That is how I feel at this exact moment.
I am about to go on stage with the improvisational comedy troupe Not Burnt Out Just Unscrewed.
I am not an actor. Or a comedian. I am a journalism student on assignment.
I grew up singing, dancing and playing instruments on a stage. And I’ve sat in on classes and attended a rehearsal at Not Burnt Out.
But on this Saturday night, as an audience lines up outside the theater, I am not prepared.
I am terrified.
An hour before the show, I sit in front of the stage, staring at my impending doom.
The red stage lights are dimmed. Actors and volunteers laugh in the next room. Everyone else is excited to get the show started. But my emotions are haywire, my body stiff.
So many thoughts run through my head. Will I be witty? Sound like an idiot? Can I make it easier for the actors, fun for the audience? Am I funny? AHHHHHHH!
Not Burnt Out’s creative director, Michael Pierce, and the host of today’s performance, Cris Candelario, are encouraging.
“Anthony, you cannot fail,” Candelario says.
They tell me the schedule, remind me what I am doing on stage. Pierce looks right at my sweaty, petrified face.
“We will take care of you,” he says.
Rosanne Bonomo Crago, a member of the comedy troupe, gives me a long, calming embrace and smiles.
Crago tells me that the worst thing that can happen on stage is that no one laughs, and that is OK.
I take a deep breath. The terror starts to slip away.
Before the audience filters in, we perform quick and easy acting games and end the warm-up with a big group hug.
I know I am in good hands.
The show starts and the introductions are made. I am now excited.
The troupe warms up the audience with a game. Then Candelario introduces me, making sure the audience knows this is for a story, not a career.
I walk on stage and give a nervous grin.
The skit is “Counting Words,” in which the audience assigns a theme and the number of words allowed in each sentence. It was a game I had rehearsed, and one that revives my terror.
But it is being played with Pierce and Crago, two people I know I can trust. I calm down.
The theme is a TED convention. I am assigned three words.
The stage lights brighten.
I see the faces of my family and my girlfriend in the audience.
My stomach churns, mouth dries. My mind goes blank.
I can’t remember what TED (Talks) is.
I open my mouth, unaware of my words. But I count them.
I say four words.
The first time I open my mouth, and I make a mistake.
The audience laughs.
Making a mistake never felt so good.
The audience claps when it is over. The troupe members congratulate me.
I sit down, palms sweaty and still in shock.
I watch the actors perform. After experiencing it firsthand, I admire their courage to go out and be themselves in the name of laughter. They listen to one another. There’s a great amount of trust among them. They adjust to every scene, never hesitating.
It is my turn again.
This time, it is a game called “Hesitation.” A scene is set up and a performer taps my shoulder for a word, and that word launches the performer’s comedic bit.
In my head I tell myself I can do this. My confidence is building. Then, as I am about to give a word, my phone’s Siri goes off.
“I am sorry, but I can’t take any requests right now,” says Siri.
My heart stops.
Candelario snatches my phone. He looks at it, pretends to scroll through its menu and makes a good joke of it all.
The audience laughs.
The game goes much more smoothly compared with the first. I am calmer. I have fun. The fear is gone.
I merge back into the audience, waiting for one more call to the stage.
I continue to watch the show. I admire the actors and their technique. Christopher Seidman’s unique sense of tone and volume provokes the audience. Jessica Spenny uses a serious monotone style as an effective comedy tool. Monica Rhodes’ body language conveys her inner dialogue. Scott Shaver has spot-on timing and a quick wit. They all inspire me to have courage on stage.
It’s time for my finale, the game “Armando.” The audience assigns a random topic and I have to come up with a personal anecdote incorporating it, upon which the actors then must add comedic riffs.
The topic: mythology.
I take a big breath. I remember the advice from rehearsal: Don’t try to be funny. Be truthful.
I begin with an anecdote about my parents’ love of travel and their trip to Greece, and the gifts they brought home to me and my siblings.
I watch the actors as they create stories from my stories, infusing each with humor. I do two more monologues inspired by their skits, and the actors respond once again.
Their skits touch on sibling rivalry, the perks of having overcaring parents, being a Catholic during Lent, and the funny side of having a vegetarian girlfriend. And they all hit home.
Back in my seat, I realize I had just gone through a form of therapy. I had somehow left all my worries and stresses on stage. I was able to laugh at myself.
It awakened something in me.
By curtain, my adrenaline is going. I am pumped.
This isn’t as terrifying as I thought.
Hey, I can do this. Maybe journalism isn’t my calling, after all.