The wreck unfolding on stage made me cringe.
“Now you tell me a story!,” the frozen student blurted weakly while stiffly stuffing sandwich props into her mouth.
And, to add insult to injury, the remaining bread in her hands crumbled, as if on cue.
The actor was performing a scene from Seascape with Sharks and Dancer, written by Don Nigro, though it resembled a Charlie Chaplin slapstick.
The girl woodenly jerked between stage objects, obviously inwardly frozen and disconnected.
She poked more of the sandwich into her mouth. She mumbled her lines.
Mid-sentence, the acting teacher Kate screamed, “don’t pretend to eat your sandwich – eat your “expletive” sandwich!”
The girl, caught in the stage glow of the darkened theatre, turned frantic.
I thought back to an empty stretch of highway north of the Teslin Bridge late one autumn night. A proverbial deer stands 15 metres ahead transfixed by the headlights.
And then, a moment later, I realized I was the deer.
Oh, God. I feel my body tense.
I am on the stage. My limbs hang limpid midst a raging storm of fear. I feel like the entire class and auditorium senses my terror.
“Must do a good job Ã‰ Must do a good job,” the messages rolled through my mind. “You suck Ã‰ you suck. You are not an actor.”
Kate, my teacher, stopped me.
“Ashley, I don’t know what to do with you. I will send you to someone elseÃ‰.”
My mind snapped alert. This time I have an inkling that she is not just provoking me.
She has kicked people out of class before. In fact, a few years ago, my scene partner was kicked out.
He came back. They all come back. And they all say that Kate is the best teacher in Vancouver. She gives the same education that actors pay a steep price for in the United States.
Tears start rolling down my cheeks. My face flushes, my nose tingles and my eyes water.
The class is quiet.
From the second-row seat, Kate looks at me with wide eyes.
“I don’t know how to help myself either,” I manage.
“Not surprisingly, stage fright is the commonest disease known to the acting profession,” wrote Robert F. Moss in the New York Times. “Its symptoms – perspiration, vomiting, dry throat, palpitations, quivering hands – are as widespread as pulled hamstrings and separated shoulders in the NFL.”
Some of the most brilliant actors admit to stage fright.
Al Pacino finds the whole challenge of an encounter with the public “scary Ã‰ a walk on the wire.”
Renowned performers such as Maureen Stapleton (Oscar winner), Fredric March (three nominations, two Oscars) and Richard Burton (seven Oscar nominations) have all disclosed a chronic helplessness.
Otis Skinner, one of the great 19th-century matinee idols, revealed that he remained at the mercy of his nerves after half a century as an actor.
Maureen Stapleton noted, “I feel like heading for the nearest airport.”
Stapleton consistently felt on the edge of nervous collapse before going on stage. In fact, people who have acted with her have said they’re astonished to see her consistently turn in solid performances.
In 1965, Laurence Olivier became victim to stage fright at the National Theatre in London, at the pinnacle of his fame in his opening performance as Solness in The Master Builder.
Olivier writes of the horror accompanying his performance.
“My courage sank Ã‰ (And) with each succeeding minute it became less possible to resist this horror.”
Moss noted, “(Olivier’s) voice soon faded, his throat constricted, and the audience was beginning to go giddily round. Only (his) fears of a career-ending scandal permitted him to grope his way through the rest of the evening.”
“It’s aloneness that separates the actor from the concert artist, the opera singer, the ballet dancer,” said Stephen Aaron, a New York psychologist, acting teacher at Juilliard and the author of the 1986 book Stage Fright: Its Role in Acting.
“They have the music, which keeps them company during the performance. In fact, they can see a conductor in the pit, and these things play a very significant part in their experience on stage as compared to the actor’s.
“When actors’ nerves betray them, warding off catastrophe can test their ingenuity or resources. Still, most actors subscribe to at least one coping mechanism. Richard Burton always wore at least one red garment when performing. Olivier liked to arrive early, stare savagely at the critics from the wings and mutter imprecations at them.”
“Frederick Elworthy, a 19th-century English philologist, speculated that the Greeks might well have worn masks to protect themselves from the evil eye of the spectator,” wrote Moss.
“When actors are in danger of losing themselves totally in their characters, they are [not] able to repress hidden conflicts which the acting process may have uncovered,” wrote Aaron, in his exploration of the psychodynamic side of stage fright.
“Stage fright occurs when the ‘play’ threatens to become ‘real.’”
The critic observes the distinction that art imitates life. For the artist, stage fright can blur that distinction.
Ashley Hunking grew up in Teslin. She is now a freelance writer and actor who lives in Vancouver.