Playing the Role of You: An Interview With Sandra Joseph
Broadway star Sandra Joseph, from Phantom of the Opera, talks to Omega's George Kaufman about overcoming fear on and off the stage.
George: You’ve said when you were nine years old you saw the play Annie and decided you wanted to be in the theater when you grew up. Eventually, you played the leading lady in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, a dream come true. What was the magic that happened that night when you were nine?
Sandra: I believe God speaks to us through the longings of our heart and this particular means of self-expression—being on stage singing and acting—was what called to me. It was a yearning I couldn’t even describe. But the idea of getting up in front of people was terrifying. It took many years. I didn’t perform as a kid. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I did my first show.
George: I recall a conversation I read a New York Times feature where a grandmother asked her 9-year-old granddaughter, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The granddaughter said, “Grandma, I don’t even know what I want to be for Halloween.”
Sandra: It’s funny how passion and desire strikes some of us at a young age. For me, it happened before I had any idea whether or not I could sing or act. Martha Beck calls it precognitive knowing—the idea that there are some points in our life where we just know something in an inexplicable way. I had no reason to believe I could ever become a singer or actress. I was a kid in Detroit with not a lot of money. No one in my family had ever been to New York or to college. It made no sense externally, and yet, I remember feeling so deeply that it was possible for me. I have no idea why.
George: Was it encouraged at home?
Sandra: I was blessed with supportive parents, and a father who had done some acting himself locally around Detroit, but he was practical. He worked, raised two daughters, and encouraged me wholeheartedly. If I had any belief in a future of possibility or magic, it’s because of him.
George: Now you are supporting other people, doing for them what your father did for you.
Sandra: My greatest joy is supporting people who not only want to perform professionally, but anyone who longs for a means of self-expression. Many of us are stifled creatively. We have an innate desire to be seen and heard, and to connect, but we were wounded as young people. One unkind remark in childhood can render you permanently paralyzed and mute. It takes tremendous courage to dive back in. Creative expression in any form is risky to the ego. It will make you question your worth: “What if I fail? What if I’m no good?” “What if I make a fool of myself?”
George: You were terrified, but this is what you decided to do for a living. How do you manage being in the public eye?
Sandra: When you love something even the slightest bit more than you fear it, the love will always win. There are times when I’m scared stiff to put myself out there, but I had to master walking into fear. Making friends with that feeling is my path to awakening. And that’s what I love helping other people learn to do. When you stand up in front of an audience, anything can happen. If you can stay open to that vulnerability and become steady in that groundlessness, the courage you cultivate will sustain you in every aspect of your life.
George: In 2007 you were diagnosed with a brain-stem tumor on the cranial nerve that controls the left side of the tongue. For someone who relies on her voice for a living, this must have been very frightening. Did the practice of being present help?
Sandra: My college acting teacher used to say, “Don’t play the end of the scene at the beginning.” That’s how I try to live with this, by staying rooted in the present moment. Today, the tumor is tiny and benign. If I project forward and think about the fact that it could become cancerous, I can spin myself into all sorts of fear. But if I stay focused on the here and now, I feel great. I’m in a healthy body that’s growing stronger every day. It’s really about training my mind.
George: Do you still get what people euphemistically call butterflies, but is really controlled terror?
Sandra: Absolutely! I’ve learned a number of techniques to manage anxiety. I follow a whole process to prepare myself—whether it’s for a performance or an MRI—including visualization, meditation, and breathing techniques. The same practices I use to deal with stage fright I use elsewhere in my life and can be used by anyone. Whether you want to sing a solo in church, give a presentation at work, or simply strengthen your courage muscles, they work in all kinds of fearful situations.
George: These tools for performance are actually tools for life?
Sandra: Putting yourself through the terror of getting up in front of people is a wonderful training ground for living. You learn to become comfortable with all your emotions. You learn to adjust to how things are rather than how you think they should be. You learn to replace self-criticism with self-compassion. Isn’t that what we all need to be doing every day in our lives?
Performing gives you an opportunity to merge your internal world with the external world and express your most authentic self. In my workshops, I simply open up a safe space for people to be seen and heard and I watch them come alive. I think many of us are waiting for permission to shine. We don’t believe we deserve to. But if you don’t express what is within you, a little part of you dies every day. And you rob the world of your unique gifts. No one else has what you have to offer. No one else has been cast in the role of You.
George: People often think they don’t have anything to contribute, or nothing new to say, especially when it comes to creative expression. But if they look inside I think they find that unique aspect of who they are that differentiates them from everybody else in the world.
Sandra: We try too hard to be unique, when the fact is, we are each an individual universe and every one of us is fascinating. There’s an improv exercise where everyone closes their eyes and visualizes a box in front of them. Each person unwraps the box, takes the lid off, and looks inside. In a room of 100 people, every person finds something different inside that box. We just don’t trust our imaginations.
George: We have a tendency to listen to our self-critic and question our self-worth. If somebody tells us something bad about our art, we instantly assume it to be true. And if somebody says good things about our art, we tend not to trust the statement.
Sandra: Science has shown that we have a negativity bias: we’re like Velcro for negative comments and Teflon for positive ones. It’s why an actor who receives a dozen good reviews will only remember their one bad one. We need practices that help us tip the scales in the other direction.
George: You must have had your share of positive and negative reviews as you played Christine in the Phantom of the Opera over such a long period of time. Critics aside, what did Christine have to teach you?
Sandra: I played the role for ten years, and it was my job each night to learn to see the unmasked Phantom with total acceptance and love. I needed to learn how to see my unmasked self the same way. Most of us feel there are parts of ourselves we need to cover up in shame. It’s a continual growth process to drop the mask of ego and see who you really are through eyes of compassion and love.
I also love the metaphor that behind the mask we are all the same, each one a part of the invisible web that connects all life. What we see on the surface is such a tiny aspect of all there is. There is so much we can’t comprehend, so much beauty that we miss. We get so caught up in our to-do lists, our accomplishments, and our striving we forget to stop and marvel at the mystery. We can begin by dropping the mask in our interactions with each other and seeing we’re more alike than we are different.
George: Did you have anything to teach Christine?
Sandra: After more than 1,000 performances, I had to teach her how to be present. If I was not in the moment and listening—awake and aware—then my performance would fall flat and the audience would feel it. Every night, I tried to convince myself that the show was happening for the first time so that the audience would get the performance they deserved to see.
George: Your thoughts about looking behind the mask remind me of a story from Ram Dass. He would do something to impress his teacher, who would see right through him but love him just the same. Like Ram Dass, I think you’re talking about unconditional love.
Sandra: What a gift when someone else sees us with total acceptance and compassion. It gives us the freedom to begin to see ourselves that way. I believe that a happy person is one who has seen themselves fully and deemed themselves worthy. When you see all that you are and start to love yourself, laugh at yourself, and be kind and compassionate to yourself, that’s when true happiness begins to grow.