When I talk to people for the first time about being a performer, they always ask me if it was something I had always done. I tell them that I'd never performed anything in front of a group of people until I started taking improv classes.
I realized today that wasn't entirely true.
When I was in third grade my dad handed me a copy of a script of "Who's On First?" the classic Abbott and Costello routine about baseball players with strange names. He told me that I should read it because it's one of the funniest comedy bits of all time. Since my dad was right about everything, I started reading immediately. I quickly discovered that it was one of the most brilliant things I had ever seen.
After I read it over a few times, my dad asked me what I thought. I told him that is was hilarious and asked where it came from. He gave me the background on Abbott and Costello and then suggested that we memorize it and perform it ourselves. I looked at him with what must have been an incredibly dumb look and said, "But how could I memorize this?" He smiled and said, "You'd be surprised."
We spent a few weeks learning the slightly modified script - it was easier than I thought, he was right - and when we were at a point where we could do it almost absent-mindedly, my dad talked my teacher into letting us perform it in front of my class. Of course, he never told me that he was talking to my teacher about setting this up and I wasn't old enough to think that there was some end goal to the memorization of this brilliant work. I thought that knowing it by heart was all the reward we needed.
One day my dad came up to me and said, "Jeffrey, next week you and I are going to perform 'Who's On First?' for your class."
I said, "What?"
He said, "We're going to do 'Who's On First?' for your class. I talked to Mrs. D and she said it's okay."
"Oh," I said.
"Are you okay with that?" he asked.
"Um, do I have to?" I asked.
"Not if you don't want to, but I thought it would be fun," he said.
I said, "It will be, but I'm scared."
"Don't worry. You have it memorized. It will be easy," he said.
I believed him - because he was always right - but it didn't mean I wasn't scared.
When the day came for us to perform, I spent the entire morning with a sick feeling in my stomach. Much later I learned to recognize this feeling as nerves, but that day I thought I was sick. I didn't ask to stay home from school because I liked going to school, but also because I knew that my dad was really looking forward to it. I kept waiting for Mrs. D to mention that we would be performing for the class, but she never did. At about one o'clock my dad showed up and Mrs. D stopped class and introduced him as my dad even though almost everyone in the class already knew who he was.
When she announced that he and I were going to perform for the class, everyone looked on in amazement. No one knew what in the world we were about to do, but they were suddenly excited about it. I got suddenly more nervous. The more excited they got the more I felt like I was going to puke on my shoes. Mrs. D had put two stools at the front of class. My dad sat on one and motioned for me to sit on the other. I climbed up and could feel the nervous vomit begin to creep its way upwards. It was at that moment that my dad said, "Hey Jeff, I hear you've got a new favorite baseball team. Why don't you tell me about them?" I paused for a second and the vomit-to-be turned back into digesting lunch and I replied, "Well Dad, they give these guys pretty funny names." Before I knew it, we'd finished and the class erupted with applause. I didn't really know what to do so I got up and went back to my desk. When I sat down, the sick feeling had been replaced by excitement and pride. I did it.
It took me another 26 years before I worked up the courage to do it again. Now I do it almost every weekend and every weekend I get that sick feeling in my gut that always goes away the first time I open my mouth on stage.