Moment of Truth

Every actor can tell you about the nightmares.

I don’t mean the ones that confine themselves to the world of sleep, like showing up for an audition and discovering it’s opening night, or picking up a script and discovering that all the words have turned into Esperanto.  Dreams like that are part of any high-stress situation – after all, how many of us have had the Final Exam Dream™ years after graduation?

No, these are the nightmares that turn into reality. A set that falls on you from behind. A prop that disintegrates in your hand. A costume that goes missing mid-way through the show. The best ones turn into “war stories” years later, proof that the show must go on. But there’s always the fear of the worst. The one that breaks you.

Long ago, the worst happened to Sir Ian Holm.

That’s when the freeze hit.

It sounds unthinkable now. To be honest, it sounded unthinkable then. When Sir Ian – who passed away Friday at the age of 88– took the stage in 1976 for “The Iceman Cometh,” he was already a respected actor, even a Tony winner. But all at once, the gears locked midway through the show… and one of the worst cases of stage fright on record set in.

“Here I am, supposed to be talking to you … there are you, expecting me to talk,” he remembered telling the audience in his memoirs. He fumbled his way past the actors, off stage, and all the way to the dressing room, where he was found curled in a fetal position unable to return.

That could have been the end.

Actors go to a strange place – an intersection where illusion meets reality, where the personal ties to the universal. It’s a beautiful bridge, but it can be a fragile one. And when it breaks, there’s suddenly nowhere to go but down.

Most of us know the feeling, I think. Even if we’ve never set foot on a stage.

And that’s because most of us have been at a moment where life completely fell apart.

The loved one that was lost.

The perfect health that suddenly wasn’t.

The job that went away.

The world that changed into something unrecognizable.

It may have come without warning or with a “check engine” light that went ignored for years. Either way, it’s devastating, and not just because of the crisis itself. As I’ve said before, we like to believe that we’re in control of life – that we can make plans, anticipate problems, set ourselves up for a good present and a better future.

When we’re reminded of how little control we really have, it hits hard. It’s terrifying.

And the scariest part is facing the question “What next?”

Are we just the circumstances that came before us, breaking when they’re shattered, melting when they’re dissolved? Or is there something more that can emerge and grow?

I’ve had to take that look at myself. Maybe you have, too. It’s not comfortable. But in that place of truth, when we stand stripped of what came before, possibility can be born.

It doesn’t have to be the end. Just an end. And therefore, a beginning as well.

Sir Ian certainly found it so.

It was years before he ever stepped on a stage again. But he rebuilt his bridge on the screen. From “Chariots of Fire” to “The Fifth Element,” from “Alien” to “The Lord of the Rings,” he won over entire generations who had never known him through anything but the movies. And whether he was a determined track coach or the legendary Bilbo Baggins, the truth of who he was and what he had to say shone through.

The freeze didn’t have to be fatal. For him. Or for us.

That’s a dream worth holding on to.

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