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Friday, 7 August 2015

When performance is fear and trembling: performers and stage fright

Pity the performer. Not only are his or her legal rights less broad and lack international uniformity, but there is also the potential problem of stage fright. As discussed by Joan Acocella as part of her review of the book Playing Scared: A History and Memoir of Stage Fright, by Sara Solovitch, in the 3 August issue of The New Yorker magazine, stage fright is an occupational risk, in the face of which not even the most successful performers are necessarily immune. Acocella describes the debilitating effects of the syndrome as follows:
“Stagefright has been aptly described as ‘self-poisoning by adrenaline.’ In response to stress, the adrenal glands pump the hormone epinephrine (adrenaline) into the bloodstream, causing the body to shift into a state of high arousal. The person’s muscles tense, he sweats and shakes, his heart pounds, his mouth goes dry, he has trouble breathing, he may become nauseated or dizzy, and his throat constricts, making his voice rise in pitch. This is the so-called “fight or flight” response, which our species is thought to have developed because it helped prepare the body for forceful action in response to a threat. But what Cro-Magnon man needed upon finding a bear in his cave is not what a modern person needs in order to play King Lear.“
As reported by Acocella, the list of those who have succumbed to stage fright would itself read like a performer’s “who’s-who. “ Some examples—actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who walked off the stage in the middle of a performance of “Hamlet”, never to return, even after 26 movies; singer Barbra Streisand, who refused to take part in live concerts, other than the occasional charity event; pianist Vladimir Horowitz, who retired four times from public performance, once for a 12 year period; and perhaps the most notable example, pianist Glenn Gould, who ceased all public concerts at the age of 31. Stage fright is not limited to the rich and famous. An academic survey carried out in 2012 showed that college students feared public speaking most of all, even more than death (although, when you are 21, the thought of having to summarize your research project before the class does seem a lot more threatening than death). The anxiety and fear resulting from constant exposure before an audience seems to be at the heart of stage fright. Mix the performer’s desire for esteem with an audience “waiting for the performer to slip,” and the possibility of tumbling over the psychological edge is palpable. The pianist Charles Rosen described it as follows:
“The silence of the audience is not that of a public that listens but of one that watches—like the dead hush that accompanies the unsteady movement of the tightrope walker poised over his perilous space.”
The emotional risks attendant when a performance is likened to a stunt by the Flying Wallendas over an open canyon should be far-removed from what one typically thinks about in connection with the concert-going experience. But, as Rosen describes, perhaps they are not. Stage fright is not simply the result of the stress-laden encounter between performer and audience, but it also reflects changes in the larger socio-politico context in which live performances take place. Acocella discusses the work of Nicholas Ridout who points out that, before the 19th century, performers tended to perform at the beckoning of a private benefactor rather than a concert impresario; the latter measures success or failure (and the ongoing contract with the performer) on the basis of the bottom line (that said, this Kat wonders why the stress of having to satisfy a single patron was necessarily any less trying. As well, the stories of the audience in the Globe Theatre of the late 16th century sound no less harrowing for the performers, much less the playwright himself).

Later, as Acocella points out, the advent of sound recording and film provided performers with the possibility of “performing” in a setting other than before a live audience. For the first time, the occupation of a “performer” was decoupled from the need to appear before an audience. Not only that, but the performer had the technological means to control better the quality of the performance made available to the public. Under such circumstances, it is argued, the potential psychological costs of performing before a live audience only increased and, with it, the increased likelihood that stage fright would take over.

Would it then perhaps be better to adopt the recording option and forego the emotional challenges of a live performance?  There is still a cost-benefit dynamic in favour of the live performance, even in the face of stage fright. Audio-visual reproductions of a performance may well be of better quality, but the economics of commercializing such recordings remains a challenge in the online world. Because of this, one cannot gainsay the importance of live performances as a central revenue driver, at least for certain categories of performers. When one takes into account the commercial potential of a live performance, perhaps the ultimate question for many performers is not how to avoid appearing before a live audience, but rather how to find coping behaviour that will enable the performer to perform, even with the attendant psychological risks--which is, it would seem, what most performers actually do.

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