Have you ever entertained a daydream of what it might be like to run away from the stress, strain, and monotony of working a steady job and join a traveling circus? For many of us, the security of a steady income and a predictable routine keep us rooted in place, fearful of going out into the world, and untrusting of our own abilities to provide for ourselves. Perhaps an even greater pressure is the fear of what others might say, of being condemned as irresponsible or foolish.
My wife and I have just spent several enjoyable days with some people who aren’t afraid to take that leap and put themselves out there. For more than a decade, we have made an annual trip to the Orlando Fringe Festival, an alternative theatre festival that features both local and traveling performers who put on what are generally very simple plays of their own creation lasting approximately 60 minutes. I love this festival and the creativity and the talent the performers bring to their shows. Some shows are pure genius that leaves me awestruck: flawless in execution and brilliant in their concept and design. Others are episodes in courage with an artist or cast struggling through a performance or show that either isn’t working or was poorly conceived from the start.
About two years ago, inspired by the many shows and artists, I wrote, produced, and performed my own show at the Orlando Fringe Festival and then took it on the road to the Syracuse Fringe Festival. Watching this year’s performers, I was reminded of the hard work, the struggle, and the joy of doing my show. I remembered standing in the hot sun handing out cards to try to convince total strangers to pay $10 each to come in and watch my show. I remember that first show with a live paying audience and how frightening it was. I remember making a mistake performing one of the songs during that show and my surprise that I didn’t drop dead on the spot. I remember how my show got better with every performance and how wonderful it was when I felt the audience joining me on the journey of my performance. They joined me in the songs I was singing and I could see their bodies moving in rhythm with the music and my spirit soared. I loved when they would approach me after the show and tell me how much they enjoyed the play, how it changed their perspective or connected with something they already knew.
When I first started writing my Fringe play, Which Side Are You On?, I was afraid. I was afraid that I lacked the talent or ideas to create something that anyone would be interested in, much less pay money to see. I was afraid that my play and performance would totally suck and that people would ridicule me. I’m so glad I didn’t listen to those voices.
I gained so much from my Fringe performances. I created relationships with members of the audience, some of whom still approach me to talk about my play. I also created relationships with many other artists, such as Stewart Huff and Martin Dockery, who welcomed me as a performer, encouraged me, and whom I have come to admire. One night even found the courage to take my guitar out into the beer and wine garden where I started busking. In less than a half hour I’d earned enough money to buy dinner. Ever since I’ve felt that I have options, and that as long as I can play my guitar and sing a song, I won’t starve to death.
You don’t really have to run off and join the circus to find freedom, indulge your creative self, or break the monotony of everyday life, but you do have to be willing to put yourself out there. In the modern world we have unprecedented opportunities for artistic expression ranging from coffee house poetry readings to self-produced music shared online. You simply have to be willing to be vulnerable. Forgetting to words to a song in front of an audience is embarrassing, but it’s not fatal. In fact, it’s liberating in a way because once it happens and you survive it, you stop worrying so much about it, you relax, and then the real fun begins.