of that weekend of performances, I kept walking up the ramp and voluntarily going down the slide, each time the experience growing more familiar and less frightening.
And at the end of each performance, I’d plop down into the waiting pool where I’d float around on my back taking it all in, realizing there are fewer and fewer things in the world I need to be afraid of.