The Actor’s Nightmare

Why, nearly ten years removed from the stage, do I still get the Actor’s Nightmare?

If you’re not familiar, the Actor’s Nightmare is a simple but prevalent one among denizens of the stage, in which a performer finds himself thrust into a performance for which he is woefully unprepared.

Common tropes of the dream:

  • You learned all your lines, but have forgotten them and everybody stares dumbly at you as you “um” and “uh” your way through.
  • You never learned all your lines, but somehow made it to performance night anyway, and everybody stares dumbly at you.
  • You know your lines, but are unable to speak, and everybody stares dumbly at you.
  • Your costume is ridiculous or unfinished or ludicrously fails to fit you, and you must go onstage in street clothes, naked, or in the idiotic costume anyway.
  • The set is unfinished or worse, still in active construction, and your performance takes you through a minefield of sharply upturned tools, unsteady platforms, and other threats to life and limb.
  • Your performance is brilliant, but the audience is completely empty.
  • Your performance is an utter travesty, and the audience is completely full.
  • Your performance doesn’t matter, because the audience is full of T-Rexes who fall upon you and your fellow actors in a bloodbath of Shakespearean epithets.

Every actor in every performance ever has played out all the ways a show could go wrong in his mind multiple times throughout rehearsal for said show, and in the Actor’s Nightmare they all parade across the screen of our minds with the saucy abandon of a dog rolling in roadkill.

I’ve had the Nightmare ever since I started with theater. I will probably have the Nightmare my whole life, seeing as the theater was such an enormous formative element of my salad days. It’s just too much a part of who I am, I think, for me to ever be rid of it.

Still, why does it persist?

I don’t buy very much into dream interpretation, except in the broadest sense. If somebody tells you that because you dreamed you were falling from the 37th floor of an office building into a dumpster full of unicycles, you will soon find a new job at the office of Forestry under a supervisor named Shwampa or something… that’s garbage.

But the Nightmare, I think, is just another manifestation of doubt, of anxiety, of the rampant feelings of inadequacy that so many of us have. Notice in the list that a common thread is “everybody stares dumbly at you,” as if you’re out of place or you’ve wasted their time. Well, that’s a very real and present fear in the life of this particular writer. Also recurrent is that idea of things being “unfinished” or “unprepared,” which, well, yeah. I never feel particularly ready even to get out of bed in the morning, let alone to ply my trade as a wordslinger (though I did optimistically and automatically call what I do a “trade”, so maybe there’s something there).

Point is, there’s an undercurrent of doubt behind everything I do, no matter how brashly or confidently I brag about it. I don’t know, for all that I love my kids and my wife, how good I am at being a father or husband. I’m maybe a decent teacher, though I am regularly in class thrust up against the reminder that I don’t really know what I’m doing up there. I fancy myself a decent recreational runner, but I’m definitely not winning any trophies these days, and I’m always afraid I’m going to injure or re-injure myself. And as for my writing, well, I talk a good game, but no matter how many words I write, the Howler Monkey of Doubt is right there, with his empty eyes and his judgmental grin.


Of course, the upshot is that the Nightmare fills me not with the abject howling terror of being devoured by an audience of T-Rexes (okay, sometimes). Rather, I wake with the slightly bemused SOMETHING of watching a couple of cats wrestle for a moment and then lick each other’s butts. For a moment, it was scary, but now it’s just a weird thing that happened. The Nightmare is a reminder that, while that doubt can be crippling in the moment, it’s one hundred percent a creation of the mind.

The truth is, I’ve never gone on stage unprepared.

Or naked.

Or in front of a bunch of T-Rexes.

But maybe the thought that I may one day have to will help keep me sharp.

2 thoughts on “The Actor’s Nightmare

  1. I think we all have that dream–mine is usually that I didn’t really graduate college/pass that final and therefore will be fired. Good times with the Howler Monkey of Doubt


    • Yeah I still get that one too. In fact about once every couple months I will wake up thinking I’ve slept through the final for some college course, or that I somehow forgot to go to class for an entire semester.


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