I'm not afraid of very many things: bedbugs, nuclear war and not having access to a bathroom once an hour top the list, just behind my biggest fear: public speaking. Most people I know are baffled by this irrational phobia. "Mark, you write words for a living," they'll tell me, "surely you should be able to speak them." Maybe. If I didn't have a room full of people staring at me, and fidgeting and, gasp, texting. That's just rude. Maybe. If I could remain calm and not sweat through my shirt, or stutter like Porky Pig. As a sidenote: I recently learned that the phrase "sweat like a pig is false," pigs actually don't have sweat glands.
So, you can imagine the horror when I was recently asked to give a speech at an awards ceremony sponsored by the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity which my play, Recovery, had been a part of. Though terrified by the notion, I answered the question with dignity and class. "Are you out of your f-in mind?" But the person on the other end of the phone made a valid point. "It's a great way to promote leuekemia awareness [a cause that is very special to me] to over 300 people." And I Said Oh-Kay.
For the next week I wrote and rewrote the speech, and practiced in the mirror, in the shower, on the subway. I stressed over sounding pretentious, foolish or corny. I fretted over what to wear, to the point where my friend and I scowered the thrift stores of Brooklyn for two and a half hours, trying on every shirt, shoes and tie ever made.
Then came the big day, and as much preparation as I'd done, once I got up on that stage, I worried that I'd trip, drop the microphone, or that my zipper was open. To avoid having a panic attack, I made a joke. "I'm a writer. Which often makes me feel like a hooker. Only I don't get paid as well."
And silence. I thought about picturing everyone naked, but then worried about getting an erection. Should I laugh at my own joke, or lower my head in shame? How do I get this audience on my side? Left without a clue, I reached into my pocket, uncrumpled my speech, and went full speed ahead. My voice cracked, and my posture was awful. But guess what...the audience didn't boo me off the stage or throw shit at me. It WAS about the words. And they were,
"I really wanted to get involved with the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity because of the way it encourages artists to give back to the community. My decision to support the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society was deeply personal: I was diagnosed with pediatric leukemia when I was five, and battled the disease for the better part of my childhood. Though very painful at times, I’m not bitter about this experience because it helped me understand that life is something worth fighting for, and instilled in me the drive to inspire others through storytelling, and to be there for others with leukemia in any way I that I could. This year, it was a dream come true to be involved in a festivity that enabled me to do all of these things, and celebrated our achievements along the way.
Partly inspired my own experiences, Recovery is a play about people living with leukemia, people who allow themselves to laugh and fall in love, and who are more concerned with finding their new beginnings than facing the end. Like the play, The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society is built on hope. It provides lifesaving research, free information and support services to thousands of children and adults with blood cancers. Its work helps to dramatically improve the lives of many patients and their families, and I firmly believe that, without the help of this organization, I would not be alive today.
Working on this production of Recovery was an unforgettable experience, one that facilitated a reunion with the doctor that first treated me, who I hadn’t seen in over 25 years, and introduced me to so many inspiring people, including a man named Ed, who approached me after one of the shows to tell me he’d just survived a bout with throat cancer and felt so connected to the play, he wept with joy. In addition, we raised over $400 and created public awareness for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. It’s these moments that personify the magic of live theatre, and our ambitions as artists to inspire a community.
Thank you to all of the festivity staff and all of my fellow artists for your efforts to support so many important charities. Together, we have truly created theater for a cause."
I finished, rolled up my speech and took a deep breath. There was silence for a moment, and then I realized it was all in my head. I looked up and there were people standing. Some were even teary-eyed. From my little speech? Impressive. I reveled in their applause, soaking it all in, and then ran to the bathroom where the nerves got the better of me, and I vomited in the toilet. While that happened, I overheard someone talking about bedbugs, and my skin began to crawl. I went home, tore my room apart and looked for any signs that I might have them, too. Crazy, I know. But give me some credit: at least I'd gotten over one fear.
Mark Jason Williams
I find trouble wherever I go