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Some people never get over the anxiety of facing an audience.

Some people never get over the anxiety of facing an audience.

After months of no phone spam,I recently got that old,familiar text message again: “Are you afraid of public speaking?”

Well,yes,in fact — I’m terribly scared,and will go to great lengths to avoid such situations. But it’s not just me — stage fright is a common,hellish affliction. It’s one of those things that habituation doesn’t cure,meaning that if you’re disposed to freezing up in fear,you may never lose that tendency,no matter how many times you’ve carried off a performance with seeming composure. According to Stephen Aaron,who’s written a book called Stage Fright: Its Role in Acting,actors don’t worry so much flubbing their lines as about being rendered ridiculous,exposed. “The actor’s conscious fear is not that he will make a mistake but that the audience will see something it is not supposed to see,namely,his fear,his stage fright.”

Stage fright has a structure — there’s the time before you get on stage,when you could,if you peeked through,see the audience and their upturned,expectant faces. That’s the truly ghastly part. There are physiological changes — your heart thuds,you feel that drop in your stomach,you breathe funny. Adrenaline shoots up,blood pressure rises.

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Then,when the light’s on you,the audience disappears into the dark. While one actor experienced the darkened,stilled auditorium as a warm,receptive blank,another described it as “an open mouth ready to swallow you up.” Some performers leave the worry behind with affirmation and applause,others are left cold,even then.

Sometimes,of course,your worst worries do come true. I remember,when I was 11,a disastrous Kathakali performance with my sister. We were just starting out,so it was just the “purappadu”,a synchronised opening act. Within a few minutes,it was obvious that one of us was behind the beat. I stopped and looked at her reproachfully,to signal it was all really her fault,making the lag even more obvious. The longer we went on,the more off we were,and then it just ceased to matter. Nothing clears your head of stage fright as wonderfully as knowing you’ve screwed up.

But then again,I’m not a professional actor — I had nothing to lose but my 11-year-old’s sense of dignity. What about people who have glittering reputations at stake,whose lives are dedicated to performance,and disfigured by performance anxiety?


Stage fright is not something seasoned performers necessarily leave behind — in fact,it may trap you late in your life. Before dance performances,you see artistes praying,concentrating their thoughts,preparing to shed their own selves. Costume,make-up,masks — they’re also acts of self-protection,of warding off the evil,watching eye. Some people develop elaborate routines to rid themselves of the fear,little superstitions and distractions. For instance,one actress quoted in Aaron’s book gets over it with a bout of determined burping. “I belch — almost nonstop. I keep burping,all through the show,right up to the curtain,and right after,and then I’m all right.” These coping techniques are,of course,highly individual — what assuages your anxiety may only make it more unbearable for me. Meeting the gaze of others,for instance: to get over his stage fright,Mark Twain appointed a friend to look kindly at him and lead the audience into laughing. Laurence Olivier,on the other hand,forbade even his fellow actors from making any eye contact.

Olivier,in fact,had one of the most intense and famous experiences with stage fright — it seized him abruptly,mid-career and dogged him for years. He wrote of it: “My cue came,and I went to the stage where I knew with grim certainty I would not be capable of remaining more than a few minutes… My voice had started to fade,my throat closed up and the audience began to go giddily round (why is it always anti-clockwise?)…” Olivier was in such a bad way that during a performance of Othello,he actually entreated the actor playing Iago not to go and leave him alone on stage.

According to The New Yorker’s John Lahr,the singer-songwriter Carly Simon has occasionally jabbed herself with safety pins,and got others to spank her hard,so the physical pain would take her mind off her worry. Britney Spears,Robbie Willliams,Adele have all been incapacitated by dread at some point or another. Even the redoubtable Madonna reportedly freaked out before her recent Super Bowl act. The actor Stephen Fry,one time in 1995,simply fled the stage,causing roughly $474,000 in losses to the producer of Cell Mates. Three days later,he faxed his agent from Belgium,calling himself a “silly old fool” for his stage fright.


The more successful ones can work with their fears — their inhibitions sharpen their faculties,the rush of hormones helps their performance. But the rest of us can only try again,fail again — and hope to fail better.

First published on: 19-02-2012 at 02:20:06 am
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