By Joan Acocella, writing in The New Yorker…
Sara Solovitch, in “Playing Scared: A History and Memoir of Stage Fright” (Bloomsbury), says that while she was a good pianist as a child, she fell apart—sweating, trembling—when she had to play for an audience. She got through the Eastman School of Music’s preparatory program. Then she quit studying piano, grew up, got married, had children, and became a journalist. In her late forties, though, she drifted back to the piano, taking a course at a community college. By this point, she had no professional ambitions. Surely, she thought, she would now be able to perform calmly. But when her teacher asked her, one night, to play in front of the class, her hands began shaking so hard that she could barely strike the keyboard: “I gazed down at myself from a distance high above the keys, watching a body that was no longer in charge. My fear was at the controls, like an independent organism emerging from inside me, my own Rosemary’s baby.”
Stage fright has not been heavily studied, which is strange because, as Solovitch tells us, it is common not only among those who make their living on the stage but among the rest of us, too. In 2012, two researchers at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Karen Dwyer and Marlina Davidson, administered a survey to eight hundred and fifteen college students, asking them to select their three greatest fears from a list that included, among other things, heights, flying, financial problems, deep water, death, and “speaking before a group.” Speaking before a group beat out all the others, even death.
Stage fright has been aptly described as “self-poisoning by adrenaline.” In response to stress, the adrenal glands pump the hormone epinephrine (adrenaline) into the bloodstream, causing the body to shift into a state of high arousal. The person’s muscles tense, he sweats and shakes, his heart pounds, his mouth goes dry, he has trouble breathing, he may become nauseated or dizzy, and his throat constricts, making his voice rise in pitch. This is the so-called “fight or flight” response, which our species is thought to have developed because it helped prepare the body for forceful action in response to a threat. But what Cro-Magnon man needed upon finding a bear in his cave is not what a modern person needs in order to play King Lear. Without the release of abrupt action, the hyperactivation becomes, basically, a panic attack.
As for the thoughts accompanying the physical response, the most important seems to be a feeling of exposure. The English theatre scholar Nicholas Ridout, in his excellent book “Stage Fright, Animals, and Other Theatrical Problems” (2006), compares the situation to that of a snail having its shell ripped off. His countryman Stephen Fry, who, one day in 1995, left London—indeed, England—to avoid appearing in the play he was scheduled to perform in, says that, when stage fright hits, the audience sees “the shrivelled penis in your head.” And, in the typical case, the performer can do nothing to change the spectators’ minds, because he feels utterly empty. In 1989, Daniel Day-Lewis, playing the title role in Richard Eyre’s production of “Hamlet” at London’s National Theatre, turned on his heel in the middle of the show and walked off the stage, never to return. (In the twenty-six years since then, he has acted only in movies.) “I had nothing in me, nothing to say, nothing to give,” he said. Others stay, but only by force of sheer, grinding will.
In a number of ways, stage fright doesn’t make sense. Laurence Olivier, when he was in his late fifties, was visited by a spell that lasted, intermittently, for five years, causing him great anguish. At the time, he was the most celebrated stage actor in England. How could he be frightened of failing? Ditto Mikhail Baryshnikov. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, Baryshnikov was the most famous ballet dancer in the world, and he probably still is, though he ceased classical dancing some twenty-five years ago. Since then, he has built a successful career in modern dance and theatre. But he experiences terrible stage fright, and says that it has only got worse over the years.
For the rest, click here.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Despite your best efforts, do you still suffer from acute stage fright? Propranolol (brand name: Inderal) is a beta-blocker that is often prescribed for stagefright. Unlike sedatives or other drugs prescribed for anxiety, Propranolol does nothing to affect the mind. It only prevents adrenaline from making your heart pump harder or faster. Propranolol use is common amongst performers, concert musicians and many who speak in public. However, it IS a heart medication and it can only be purchased with a prescription. If you’ve tried everything else and you still suffer from stage fright, do your research on the internet (be sure to consult reputable sources) and talk to your doctor.
Photo Credit: La Chachalaca Fotografia on VisualHunt