In Defence of Shyness | StageMilk

In Defence of Shyness

Written by on | Acting Tips

When I was nine my family moved from country Western Australia to Perth – the big smoke. I went from a school with just under 200 kids to a city school with about 3x that amount. Not only was the school’s size difference colossal to me but also the difference between my grades and the other kids was equally huge but in the other direction. I’d also barely ever used a computer before heading to the city – couldn’t tell you what the internet was let alone an email. But those city kids were lightyears ahead of me. It became apparent pretty quickly that all my grades (aside from spelling), were far below average and my shyness skyrocketed. My nine-year-old logic was: the less I tried to answer things in class then fewer people would notice how far behind I was – so best not to try.  

But the biggest point of difference from the other kids was exactly that: I was still very much a kid. I wanted to play games during lunch and recess. I don’t mean sports – there was plenty of that – but there were way fewer kids playing games that required your imagination. At my first school, there were a lot more kids just pretending to be other things during lunchtime and recess, playing cops and robbers, hide and seek, pretend we’re all tigers, pretend all the locusts are lava, pretend the playground is the Death Star, pretend all the lawn is lava, making secret societies, running into things at top speed, impaling ourselves and falling off various things we shouldn’t have been mucking around on.

This was the world I’d left, the world that shaped me and I was proud of it. It was a bit of a circus – and it was my kind of circus. But in the big city school, I just remember that for the first time in my life I felt acutely aware that I was behind a lot of the other kids my age, in grades sure, but also a huge difference in how I wanted to spend time during the break. And man did it make me a shy, hyperaware-overthinker way too concerned about what other kids thought of me. The other kids wanted to grow up and I wasn’t buying it. 

A few mere months after the move, my mum found out through another mum at school that there was a town hall a few suburbs away that ran a two-hour drama class on a Saturday. I didn’t know what a drama class was but I went in (somewhat reluctantly) because I was told it was nothing fancy, just a lot of games and such. We went in that Saturday, mum left me with about ten or twelve kids in what looked more like a scout hall than a town hall. All the kids are rowdy and excited for the class and excited to see each other. And the first thing our kooky looking teacher called out was:            

“Ok, everyone! Let’s all be WHEELS!”

And immediately every single kid started running around the room. They didn’t look like they were trying to be wheels, they just *were* wheels. Some kids spinning, some doing cartwheels, some doing the train-arms thing, a backstroke-while-running thing. Didn’t question it, didn’t roll their eyes, didn’t laugh at anyone else – just did it. I’m sure we all looked hilarious but that was beside the point. These kids understood the point of it, the point of the task and the secret to getting max enjoyment out of the most seemingly pointless things in life.

The point was: questioning it = no fun.
Overthinking it and hesitating = no fun.
No questions and just do it (even at the risk of it being bad) = more fun. 

Never had I been anywhere where a grown adult asked me to just simply be something else. Not only that, but there was no right or wrong way to do it. However, I interpreted it was fine as long as I committed to it. And I immediately thought:

“Yep. I still don’t know what this place is, but I like it.”

But at that moment there we all were – a bunch of kids who just liked to play pretend, pretending to be wheels together, in a town hall in the middle of the most isolated city in the world. As far as I was concerned I’d found my new circus. I could do all the pretend stuff my heart desired and then some. I wasn’t self-conscious at school anymore because I found a place where the stronger your imagination was the better. Thinking about yourself just gets in the way of Space Jump, ‘What are you doing?’, Zip Zap Boing and Bus Stop, Gibberish and later on – the scenes. Our teacher encouraged us to commit, fail and try again and you really could do no wrong – you either committed or you didn’t. This in turn made me try and answer questions at school because I wasn’t too shy to just give it a red hot go in front of everyone. Slowly but surely my grades started to catch up a bit and the acting bug was deep in my bones. 

This brings me to the present, and what I’ve observed is that there is a lot of BS out there about what it takes to be an actor. That you need to be some sort of extroverted, well-spoken, witty charm-machine in all social and professional settings. I’m here to tell you that that is a complete load of tosh. Even if you’re a shy person you should never ever let your shyness stop you from starting or continuing acting. Because there’s a distinctly different motivation behind the performing one does in social settings and the performing that you do on stage or screen for work. When you perform as an actor, you temporarily put your shyness away to help yourself tell a story. It’s not easy, but it’s simple and gets easier with practice. You begin to realise the story you’re telling is much bigger and more important than your fear of making a fool of yourself. Every single kid in my class was a shy kid when they first walked in the door (some cripplingly shy) and they all walked away more confident than when they arrived. And even now on the journey of learning and working as an actor: shy Emma is still on that road trip. But she’s never allowed to drive. Sometimes she leans over and mucks around with the radio and gives unsolicited advice on navigation, but I don’t listen to her. She’s got a terrible sense of direction and always suggests the most boring route to wherever I’m going in my work.

As each year goes by, I get to know more and more actors properly through work and just through the community I’m a part of. And here’s a fact: I know just as many actors who are shy people as I know actors who aren’t. Not all are cripplingly shy, some just a tiny bit and some a lot. But nowadays tend to use more generalised terms of ‘introverted’ or ‘extroverted’ to describe our level of shyness. But I find even those adjectives are becoming tired in their overuse and ineffective in accurately categorizing people I know and meet. You dear reader are also far more layered as a human, and I feel it would be a disservice to put you into a over-simplified label of introvert or extrovert. Actors just so happen to be people who work in a complex industry, doing work that requires them to be vulnerable. I have never seen any correlation between the level of shyness an actor possesses and the quality of their work. Only the amount of work they put in determines quality at the end of the day. 

Ultimately I believe that acting as a profession actively attracts people who possess shyness in some capacity. What I’ve deduced from my own experience is the more I commit to the given circumstances of the character (or wheel) I’m playing – the more my shyness dissipates. Even if it’s just for a moment. 

If you’re a beginner and you’ve found a wonderful drama class or theatre group that is a positive and encouraging environment – Excellent! All classes that involve performance of any kind should be a space that allows you to feel completely uninhibited to just play. I would strongly encourage you to get up there on the floor as much as possible to discover your full capacity as a performer. When you feel even a second’s hesitation in your work, listen to that voice and discern whether it’s ‘shy you’ speaking or not. If it’s shy you then tell it to bugger off, because you’ve got a story to tell. Then get up there and give it a red hot go! Our shy selves like to protect our performer selves from going out on a limb, doing something bold, brave, interesting or fun. And without a brave move, we have no growth. Whenever I tell shy Emma to bugger off for a second I always discover something new in my work and my capacity as a performer.  

*But* if the drama class or theatre group you’re in is a discouraging environment, makes fun of people for work they’ve performed in earnest, shames people for “getting things wrong” or is a generally negative place to be then it is time to find a new class or theatre group. And you should never blame yourself for not wanting to be completely vulnerable in a space like that. Babes, that’s not on you. 

Now let’s say you’ve already been bitten by acting the bug and/or completed studies. Now you’re at the point where you want to work towards making it your career. Buuuuut you still consider yourself quite a shy person.


 Your shyness is not a shortcoming, it’s who you are and that’s fine. There is definitely a social aspect to the job and that can help you make friends in your industry for sure. But you don’t have to after rehearsals, after a show or after a shoot. Really, at the end of the day, all that matters is how you deliver in the audition, on stage or screen, the respect you display for others while you work, your generosity, preparation, punctuality, listening skills and how much enjoyment you can get out of it in the process. And shyness sits in the backseat or even the boot for all of that.

And just between you and me, it’s sometimes the shyest of performers who’s work tends to blow me away the most. They keep me guessing and they catch me by surprise in their work, like some sort of stealthy warrior getting me off guard and quickly assassinating me while my back’s turned. And that my friend is a superpower that cannot be taught.

There are so many actors who consider themselves to be incredibly shy people or at least we’re shy at one point in their lives. And they’ve not only made a living out of an acting career but have excelled at it. And after all this if you still don’t believe me when I say that you can absolutely be a shy person and a successful actor, then just have a look at the list below and you’ll see that you’re in some pretty good company. 

Viola Davis: My confidence took time. It really did, to come into myself”

Robert De Niro: “Yeah, part of me is shy, I guess. You know the old story that actors are shy, then they get behind the character they play, you know? There’s truth to that.” 

Jessica Chastain: “Yes, I’m so shy.”…… “It’s a strange thing, acting for me has never been about wanting attention or wanting to be seen… it’s funny that I’m in a profession where that’s where I am.”

Kerry Washington: “I tend to be very self-reliant and private. And I have this history of wanting to work things out on my own and protect people from what’s going on with me.”

Tom Hanks: “I was horribly, painfully, terribly shy. At the same time, I was the guy who’d yell out funny captions during filmstrips. But I didn’t get into trouble. I was always a real good kid and pretty responsible.”

Steve Martin: “I am fundamentally shy and still feel slightly embarrassed at disproportionate attention.”

 Nicole Kidman: “The one thing I struggle with is [getting] through my shyness, because if I’m willing to speak up and not be obedient all the time, then I’m free and I do much better work. But if I haven’t worked for a long time, my shyness comes back and I’m a little rigid and scared. So it helps me to work a lot because it frees me.” 

So there we have it guys; whether you’re completely green, just starting training, your career or you’re even mid-career and worried about how your shyness and acting work will interact, know that a whole lot of actors experience the same thoughts and push on regardless and even find great success and sense of belonging in their work. If you see it as an obstacle in your way know it’s not a fixed thing, but rather something you can just walk around for a moment on your way to getting your work done. And who knows, one day, it could even be your superpower as an actor. 

About the Author

Emma O’Sullivan

Emma O’Sullivan is an actor, writer, juggler, frequent pasta maker and sometimes stilt walker. She graduated from WAAPA in 2016 with a BA Acting, and cut her teeth at the Hayman Theatre, Curtin University. Since graduating she has written and performed two solo shows at Perth, Newcastle and Sydney fringe and also with JackRabbit Theatre company. Originally from Perth, she is now based on the east coast and when you don’t see Em onstage you’ll find her practicing some *siq* new diabolo tricks and club juggling at park near you.

One response to “In Defence of Shyness”

  1. Avatar Miguel A Velazquez says:

    Thank you for this article Emma! So helpful. I constantly struggle with feeling shy and thinking I am alone on this since society tends to shame people for being shy. Performing and public speaking does not come natural to me per say, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that I love Acting! It helps to know I am not alone on this. -Miguel

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