Astronauts & Performers: Loneliness

As you might expect, I talk to other performers a lot. Whether they’re magicians, comedians, singers, dancers, DJ’s or all that falls in between. Pretty much everyone in my life earns their crust by doing something in front of other people professionally. So it is them with whom I have most of my conversations. 

Mainly we talk about how gigs were, funny stories that happen to us or theoretical subjects like act structure and material. If we’re proper ‘full time’ friends, we just talk about life in general. There is however, one topic I presume we all have in common that goes mainly undiscussed. 

Loneliness.

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What I really want to ask my friends is, how do they deal with it?

Now I’m not for an instant suggesting that this life isn’t entirely charmed and to be honest, I find it fairly tiresome when I read celebrity autobiographies with exclamations of how hard it is to be famous. They always leave me wondering if they’ve forgotten how hard it was not being famous! Whilst I myself and not in the category of ‘famous performers’, I work with people who are fairly often and my own career occasionally enjoys the trappings that I know come with ‘celebrity’.

 As I write this entry, I’m sitting on Deck 6 of the Marella Celebration Cruise Ship. I boarded yesterday in order to fulfil a week long contract which includes two evenings of performance. My cases have all the usual things in them – Clothes, props for my show and absolutely anything I can think to bring that will help pass the time. This is because the best friend of loneliness is most frequently boredom.

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We’re currently sailing around the Caribbean and off somewhere in the distance, over the perfectly blue sea and underneath the entirely cloudless sky I can see Antigua. Most of my day has been spent reading ‘Moondust’ by Andrew Smith. It’s about the astronauts from the Apollo missions which focused on getting to the moon. I’ve spent a large portion of my life amazed with space. A childhood obsession that was actually rekindled on another cruise ship.

We were sailing from Mumbai to Oman, Dubai and Egypt among other places. The route took us through some fairly dangerous waters and there were ex special forces guys on board to protect us for certain parts of the trip. All very exciting stuff. As we neared closer to Somalia, precautions were ramped up. Those who’ve seen the movie Captain Phillips will know that the modern day pirate is rather different to the one portrayed by Johnny Depp in the movies and quite a lot more scary.

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One night while sailing I decided to head up to the top deck for a walk. It was 1am and there was nobody else around. The top deck was particularly eerie that night as the external lights on the ship were turned off and windows were blocked with blackout curtains. The reason being that even something as big as a cruise ship becomes entirely invisible at sea if the lights are out.

On the top deck I recalled a moment from my childhood spent with my father. Also something of a fan of the space race (have been at the end of his teens when it happened) he decided that tonight was a perfect night for looking up at the stars. We left the house and went to a small clearing near the side of our house, away from the streetlights. He told me to close my eyes for moment and then when I opened them look up to the sky. Without the usual glare from the modern days almost inescapable light pollution, I saw the stars that night as I’d never seen them before. I hadn’t realised even that there were so many.

With that memory I headed to the top deck that night. I closed my eyes and tilted my head with eager anticipation. When I opened them I was immediately 10 years old again. I only wish that my dad could’ve been there to see it. The stars looked closer than ever and it appeared that in the 20 years passed, there were twice as many now than there had been before. I went up there for the two following nights but kept the experience entirely private. The sky was a theatre and I wanted to be the only one in the audience.
I can sense that to describe this is somewhat silly. In a way that all esoteric experiences are. I suppose you had to be there. 

That day I became obsessed again with space. I’ve read autobiography of every astronaut to have walked on the moon (less impressive than it sounds as there are surprisingly few). I even wear a reissue of the watch worn by the Apollo 11 crew on that mission (The Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch) and subsequently Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon.

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I’ve read many times the exploits and adventures in the life of Buzz Aldrin. I’ve seen movies focused on the quiet life of Neil Armstrong. They’re both names which will be familiar to almost anyone who reads this. They were afterall, the first four feet on the moon.

A name not so familiar perhaps is that of Michael Collins. He was the third person in the space shuttle on the Apollo 11 mission. His job however did not involve heading down to the lunar surface, instead he stayed in the command module, orbiting the moon and awaiting his team mates return.

There were times when he passed around to the darker side of the moon alone, as far away from other humanity as anyone in history had ever been. A loneliness that no one else in history had ever known.

I find it fascinating that even this, the greatest adventure in the history of humanity is tempered for this man as being one of loneliness. Ironic perhaps that this revelation makes me feel less alone.

My reason for writing this blog is that upon reading the chapter discussing Collin’s it occurs to me that as although it’s about to turn 6pm and I am on board a ship surrounded by 1200 passengers with 600 crew, I am yet to speak to anyone today.

There’s a good chance that this exile of sorts is self imposed and it’s certainly not the first time I’ve been in this situation. I am at heart quite a shy person. To some this statement must seem ludicrous, when said by someone who spends almost every day on stage. The difference there though is introduction. Without anybody to introduce me, I find the idea of waking up to a total stranger and beginning a conversation absolutely horrifying.

If someone else initiates a chat, I’ll come alive and jump right in. Until then though, I’m Michael Collin’s, on the dark side of the moon.

When I look back on all the adventures of my own life, many of which I’ve written about recently in other blogs, I am stunned by how many are tainted by the cold and quiet of loneliness. Perhaps being a successful performer is about more than being good on stage. Maybe some of it is about learning to handle being by yourself.

You mainly drive to shows alone, sit backstage without company and then find yourself in the hotel room without anyone else to talk to. Of course there’s the the phone and a plethora of ways to contact people with written messages, but so few replies after show at 2am.

I realise that this may come across as a very sad post but I don’t wish for it to seem so. It’s more about curiosity. Writing this blog is just something to do. Another way to pass the time.

More than anything, it’s a heads up. A warning.
If you want to perform for a living with any degree of success, the chances are you’ll end up spending a lot of time by yourself. Just make sure you’re ready for it. 

Best Wishes Friends,
Mark James

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