It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen a play, so I’m looking forward to director Tim Supple’s highly-acclaimed production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which has been performed all over the world. The acting, set design and costumes are meant to be spectacular.
It’s always thrilling to watch a good production, and the magical interaction between actors, sets, costumes, lights, music, dialogue and audience. But I can never quite gag the little part of my head that keeps asking, ‘How do they do it? How do they get up in front of an audience without forgetting their lines, or squeaking, or turning on their heels and bolting back into the wings?’
If you’re the sort of person who lunges for the karaoke mike, then topophobia, also known as stage fright, won’t mean a thing to you. But the rest of us can instantly evoke the terrible pounding of heart, dryness of mouth, involuntary twitches and general gibbering breakdown that accompanies a public appearance of any kind.
I have terrible stage fright, and am therefore inclined to preserve myself from those situations in the first place. When I was two or three, I had to run out on a stage wearing a piece of cardboard hung around my neck inscribed with the letter S (I was the second S in a line of kids who collectively spelled ‘SWEETS’). On that occasion I was nervous, but the performance was really more of an annoying hurdle in the way of what I considered the main event, which was having my teacher put lipstick put on my mouth, which she’d promised to do if I behaved.
In middle school, I was a stagehand in a school production of The Hobbit. I figured that if anything went wrong, it would do so in the blessed darkness between scenes; but as it happened, I was helping to raise a huge spiderweb backdrop when the whole contraption ground to a halt. They had to turn on the house lights to sort it out, at which moment my circulatory system stopped, along with much of my social development.
I’d also signed up for music class before I realised with horror that we were going to perform a musical. We had to mince about onstage in top hats and leotards, and I had to sing one line solo. It came out in a whisper, and the four or five people in the audience looked deeply puzzled.
There were only three other times when I had to do anything public. Once was to read something at my father’s memorial service to a hall full of his friends and colleagues, at which time I was such a wreck anyway that stage fright was only a small part of the problem. The other two times, I had to read bits of my own writing, which I managed only because I remembered a bit of advice from a university professor who’d told me that whenever she faced a new class, she’d imagine them sitting in their seats with their trousers around their ankles, and the consequent feeling of superiority gave her the confidence to proceed.
John Lahr wrote a brilliant article for The New Yorker (‘Petrified’, August 28, 2006) in which he described the hideous stage fright of performers like Steven Fry, Sir Laurence Olivier and Carly Simon (who asked members of her orchestra to spank her). “According to one British medical study,” wrote Lahr, “actors’ stress levels on opening night are equivalent ‘to that of a car-accident victim.’”
I hear their pain. I would any day exchange topophobia for arachibutyrophobia, which is the more entertaining fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of the mouth, or for hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia, which is, cruelly enough, the word that means ‘fear of long words’.