Stepping into the Unknown – Reflections on Courage in the Theatre

photo by guillaume brisbois houet
Written by Tara Hughes
A friend once told me that she found comfort in the idea that solitude is the only natural human state. It is the state in which we come into the world, and it is the state in which we leave. We survived the first, and we will meet the last whether or not we feel prepared to do so.
After a year that saw so many of our theatre colleagues pass on to the next great stage, I keep thinking of this idea. I keep thinking about a fleeting moment I often experience in my work as an actor.
You are backstage in the darkness, looking at the lights on the other side of the curtain. Rehearsals are complete. You have donned your costume and makeup. You have done your warm up, you have joked with your company. You have completed the backstage rituals and antics that get you to this place each night where you stand, if only for the briefest of moments, and collect yourself to enter. You carry with you the work, the hope, and the vision of many people– the director, the playwright, the theatre company – as well as your own ambitions and dreams. You are also responsible for delivering a story, and guiding the audience’s journey through it.
Though your crew and your cast will support you once you step into the light, in this moment you are alone. You will step onto that stage, and even though you have prepared, anything can happen. You must steel yourself to cross that threshold, open your mouth and speak. You must trust that all will be well.
On World Theatre Day, it may seem strange to use the Oscars to illustrate this reflection. But the moment when Deborah Kerr (‘The King and I,” “From Here to Eternity,” “The Sundowners“) was presented with an Honorary Oscar reminded me of the solitude that precedes every entrance.
Glenn Close introduced the award. A screen flew in behind Glenn Close to show a retrospective of Deborah Kerr’s career. Behind that screen, Deborah Kerr was being escorted to the centre of the stage.
When the retrospective ended, the screen flew out and there she was, standing in the centre of that stage. Glenn Close moved quickly to her, took her arm with respect, and they began to walk towards the microphone. At 73 and already experiencing the effects of Parkinson’s disease, Deborah Kerr seemed frail, her steps uneven – she seemed to need the support as she moved to the front of the stage. With her customary grace, she gave a brief and moving acceptance speech.
Before that screen flew out, Deborah Kerr was alone. There was no one to hold her arm – whatever crew had been there had cleared themselves into the wings. It was her responsibility to stand there, to defy her age and illness, and ready herself for one more entrance.
This is what theatre people do – over and over – throughout their entire careers.
It is out of these small moments of solitary courage that the magic of theatre is born. Whether they are filled with excitement, fear, determination, faith, or a jumble of inchoate feeling, when you attend the theatre, each show contains a myriad of these beginnings. Some happen before you see the show – a playwright stares at a blank page, a producer takes a risk on a new play, a director takes on an ambitious project. But it is during the show, when the audience is there to witness them, that these moments have – for me – the most power.
Each actor waits in the dark and finds the nerve to walk out to an audience with only their body and mind on which to rely. Each director sits in the audience on opening night, knowing the play is now out of their hands. Each member of the crew knows that technical difficulties will occur, but which ones? Each audience member sits in anticipation and mystery as to the journey they are about to take.
Before that curtain goes up, we are all about to step into the unknown.
Nothing can happen unless we commit to that step.
Ahead of us is the slalom race of the show, and we may miss a flag. And yet we dare, each night, to face that race for the sake of a human story.
Stepping into the unknown is part of the human condition – it happens over and over in our lives. The small moments of individual resolve that populate a play, also populate the world outside of the theatre. People find the resolve to take action in their lives, even though what follows is unknowable. People risk. People dare. People start something new. We all have stories to tell, and to break into the light with that story with no assurance of the outcome takes incredible personal valor.
This past year, more than any other in my life, has reminded me of the fragility of life and the importance of daring to step into the unknown. If we are fortunate enough to work in the theatre, we have spent our entire careers preparing to meet the unknown with only our hearts and minds. And we have spent those years sharing that commitment with others, in a collective experience that witnesses our moments of courage. Though I may feel alone, I am not alone; I am part of a common experience.
On World Theatre Day, there are many ways to describe how theatre creates international harmony. But to me, this is where any such theatrical movement will start – with a group of people committing to courage in the face of the unknown.
There is no knowing what will happen, but there is so much to discover.

Tara Hughes is a writer, producer, and actor living in Toronto.

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