In Praise of Fear

If anyone asks this August how my play about fearlessness is going, I happily tell them I'm terrified.

Edinburgh. August. The fear of a thousand artists hovers over the city like a brewing lightning storm. Everyone I know who's bringing a show to the Festival Fringe seems to be somewhere on the continuum between apprehensive and terrified, and if anyone out there is feeling relaxed about the whole thing, there are handy lists of reasons why they should probably panic. Although putting on a play (or circus/naked magic show/any other performance) may not be scary in the way that a tiger strolling into your bedroom is, presenting creative work is basically a collision point for all of our deeply rooted fears that aren't about our immediate physical safety. We're stepping into the unknown, inviting ridicule and rejection and the discovery (cue spooky music) that we're just not very talented.

But I stepped off the train at Edinburgh Waverly this August with a fresh perspective on fear. For the last year I've been writing a play about a boy who cannot feel fear and will stop at nothing to experience it. The Grimm's fairy tale which inspired me, The Boy Who Went Forth To Learn To Shudder, is littered with peripheral characters who seek to 'help' the boy in his quest, which made me think about the flipside of fear; blind trust. As I delved deeper I thought about the loneliness of not experiencing something as universal as fear. My play, Skin Of The Teeth, is about that destructive combination of feeling lacking, desperate to fit in and being unable to sniff out manipulators. Developing it has meant inviting fear to pull up a chair at my desk and to enter the rehearsal room with me and my collaborators, director Rachel Lincoln and actor Daniel Holme, and reappraising what fear offers us in life.

And now that I'm at the fright fest that is the fringe, I'm thinking about what fear can offer to artists. We're often told that fear is the enemy of art, a beast to unshackle ourselves from if we want to make anything. But I'm not convinced.

I think all performance on some level is about watching someone do something dangerous. The danger is explicit if your act is a knife throwing, fire juggling, flying trapeze (with bears!) but holding an audience for hour with nothing to call upon but a story is also a high wire act for a performer. Yes, fear can paralyse us creatively. Whenever I can't write I discover that I'm just a bit nervous about putting my thoughts on a page to be judged and ultimately (gulp) reviewed. My brain has decided it's probably safer to just not have any ideas for a bit. But so often, when torn between creative decisions, fear tells me which to go for, because the scary one is always bolder and more interesting.

The director of Skin Of The Teeth, Rachel, has her own relationship with fear, having struggled with anxiety. In her life fear has been a beast to overcome but nonetheless she's developed a grudging respect for it. She has to find the balance between allowing it to energise her to work hard and the making it shut up when it starts shouting at 4am that that work must be done immediately. A few years ago she was about to go onstage and found herself gripping the wall in terror (bringing a new meaning to 'bricking it'). But her feedback that night was that the work was captivating because she seemed so vulnerable.

I used to come to the fringe with my brother. He'd operate the sound and lights for my shows and we'd eat a lot of bagels together. Then, three years ago he died. In the time before, when he was acutely ill, I would lie in bed and feel the terror spread into my body; a physical fight or flight reaction but with nothing to fight and nowhere to run away to. A year of nights like that can do something strange to your fear response. When the thing you have most dreaded happens you can feel depleted of your ability to fear. And in that blank, fearless space I didn't feel at all creative. I realised that what gave me the energy to start a project and see it through was a tingle of terror; the feeling of finding something so fascinating I feared my words wouldn't do it justice, feeling like I had something difficult and scary to say. Feeling a little bit of fear sneak back in was part of recovering a bit, feeling ready to be in the world fully again and to make art I cared about.

Fear is inherently imaginative. It's a form of storytelling that we're all born able to do and vulnerability, fear's scary sister, is compelling.

So, if anyone asks this August how my play about fearlessness is going, I happily tell them I'm terrified.


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