first person

A Return to Stage Fright

Jacqueline Novak on reviving her critically acclaimed live show Get on Your Knees after a year away.

Jacqueline Novak performing Get on Your Knees in New York prior to the pandemic. Photo: Monique Carboni
Jacqueline Novak performing Get on Your Knees in New York prior to the pandemic. Photo: Monique Carboni

One night in early 2020, toward the end of the New York run of Get on Your Knees, I was in my dressing room doing a preshow routine. The classical house music and casual chatter of audience members floated backstage as I tinkered with my appearance. I smoothed my eyebrows with my middle fingers, gulped down espresso, tugged my pants up and my T-shirt down. My phone alerted me that I had been tagged in an Instagram post, and I opened it up without thinking. I was disoriented by what I saw: a selfie of two smiling audience members in the crowd, wearing matching Get on Your Knees sweatshirts.

After years of chasing stand-up success, I am used to seeing the audience not as fans, but as doubters — necessary adversaries who challenge me to win them over. When I took the stage that night, I was relieved to see they were far enough back to be invisible to me beyond the wall of light, because I wasn’t sure if their appreciation of me would help or hurt the show. Nerves, fear, and doubt have been a part of my stand-up for so long that I’ve made a home for them, and now I’m not sure I can do it without them. Is it a vestigial organ, or is it doing something? Whatever that something is, it’s been asleep for a year, but as I prepare to get back onstage, it thumps in the belly, familiar as ever.

My last performance of Get on Your Knees in New York was on February 16, 2020, after four extensions. I took a bow and really milked it. My boyfriend Chris and I celebrated around the corner at Via Carota and then flew back to L.A. where we had moved not long before. After arriving back home, I had a few weeks to prepare for my first big tour — a series of theater runs and comedy-festival performances of the show in Boston, Chicago, London, and more. The show was in me, as they say; I wasn’t afraid of anything other than whether I could find decent Airbnbs. The task upon me was to keep doing what I was doing, keep doing the show. And the show was like a swimming pool: scary to get into, but once I’m in the water, it feels like I’ll be colder if I get out.

Because I had those weeks before the tour started, I thought it’d be fun to do a bit of tinkering with the show. I imported the audio from every performance into GarageBand and spliced it up, joke by joke. Then I created a track for each joke. That track would feature a back-to-back collage of every night’s iteration of that joke. Then I could listen all at once, note which was the best version, and lock it in. I imagined that kind of thorough tweaking would be immensely satisfying and comforting. The fantasy is that I could optimize the show to such a degree that it would function like a suit of armor, a robotic one that moves on its own, so I could sleep my way through it. As tour dates started getting canceled because of COVID, I realized I had more time than I thought to tinker. I put the project aside for a few days … and then I forgot about it for a year.

Now that quarantine is coming to a close, I’ve decided to mount the show in New York again. Suddenly, I find myself less than two weeks from my first post-quarantine performance. That tinkering I thought I could do in a month, and then decided to spend a year on? That did not happen. And that’s fine.

What did happen was more, let’s say, organic. I puttered around inside during quarantine, not thinking about the show. I built trellises for bougainvilleas, hung plastic curtains on my balcony to block my neighbor’s aerosols, and shaved fennel with a weak knife in a desperate attempt to re-create a salad from Altro Paradiso I’d enjoyed immensely during GOYK’s first New York run. A thought about my show would come to mind, and I’d text myself a note. Those notes were then stuck in a doc called “GOYKSHOW NOTES.” Simple shit. Not thorough.

I’d love to blame my inertia on quarantine, but I prefer to believe that some part of me recognized that the show is native to me, by definition a whole that can’t be endlessly optimized piece by piece. If I’m being honest with myself, I do not wish to sleep my way through the show inside a robot suit of my own making. I don’t think the sweatshirt duo would enjoy the show as much, or certainly not any more, that way.

I remember seeing Les Misérables with my family as a kid. While waiting for it to start, my dad, returning from the concessions stand, joked, “The director stopped me. Little Gavroche is sick, and the understudy too. They want to know if you can fill in?” Even though I knew it was a joke, I still felt the swell of nerves: Can I do the job of Little Gavroche? 

Despite performing my show Get on Your Knees over 138 times in New York City, a full year has passed. All of the cells in our body are completely turned over every seven years, is it? That means I’m one-seventh new. So I find myself approaching this next run, feeling that same feeling as I did as a kid. This time, however, I am not just the little girl in the theater, but I’m also the original Gavroche. Because the run was a success previously, I now have something to live up to. That woman who did the show last year isn’t here — can I fill in? It’s incredible that self-doubt is this adaptable. The old fear was, Am I good enough? As good as another? Now it’s, Am I as good as myself?

Get on Your Knees was nominated for a 2020 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance. Tickets for New York and Boston tour dates are now on sale via Novak’s website.

A Return to Stage Fright