Curtains up


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.

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.

... contd.

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