Drawing Blanks

The other night I was on stage with my singing partner, leaning back on a chair as her next song began. Only it didn’t begin. The pianist played the intro, but when it was time for her to sing, no words came out.

This is the nightmare! The singer’s, actor’s, speaker’s nightmare: Forgetting. Drawing Blanks.

It happens to all of us. No matter how much or little stage experience we have, no matter if we’re just starting out, or seasoned for decades, it happens that we come to a place and forget entirely where we are. And it never ceases to be frightening. The very thought of it, the anticipation that it could occur and does occur is probably what keeps most people off the stage and out of the public light. And yet…what actually happens? What do we perceive versus what’s going on? How much of our fear is real and how much is imagined?

What happens to time? Time – ha! Time does us the honor of stretching itself to both ends of eternity. Things that once felt like seconds are stretched into hours. Or so it seems.

And in those hours, what happens to the brain? The brain – ha! The brain goes into overdrive – reaching, searching, darting, probing. Is it this? Is it that? What word is first? What line? And we stumble along in the dark recesses of our minds. Blank.

What happens to the body? The body….well…the heart rate quickens, we begin to perspire. We lose the color in our cheeks or suddenly gain it on our neck, on our chest. Our temples throb. Our breathing sputters. Send in the paramedic – we’re heading into cardiac arrest! I’m dramatizing for effect. On the outside, most of this is invisible, but inside the body is on high alert. Somebody might as well be holding a gun to our back. We want to shout. We open our mouth yet no sound comes out.

And is it ever lonely! We can be solo on stage or in a crowd. The moment we draw a blank, everything recedes leaving us out there exposed. We turn to our fellow actors, singers, musicians for help, for comfort.

Such was the momentary plea in my partner’s eyes….what is it? Fill in this blank. As the seconds stretched into minutes, I searched my own brain for the word. I knew the song, knew her line. I couldn’t retrieve it either. If I had, how would I have communicated it to her? Speaking it aloud may only have drawn more attention to its absence, to its masquerade as a mistake. I could have been clever about it and offered it to her completely in character. But what did it matter. I drew the very same blank.

I shared her pain – I’ve been there. Soon my own palms would begin sweating, my fingers tighten around the microphone I held ready for my turn. God, why do we do this? Why do we risk it? What kind of masochists are we?

I could not help her with words, but I could help hold the frame. I straightened up in my chair and strengthened my intention. I kept a cool gaze. Behind it my eyes blazed with belief and support…”You’ve got it,” they beamed. I flooded the stage with power. I stayed in character. Soon enough she had turned back to face her audience, centered herself and a second later was off and singing. Our pianist did not miss a beat – he stayed glued to her throughout the 30 tiny seconds that felt like 30 minutes.

And what did the audience do? They waited. For all they knew there was nothing the matter. This was exactly what was intended. And yet they did know. Deep down they sensed that something was off, that before them stood a singer and human being momentarily out of phase. They felt her struggle, drew in their breath and held up their own part of the theatrical frame. As the words came to her and she took back her song, they enveloped her there and then in their loving applause.

These events are what humanize us stage artists. They are what make live performance so thrilling and daring. The recognition. The seeing ourselves in each other. We think there’s a judge, an us and a them. Performance shows us time and again that we are all in this together, and that sometimes just holding space for someone to falter and catch themselves is the only thing there is to do.

Because it’s happened to us all.

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About Karen Kohler

Born in Frankfurt and raised in New York, Karen began her professional music career in Austin. Since returning to NYC in 2001, she has been a leading exponent of the cabaret arts as performer, director, producer and historian. Her performances blend multiple genres - classical, cabaret, jazz, blues and folk-rock - in six languages. She is founder of the award-winning ensemble, Kabarett Kollektif, and producer of Kabarett Fete, a celebrated international cabaret festival. Karen gives private lessons and conducts master classes in stagecraft, the art of public speaking and creativity coaching. View all posts by Karen Kohler

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