Stage Fright

The Irony of Being an Actor With Crippling Self-Doubt By Mikko Juan

Story Contains

I am an actor – and I’m not very good at my job. Or at least… That’s what I keep telling myself.

When I first decided I wanted to be an actor, I wanted to do it because I wanted the spotlight. I wanted the attention. I wanted the applause.

What I didn’t know at the time was how hard it was going to be.

I’m not talking about how hard the business itself is – no, I’m talking about the actual work that comes from putting on a show – and the crippling self-doubt that comes with it.

My career has mostly comprised of theatre – musicals and plays alike, each with their own set of challenges. I’ve been very fortunate to have worked on some really great shows with some incredible people, many of whom I’ve admired and seen perform on stage. Some of my colleagues have been on Broadway, and some have been in the business for decades. My first professional show was at the 5th Avenue Theatre – one of the biggest regional theaters in the Northwest that has been responsible for helping a lot of musicals go to Broadway – before I graduated college. I’ve worked on helping develop new musicals, some of which have had their world premieres on a major Seattle stage. I’ve been inspired, enriched, and I was able to keep a steady stream of work for the better part of three years after graduating college. Now I’ve moved to London with my fiancée where I continue to find work, inspiration, and enrichment as an actor.

“I’ve been lucky. Very, very, lucky.
But sometimes I lose sight of all that”.

In theatre we have rehearsals – or “play practice” as the Muggles call it. Depending on the project, rehearsals might last one week or one month. Some projects rehearse 10am – 6pm, some rehearse in the evenings only. This is the period of time where we begin to put the pieces together. The show has been cast and the director and the designers have had their numerous meetings beforehand to come up with a concept to aid us in telling the story we want to tell. We can now begin to explore the world of the story and tell it.

In rehearsals, we do what’s called table work. This is our chance as actors to ask questions about the script; develop our characters, and their relationships with one another and to the world around them. Again, depending on the project and the kind of show it is, we may do table work for one week or we may only do it for a few days. Sometimes we don’t get table work at all, but that’s usually for shows that have short rehearsal periods and/or short performance runs.  

After table work, we start blocking the show. In other words, we find out where to move and when. Usually the director doesn’t pre-plan this phase and we actors are encouraged to make bold choices and to do what naturally comes. If the director likes your impulse, they’ll keep it and maybe make some adjustments. If not, they’ll either encourage you to try something else or give their input.

You know that old saying “There’s no such thing as stupid questions?” It totally applies to rehearsals. But to this day, I still find it hard to apply that to myself.

“It got to the point where I’ve seriously contemplated quitting acting altogether.”

I love and I hate rehearsals. I love the exploration of it, and I love making those discoveries. But I loathe the fact that I can’t seem to ask a question or give input or do anything without fear of sounding stupid.

I send myself down a rabbit hole of self-doubt and anxiety:
“Should I ask this question? Cause I don’t know the answer.”
“Oh shit… I don’t know the answer. I didn’t do enough script work at home.”
“I didn’t do enough script work at home… I’m a bad actor.”
“Yeah… that’s it, I’m a bad actor…”
“Fuck, that impulse to move here on that line was so STUPID!”
“This director will never want to work with me again.”

I can guarantee you that every single show I’ve done I’ve said all of this to myself, and then some. Sometimes it would get so bad that I would get flustered in the rehearsal room and forget all of my lines when I was supposed to be off book. Then on a 15-minute break, I’d go to the bathroom, lock the door, and beat myself up for getting flustered. Then I would go home at the end of the day and break down.

It got to the point where I’ve seriously contemplated quitting acting altogether. I hated having to tell myself I wasn’t good enough. I hated feeling incompetent in a field that I’ve always wanted to pursue and have spent the better part of my years training for.

I would later discover, with some help from a therapist, the root of where these feelings started to bloom: my big professional debut on The 5th Avenue Theatre stage.

See… It’s one thing to put on a show at your university – even if the director of said show was running rehearsals as if it were a professional show. You have the room to experiment, fail, and experiment and fail some more. But for whatever reason it’s scarier to do so in the real world – even if we are encouraged to make bold choices and fail. It’s our job!

But being in my first professional rehearsal room taught me so much about being a professional actor – and about self-care.

Me and Steven Eng in Paint Your Wagon @ The 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle. Photo by Mark & Tracy Photography.

The show was called Paint Your Wagon. It was an old musical written by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, and a playwright named Jon Marans was commissioned to revamp the book so that it could appeal to more contemporary audiences. It starred Broadway royalty as well as Seattle favorites, people I admired greatly. I originated a role, and got to perform on one of the biggest and most renowned regional stages.

Nothing could have prepared me for this. I wasn’t even graduating college yet, and I was so ready to struggle my way to the top before I played to big rooms. But here I was – rehearsing for a show full-time and then performing on a stage that I hadn’t envisioned standing on until long after I graduated.

Success came very early for me. And with it, an internal struggle.

One of my fellow cast members would see that internal struggle, address it, and forever change my life for the better.

That cast member was Rodney Hicks.

Theatre fans may remember him from being in the original Broadway casts of Rent and, more recently, Come From Away. I was absolutely star struck upon meeting him for the first time. Now I consider him a mentor and a dear friend, which is still surreal to me.

Rodney completely opened up my world. And I owe him everything.

During rehearsals and cast outings, Rodney would observe me struggling internally; anytime I had a conversation with these people whom I admired, my body language changed, and I would dumb down my accomplishments. He pulled me aside one evening during a cast party, and relayed to me his observations. He’s an advocate for mental health, and he made sure I was seen. He reminded me to let go – to be myself and not put up a façade to make sure everybody likes me.

As an opening night gift, he gave me his copy of “The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brené Brown. With it, he brought into my life the concepts of self-compassion and gratitude.

That book, and Rodney’s kindness, helped me put into words what it was I was feeling: with this early success came this immense pressure to stay humble; to dumb down my accomplishments so that I don’t boast and come off as an egotistical asshole. As a result, I started to develop a lack of self-compassion. Feeling like I didn’t belong there, or deserve this success. All of this would transfer over to later moments of self-doubt in my career; moments of second-guessing myself, moments of “Am-I-asking-a-stupid-question-or-making-bad-choices-in-the-rehearsal-room” kind of talk. It would then develop into moments of anxiety; moments of crippling self-doubt to the point of wanting to quit acting.

One might say that ignorance is bliss. That maybe Rodney had no right to tell me what I was feeling, and that I would have been better off not knowing about what he observed.

I would argue that had I not known what I was doing and how to put it into words, I would still unconsciously be doing these things and not work towards getting myself to a place where I can own my story and my accomplishments. Bottling it all up would have greatly deteriorated my mental health, and I wouldn’t have been able to figure out why.

“…I’m still alive. I’m still learning. And I still get to do what I love.”

Paint Your Wagon happened almost four years ago.

To this day, I’m still learning how to own my story and my accomplishments.
I’m still learning to make those bold choices and to ask those stupid questions.
I’m still learning to accept the fact that I can’t please everyone.

I still have moments of self-doubt.
I have questioned my presence in this business.
I still break down every once in a while.

But I’m still alive. I’m still learning. And I still get to do what I love.

Still pretty lucky.

Me in Macbeth with Lazarus Theatre Company in London. Photo by Adam Trigg.


I am an actor – and I’m not very good at my job. Or at least… That’s what I keep telling myself.

When I first decided I wanted to be an actor, I wanted to do it because I wanted the spotlight. I wanted the attention. I wanted the applause.

What I didn’t know at the time was how hard it was going to be.

I’m not talking about how hard the business itself is – no, I’m talking about the actual work that comes from putting on a show – and the crippling self-doubt that comes with it.

My career has mostly comprised of theatre – musicals and plays alike, each with their own set of challenges. I’ve been very fortunate to have worked on some really great shows with some incredible people, many of whom I’ve admired and seen perform on stage. Some of my colleagues have been on Broadway, and some have been in the business for decades. My first professional show was at the 5th Avenue Theatre – one of the biggest regional theaters in the Northwest that has been responsible for helping a lot of musicals go to Broadway – before I graduated college. I’ve worked on helping develop new musicals, some of which have had their world premieres on a major Seattle stage. I’ve been inspired, enriched, and I was able to keep a steady stream of work for the better part of three years after graduating college. Now I’ve moved to London with my fiancée where I continue to find work, inspiration, and enrichment as an actor.

“I’ve been lucky. Very, very, lucky.
But sometimes I lose sight of all that”.

In theatre we have rehearsals – or “play practice” as the Muggles call it. Depending on the project, rehearsals might last one week or one month. Some projects rehearse 10am – 6pm, some rehearse in the evenings only. This is the period of time where we begin to put the pieces together. The show has been cast and the director and the designers have had their numerous meetings beforehand to come up with a concept to aid us in telling the story we want to tell. We can now begin to explore the world of the story and tell it.

In rehearsals, we do what’s called table work. This is our chance as actors to ask questions about the script; develop our characters, and their relationships with one another and to the world around them. Again, depending on the project and the kind of show it is, we may do table work for one week or we may only do it for a few days. Sometimes we don’t get table work at all, but that’s usually for shows that have short rehearsal periods and/or short performance runs.  

After table work, we start blocking the show. In other words, we find out where to move and when. Usually the director doesn’t pre-plan this phase and we actors are encouraged to make bold choices and to do what naturally comes. If the director likes your impulse, they’ll keep it and maybe make some adjustments. If not, they’ll either encourage you to try something else or give their input.

You know that old saying “There’s no such thing as stupid questions?” It totally applies to rehearsals. But to this day, I still find it hard to apply that to myself.

“It got to the point where I’ve seriously contemplated quitting acting altogether.”

I love and I hate rehearsals. I love the exploration of it, and I love making those discoveries. But I loathe the fact that I can’t seem to ask a question or give input or do anything without fear of sounding stupid.

I send myself down a rabbit hole of self-doubt and anxiety:
“Should I ask this question? Cause I don’t know the answer.”
“Oh shit… I don’t know the answer. I didn’t do enough script work at home.”
“I didn’t do enough script work at home… I’m a bad actor.”
“Yeah… that’s it, I’m a bad actor…”
“Fuck, that impulse to move here on that line was so STUPID!”
“This director will never want to work with me again.”

I can guarantee you that every single show I’ve done I’ve said all of this to myself, and then some. Sometimes it would get so bad that I would get flustered in the rehearsal room and forget all of my lines when I was supposed to be off book. Then on a 15-minute break, I’d go to the bathroom, lock the door, and beat myself up for getting flustered. Then I would go home at the end of the day and break down.

It got to the point where I’ve seriously contemplated quitting acting altogether. I hated having to tell myself I wasn’t good enough. I hated feeling incompetent in a field that I’ve always wanted to pursue and have spent the better part of my years training for.

I would later discover, with some help from a therapist, the root of where these feelings started to bloom: my big professional debut on The 5th Avenue Theatre stage.

See… It’s one thing to put on a show at your university – even if the director of said show was running rehearsals as if it were a professional show. You have the room to experiment, fail, and experiment and fail some more. But for whatever reason it’s scarier to do so in the real world – even if we are encouraged to make bold choices and fail. It’s our job!

But being in my first professional rehearsal room taught me so much about being a professional actor – and about self-care.

Me and Steven Eng in Paint Your Wagon @ The 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle. Photo by Mark & Tracy Photography.

The show was called Paint Your Wagon. It was an old musical written by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, and a playwright named Jon Marans was commissioned to revamp the book so that it could appeal to more contemporary audiences. It starred Broadway royalty as well as Seattle favorites, people I admired greatly. I originated a role, and got to perform on one of the biggest and most renowned regional stages.

Nothing could have prepared me for this. I wasn’t even graduating college yet, and I was so ready to struggle my way to the top before I played to big rooms. But here I was – rehearsing for a show full-time and then performing on a stage that I hadn’t envisioned standing on until long after I graduated.

Success came very early for me. And with it, an internal struggle.

One of my fellow cast members would see that internal struggle, address it, and forever change my life for the better.

That cast member was Rodney Hicks.

Theatre fans may remember him from being in the original Broadway casts of Rent and, more recently, Come From Away. I was absolutely star struck upon meeting him for the first time. Now I consider him a mentor and a dear friend, which is still surreal to me.

Rodney completely opened up my world. And I owe him everything.

During rehearsals and cast outings, Rodney would observe me struggling internally; anytime I had a conversation with these people whom I admired, my body language changed, and I would dumb down my accomplishments. He pulled me aside one evening during a cast party, and relayed to me his observations. He’s an advocate for mental health, and he made sure I was seen. He reminded me to let go – to be myself and not put up a façade to make sure everybody likes me.

As an opening night gift, he gave me his copy of “The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brené Brown. With it, he brought into my life the concepts of self-compassion and gratitude.

That book, and Rodney’s kindness, helped me put into words what it was I was feeling: with this early success came this immense pressure to stay humble; to dumb down my accomplishments so that I don’t boast and come off as an egotistical asshole. As a result, I started to develop a lack of self-compassion. Feeling like I didn’t belong there, or deserve this success. All of this would transfer over to later moments of self-doubt in my career; moments of second-guessing myself, moments of “Am-I-asking-a-stupid-question-or-making-bad-choices-in-the-rehearsal-room” kind of talk. It would then develop into moments of anxiety; moments of crippling self-doubt to the point of wanting to quit acting.

One might say that ignorance is bliss. That maybe Rodney had no right to tell me what I was feeling, and that I would have been better off not knowing about what he observed.

I would argue that had I not known what I was doing and how to put it into words, I would still unconsciously be doing these things and not work towards getting myself to a place where I can own my story and my accomplishments. Bottling it all up would have greatly deteriorated my mental health, and I wouldn’t have been able to figure out why.

“…I’m still alive. I’m still learning. And I still get to do what I love.”

Paint Your Wagon happened almost four years ago.

To this day, I’m still learning how to own my story and my accomplishments.
I’m still learning to make those bold choices and to ask those stupid questions.
I’m still learning to accept the fact that I can’t please everyone.

I still have moments of self-doubt.
I have questioned my presence in this business.
I still break down every once in a while.

But I’m still alive. I’m still learning. And I still get to do what I love.

Still pretty lucky.

Me in Macbeth with Lazarus Theatre Company in London. Photo by Adam Trigg.


Mikko Juan

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