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Don't Worry, Everybody's Watching
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
British theatre critic Kenneth Tynan once wrote that, when it came to acting, Lawrence Olivier was the one performer who "held all the cards." In his book Profiles (1990), Tynan spoke of the many attributes that a great stage actor needs to have — intelligence, wit, a melodious voice, acrobatic grace, charisma, an innate understanding of verse — and maintained that Olivier, above all others, possessed all the essential skills.
It's reassuring, then, for lesser mortals and out-and-out amateurs to learn that the greatest theatrical artist of the last century was also a man who suffered through profound and debilitating episodes of extreme stage fright. During the celebrated run of Olivier's Othello at the National Theatre in 1964, the actor developed a performance anxiety so acute that he couldn't look other actors in the eye for fear of losing his place. All the traditional symptoms of the disorder — dry mouth, constriction of the throat, trembling, cold hands and feet, racing hear — battled Olivier onstage as the sweating actor gamely fought through his anxieties to curtain call every night. It became a condition that the actor wasn't able to shake for a decade, and it's a tribute to the performer that he didn't shy away from stage performances during the time — he soldiered on, despite his phobias, attacking some of the most difficult roles from the classical repertoire. It's not surprising that this affliction caused the actor to utilize more extreme forms of make-up and stage prosthetics in his performances, hiding from the audience in a variety of wigs, rubber noses, charcoals, stage putties. Anything he could use to keep the Nerve Monster at bay.
It's worth remembering that, at that time, Olivier was 57 years old and that he had had nearly five decades worth of stage experience. He'd also already won an Academy Award, had been nominated numerous times, had become an international celebrity, had run the National Theatre as director. He had literally become the "face" of great acting, both in England and the United States, and he could move confidently between stage and screen while having critically-approved triumphs in either field. That such an accomplished professional could succumb to the same affliction that plagues millions of power-point presenters and coffee shop guitarists is a reflection on the incredibly intimidating power of stage fright and performance anxieties.
It's a well-documented fact that "fear of public speaking" frequently lands in the top 10 of "most-common fears" lists, along with death, heights, spiders, the dark, open spaces. Most people try to avoid it as much as possible, and indeed, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that a majority of Americans go through their adult life speaking in public exactly once — on their wedding day. And you can hardly blame them, too, especially when you consider how often people flub their own wedding vows. I've been to dozens of weddings in my life, and it's amazing to me how often it happens; I'd guess two out of every three services becomes unintentionally humorous when the bride/groom blows the easiest line in the world to remember: "I do" still only contains 3 letters.
I'm one of the oddballs who speaks in public a lot, I've been performing on some sort of stage since I was 18, and it's no exaggeration when I say that I've been petrified before every appearance. You'd think that at some point you'd get used to the experience, that it would simply become second nature, but no — the fear remains as constant to me today as it was thirty years ago. I was in a play that opened last weekend, and right before curtain on Friday I can tell you that I wasn't thinking about character motivations or subtext or intentions. No, I was thinking, as always on opening night: What the f--- is my first line? Good God, what is it? And what am I doing here? Who am I? And will my brain explode the second I step onstage?
There are varying degrees of anxiety levels for me, from play to play, but the baseline fear never wavers. And yet, surprisingly, I usually manage to get through most performances without having a major meltdown. The closest I've ever come to pure panic happened on only one occasion, back in 2006, when I was preparing to do a one-man show at Firefly. A few minutes before curtain, I was backstage, and I wanted to run the opening few lines, to make sure I was ready. So I opened my mouth, and. . . nothing. I had nothing. I tried to find the sentences in my head somewhere, but my brain had suddenly turned into an empty echo chamber: Testing, testing? Anyone there? I literally could not think for a few minutes, it was as if someone had snuck into my head and deftly removed both halves of my brain, placing them in Ziplock bags and storing them safely, somewhere, until after the show, when I would be allowed to use them again. It was simply blind panic, and it took every bit of desperate control I had not to sprint out the back door and never return. Fortunately, I had a few moments, and so I forced myself to lie down, backstage, and concentrate on breathing. After a few ragged breaths I managed to calm down a bit, and just as my heart rate returned to semi-regular levels, the first line of the show popped into my head. I went onstage shortly after, shaken, but at least capable of rational thought.
When performers exit the stage after a disaster they will often later say, ruefully, that they "choked" onstage, but the truth is that they probably didn't "choke," they panicked. In Malcolm Gladwell's essay "The Art of Failure (2000)," he explains the difference — choking happens when people think too much; panicking happens when they think too little. Famous sports meltdowns from Greg Norman to Jana Novotna to LeBron James are "chokes," and they happen when the athlete spends too much time thinking about something they've done naturally for years. The result, then, is a sudden reversion to beginner's status. What happened to me onstage, and what happens to a lot of performers, is panic, which is the exact opposite. At that point, not only can you not think, but your head becomes so empty you could use it as a percussion instrument. And, as any conscientious professional speaker should tell you — friends don't let friends speak in public without a head.