Please trust me when I tell you I can be rather articulate. Eloquent, even.
But put me one-on-one with a famous person, and I get nervous. And when I get nervous, I turn into a pile of awkward.
President Bill Clinton came to visit my college, Bryn Mawr, my freshman year, in 1993. A bunch of us serious minded 19-year-old female scholars who wanted to meet him were cordoned off into our own area, which my savvy friend Amanda from Washington D.C. wryly dubbed the “Presidential Petting Zoo.” (Perhaps she knew something the rest of us didn’t, yet.)
When it was my turn to meet the leader of the free world, I gathered up all my intellect and said “Um, I like your tie.” He looked at me and moved on.
In 1996, I got to meet playwright Tom Stoppard after he spoke at an event. At the time, I was busy studying all aspects of theater and writing plays, and was in a production of one of his most famous works, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” as Ophelia.
Star-struck as I was, I was determined to keep my composure. I was the last person to approach him, so we chatted for some time about writing and his plays as he looked straight into my 21-year-old eyes. He was funny and smart and we both were laughing. People started to stop their own conversations and watch us.
(It is important to note here that Mr. Stoppard was quite attractive. He wasn’t one-of-the most-celebrated-writers-on-planet-hot. Or rakish-professor-type-with-an-English-accent-hot. Or handsome-charming-fellow-with-a-lightning-wit hot. Oh, he was all those things, to be sure, but he was also just plain old hot.)
In the course of the banter, I had forgotten my original reason for approaching him, which was to ask him to sign my script. He asked for it, opened it, found my entrance as Ophelia, and signed his name right there, telling me that I should “think of (him) every night as I went out on stage.” I blushed from the soles of my feet to the roots of my hair and thanked him. I clutched the script tightly to my bosom, turned on my heels and marched away on cloud nine as he watched. It would have been perfect if I strode up the aisle and into the night.
Instead, Tom Stoppard watched me stride directly into the front row of chairs and ricochet off of them loudly and painfully, and then attempt to limp away with as much dignity as possible.
OK, this one is hands down the worst. At first I thought about not telling you about it. Or hiding identities. Mostly, my own. But, alas, I’ve decided to share with you the full monty of my awkwardness one fall day in 1999.
It was the first day of rehearsals in New York for a new play for which I was the dramaturge. Dramaturgy is difficult to explain. Forget it. Just know that I was given a position in which I was expected to be a scholarly, flexible, smart theater professional. Under normal circumstances, no problem. I was only 24, but I could have risen to the occasion. I was a playwright with several plays that had been produced across the country. I had worked up from literary intern and wardrobe mistress to assistant director to literary manager in two years. I had never been sole dramaturge on a professional production before. It was a terrifying and exciting responsibility.
I would do my best, and often, my best is pretty great. At least this is what I told myself over and over the sleepless night before.
I knew that the play would feature Robert Sean Leonard, star of two of my favorite movies. He hadn’t started “House” yet, but he was certainly a well-known actor. Still, it wouldn’t be a big deal. I’d meet him in a professional setting and he’d be just another actor at the table introducing himself. I’d met many actors and sat at many tables. There’d be a read-through and everyone would get to work. I could quietly dazzle them my dramaturgical brilliance when the time came. Easy-sneezy.
I arrived at the rehearsal space early, to crouch over my bag and get my notes and handouts in order. I checked and rechecked my calendar. I prepared mentally for a BIG IMPORTANT DAY IN MY CAREER.
What I didn’t prepare for was glancing up and seeing a tall, smiling movie star walking toward me with hand extended in greeting. My dreams of being a professional, grown-up, normal, non-socially awkward person went poof.
I was so afraid I’d say something stupid that I looked down, pretended I saw something urgent in my calendar, and fled past him without a word. Maybe he’d think I’d forgotten to do something mega important and I needed to take care of it immediately, like paying the loan shark who kidnapped my dog or putting out the fire burning down my house or learning how to introduce myself to another human being like a big girl.
I couldn’t come back two minutes later and say “I’m so sorry about that. I had a thing I had to take care of. I’m Martha, nice to meet you.” Oh no. That would have been too reasonable. Instead, I hid my horrified self in the bathroom until lots of other people came into the rehearsal space. Then I walked in and continued to ignore him until he was introduced at the table.
God bless Robert Sean Leonard — he was gracious enough to ignore my stupidity and subsequent discussions with him went perfectly smoothly. Who knows, maybe people rudely flee from him three times a day.
Two years later, Robert Sean Leonard won a Tony for his role in Tom Stoppard’s “Invention of Love.” Perhaps President Clinton tuned in to watch the ceremony.