A Dickensian Nightmare, by Deb Emily

Emily Winslow by Jonathan PlayerMy recurring stress dream is always the same: The cast of my college production of Nicholas Nickleby has been called together to reprise our roles. We haven’t rehearsed, or even been given scripts to brush up with. We’re supposed to just show up and still remember everything.

What makes this especially nightmarish is that Nicholas Nickleby is no ordinary 90-minute play. It’s a lavish adaptation of Dickens’ thick novel of the same name, with eight and a half hours of stage time. That’s pure stage time, not counting the dinner break and intermissions and makeup and warmup. That’s a lot of script to remember.

And, even with a cast of dozens, most of the actors have to play multiple roles. It was thrilling to run into the wings to be efficiently stripped and re-dressed, even re-wigged, by costume students, then run back onstage as a completely different person. In real life, that was something fun. In my dream, it’s the big stress. In the dream, I can’t remember which character I play first. I can’t even begin makeup or run lines, never mind step out in front of the audience, until I figure out who I’m supposed to be. (My stresses are pretty easy to analyze, aren’t they?)

What always suprises me when I wake up is that, in the dream, I’m convinced that everyone else in the cast manages it. Every time, I truly believe that everyone else is onstage, in costume, easily spouting lines we’d learned seventeen years ago–all of them wondering derisively where the heck I am. In the dream, I always think I’m the only one who’s forgotten the plot. In recent versions, I can’t even find the theatre in time for curtain-up (I’ve gone from identity stress to deadline stress; is that progress?), believing utterly that everyone else is already out there in full costume getting on with it.

One of the things I’m grateful for about the Debutante Ball is being part of a group of writers that I can see is going through the same things I am. It’s comforting to know that the pressures of writing a second book, and the craziness of children + deadlines, and the worries about publicity and marketing and earning out, are shared experiences.

I’m pretty sure that at an actual Nicholas Nickleby reunion, we’d all need scripts, and rehearsal, and (some of us, anyway) refitted costumes. Despite the worries that I express through my dreams, I’m not alone.

That's me, front-left in the red dress
That's me, front-left in the red dress.

9 Replies to “A Dickensian Nightmare, by Deb Emily”

  1. Eight hours! That’s pretty incredible. What character(s) did you play (in real life)? Thank you for emphasizing the universality of these fears. Everybody has their own intense version of anxiety dream ~ which means, really, that everybody has their own intense version of anxiety.

  2. I’ve only been in two productions my entire life (I came late to amateur theater) and I have these dreams, too! Also orchestra-anxiety dreams where my sheet music keeps blowing away at an outdoor concert.

    Wish I could see a close-up of this picture of you in this gorgeous red dress…

  3. My main role was as Miss Snevellici, the actress opposite whom Nicholas plays Romeo in the hilariously happy-ended Romeo and Juliet.

    And Kristina–for you:

    The guy whose knee I’m “sitting” on had a sprained ankle, so I’m actually hovering in a squat just above his knee, and holding still for the camera. Ouch!

  4. Emily, what a coincidence, last night you were in my dream, but we weren’t on stage and all was well. It was all good stuff for your first book. Maybe the world balanced out for your stress?
    Great dress.

  5. Emily, I’m impressed! You’re multi-talented, girl. I, too, feel so lucky to be in this together, and to have this forum to welcome writers, aspiring writers, and anyone interested in the publishing world. It’s less scary when we all stand together as a group, propping one another up.
    By the way, love the dress!

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