stage fright THE STRANGEST PHOBIA
It can grip an actor of fifty years’ experience as easily as a first-time TV panelist. It’s harder to cure than the common cold—and just about as common
There is no misery quite like stage fright — except perhaps seasickness, which is also a circumstantial affliction that can make a normal, healthy person wish he could die immediately.
The occasion of stage fright, for most people, is the waiting period just before performance and, they feel, judgment.
Its symptoms are a stirring in the pit of the stomach, a taut whine along the nerves, palsy, cold sweats, nausea, breathlessness, a parched aching throat, smarting eyeballs and that buzz of bright, terrible unreality that usually comes with fever, or with looking into a child’s three-dimensional stereoscope. All this is accompanied by emotions of wretchedness and apprehension.
Considering the number of performers who arc prey to the malady it's a wonder that show business has managed to survive at all.
Some are chronic victims. TV performer Jack Parr suffers five nights a week. Maurice Chevalier says, “Always before I go on I am frightened. While I stand in the wings waiting to go on, my knees knock together and I dry the perspiration from my hands, then from my forehead and then from my hands again.” Pianist Arturo Rubenstein used to pace up and down like a caged animal before every single concert. Pop singer Judy Garland vomited before each program of an engagement at the London Palladium a few years ago, finally collapsed altogether and had to take a holiday.
Other performers tremble only under the stress of an unfamiliar situation. The beautiful, inscrutable Swede, Greta Garbo, was so nervous on starting her first German film that her cheek twitched uncontrollably and all the close-ups had to be reshot. Comedian Charlie Chaplin, aghast at the
prospect of his first radio audience, roamed the studio muttering over and over, “Tw-enty million people. Twenty million people.”
Some artists find that the worst symptoms retreat before experience. Henry Irving, the famous nineteenth-century English actor-manager, was so distraught when he made his acting debut that the critics advised him to get right back out of the business. Irving had found himself seized with a speech block that turned each attempt at his opening words into a retching shudder. Finally, instead of the prescribed battle report he managed an ad lib — “Come to the marketplace and I will tell you further” — and fled into the wings. Irving’s crabbed speech and queer intonations came under attack all the rest of his life, but he never again suffered such an agonizing seizure.
On the other hand his leading lady and one of England's most admired actresses, Ellen Terry, had been on the stage more than five years before she was stricken with stage fright. It was an acute attack. Her lines deserted her on-stage and she had finally to read the rest of her part ignominiously from the book. It had been her fifth new role in five weeks, and later Miss Terry wrote, “I suspect now that I had not taken enough pains to get word-perfect.” Once established, the fear never again left her.
For some, stage fright sets in with their stage debut and gets not better but worse. Katherine Blake, one of Canada's outstanding TV actresses until her recent return to England, said not long ago, “I suffer terribly. In dramatic shows the fear is so great that you hope each time that something will happen to stop the performance. I was far less nervous at fifteen.” continued on page 42
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ng in the roots of your hair," sufferer Ellen Terry once said. Actress Araby Lockhart (above) demonstrates.
Stage fright: the strangest phobia continued from page 26
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Short, thin Frank Sinatra froze at the
prospect of playing a burly cowboy in Carousel
There seems no pattern to this fickle distemper, ft is not necessarily the herald of an outstanding performance—nor of a bad one. Toronto actress Barbara Chilcott for years battled tension so convulsive that she had to fight her voice down
to its normal register each night before going on. Yet, when bolstered by chiropractic and psychiatric treatment, she finally faced a role, Antigone, with some confidence, the critics were unmoved and the public uninterested. She had won
much more acclaim for an earlier appearance as Shaw’s Candida.
The performance that established the mad-eyed little English tragedian, Edmund Kean, as the first star and genius of the Regency stage was his Shylock, at
Drury Lane. Yet the night he unveiled it January 26, 1814, he told his wife even ly, "I wish I were going to be shot,” and walked to the theatre through the Lon don slush like a man going to his damnation.
It’s not only the chubby Christmas elf that runs howling from the Sunday School stage; Frank Sinatra, Hollywood’s most sought-after actor, did approximately the same in 1955 when he walked off the location of Carousel, in which he was to star. For weeks beforehand Sinatra had been morose and irritable, and at one point had asked a close friend. “How can I play Billy Bigelow? He’s a big. strong guy with a big, strong voice, and look at me!” He showed up on schedule at the Carousel set in Maine, but after three days of temperamental stalling climbed into his Cadillac and simply drove away. He never made the picture.
No actor is entirely immune yet many, including so able a one as Barry Morse, claim they feel no fright at all—only the bubbling rush of excitement like champagne brut in the veins.
Why does one actor cower in the face of an ordeal and another rise gaily to a challenge? How can a third chat in the wings till he hears his cue, flip away his cigarette and walk coolly on-stage? Is there a cure for stage fright? An inoculation against it?
Van Cliburn prays
The search for some antidote has driven actors to barbiturates, to tranquilizers. to backstage chain-smoking and to drink. Orson Welles keeps his dresser standing by in the wings with a gill of brandy and has been reported to down two bottles on matinee days. Flora Robson keeps her dresser standing by with a bowl in case of emergencies.
An American actress, Carolyn Jones, resorts to yoga. Pianist Van Cliburn doses himself with pills and nose drops before a concert; then he sits bolt upright for several minutes with his eyes closed, inhales four times till his lungs are ready to burst and snorts out the air in four installments. He ends his preliminaries with a prayer. Donald Davis, actor and part-owner of Toronto’s Crest Theatre, relies on his osteopath and preperformance steam baths to control the collywobbles. His brother, Murray, consults a chiropractor. A Toronto musician, appalled at learning he was to be shown in close-up on the TV program Music Makers, fled to a hypnotist for help. One Park Avenue psychiatrist had twelve actors on his books at the same time, all undergoing analysis to get rid of stage fright.
And almost all performers indulge in those strange forms of exorcism represented by good luck charms and superstitious observances. Even Morse admits to ceremonial precautions: he always
puts on his make-up stark naked; his costume comes last; if he’s to wear full beard he always applies the mustache before the chin-piece: and he recently discovered that just before every entrance he automatically rocks up on his toes and down again, taking a deep breath, like an athlete poising himself for the starting pistol.
Indeed the athlete too is gripped by
stage fright. Maurice “Rocket” Richard, for example, commonly vomits before every game. It is a form of stage fright that makes the teen-ager refuse her dinner before her first date, that makes the door-to-door salesman swallow spasmodically and wipe his palms before he rings the doorbell, that makes the fashion model gulp barbiturates en route to the runway, and that makes former U. S. President Harry Truman say, as he takes the platform for a give-’em-hell speech, “Every time I do this I swear I never will again.”
A feeling of being threatened is the common factor. The athlete is threatened by a standard of play he fears he may not achieve; the teen-ager is threatened by approval she fears she may not be attractive enough to win; the lesman and the public speaker by minds they may not be able to sway. The actor is threatened in the same way.
Some actors simply flee
All the physiological responses to danger occur. Blood vessels contract, which is why the scalp prickles, “as though a centipede, its feet carefully iced, were running about in the roots of your hair,” according to Ellen Terry. The familiar cold sweat once ran so profusely on the face of Donald Davis before a Stratford production of Julius Caesar, his make-up ran and his beard wouldn’t stick. In Winnipeg, soprano Dame Nellie Melba had so much trouble breathing before a recital she demanded — and got — a tank of oxygen to revive her.
The greater the fear the stronger the bodily response to it. A dry throat may turn to laryngitis and loss of voice; prickly skin may intensify into a rash; breathlessness may turn into an asthma attack. The late Robert Donat used to sit in his dressing room gasping and strangling until curtain time.
There is only one known remedy for such symptoms: facing the audience.
Donat’s asthma always left him during his opening speech, and he could breath clearly throughout the play. Actress Katherine Blake reported recently, "I get terribly cold beforehand, especially my hands, and I shake all over. But it goes completely when I walk on-stage."
The performer, on-stage, is even capable of more than normal feats. His pain threshold rises: Christopher Plummer
played the last act of Henry V at Stratford, Ont., with a broken ankle; the minute the curtain calls were over he was incapable of taking a step.
But sometimes, if the fear has been too great, its answering energy erupts in flight. Eli Rill, proprietor of a “method” acting studio in New York, recalls having literally to drag one young actor into the theatre and knee him on-stage. Maud Gill, an English character actress, reports that on the opening night of a costume drama, some years ago, the boy who was cast as her lover took one terror-stricken look at the audience, mumbled, “I fain must leave thee,” and left.
Sometimes the flight takes place deep in the subconscious. Dr. Clarence Hincks, a Toronto psychologist, was called in by a theatre manager on one occasion to help him rouse the leading man in a play that was to open that night; the actor had fallen into a deep, coma-like sleep, and would not waken. Hincks slapped him into a twilight state and planted the post-hypnotic suggestion that he would be brilliant in the play. He was. An understudy in London, on being told he was to replace Sir John Gielgud that night in Romeo and Juliet, turned stone deaf.
What tips the scales from combat to panic flight? In most cases it is a specific hazard added to the general fear: the genuine hazard, say, of unlearned lines, or unfamiliar props, or too little rehearsal, or a new play, or an alien setting. When a former spear-carrier from Tony Pastor's show-line was hired for an opera chorus she had violent ague on opening night. “I've never been in this kind of show before," she kept wailing. “My, how I miss my spear!"
Gielgud’s understudy’s extra hazard was that he didn't know his lines. Rill’s panicky method actor was dreading his opening speech because it was to be delivered in the hot white glare of a single spot on the apron of the stage and addressed straight to the audience like a soliloquy.
Yet the fear often seems out of proportion to the reality. Actors often forget lines on-stage. Actors before now have entered too soon, repeated speeches, interjected speeches from the wrong play, missed cues, played listlessly, knocked down scenery and fallen flat on their faces. The worst that can happen is failure and the end of a career.
I)o they despise the audience?
Even the performers’ nightmare — a phenomenon so familiar that it’s called “the actor's dream" — is bearable in reality. In the dream the actor is, simply, on-stage in a play not one line of which he knows. Mervyn Blake, an émigré English actor, has literally lived through it.
As a beginner in England, Blake was hired to play several parts with a touring company that was leaving London the following day. In the caravan, the next morning, he was told matter-of-factly that he would be playing in The Rivals at the matinée that afternoon. He had not yet opened his copy of the text.
As they bumped over the roads he read the lines numbly; scarcely any of them stuck. When the troupe arrived at the girls’ school, where they were to play, Blake was pinned into a wig and shoved into the wings. He was still gazing dumbly at the rows of schoolgirls, each holding open her copy of the play, when he was pushed on-stage. In a kind of fever he heard another actor—with the bright preface, “I know just what you were going to say”—repeat his opening speech for him. Then the actor pushed him into another position and, with the same preface, donated Blake's next speech. The rest of the afternoon was like blindman’s buff: Blake w;as passed from one mouthpiece to another; pushed off-stage and on; handed around; finally he fetched up in the wings and the play was over. He went on again that night, and the next day, and the next, and at the end of two weeks he knew all his parts.
What is the performer really frightened of?
The performer, who on the whole is mildly ashamed of his own symptoms, is apt to dismiss the question: “Making a fool of myself, I suppose," he’ll say lightly. Though the formal literature on the subject is meagre, at least one writer takes the answer seriously. An American, M. L. Goodhue, in a book on the treatment of stage fright, says stage fright is “an accumulation of impressions of inferiority.” It is true that performers who would not panic in the face of technical difficulties may doubt themselves whenever some deep-rooted childhood nerve is touched. Sinatra, for example, grew up hating the birth scars on his face, and his puny build, and the role of robust, handsome Billy Bigelow in Carousel
seemed to trigger some old feeling of unworthiness.
A German psychologist, Helli Stehle, has come to a different conclusion. “The stage fright of actors,” he writes, “is rooted in the relations of the artist to the public of which he is in need, which he tries to bring under his spell, which he despises and at w'hose mercy he is.” Occasionally a layman gets a glimpse of such dark undercurrents. The daughter of a theatre manager in Winnipeg once observed Mrs. Patrick Campbell converting her gracious curtain wave, as the
curtain descended to hide her, into a scornful cocked snook.
And an American actor grew so certain the audience was an enemy that he went mad from imagining each night that someone in it w'as going to shoot him.
The actor may be afraid of the audience because he needs its love, or afraid of himself in case he cannot dominate it; it is also possible to suspect that his fear is purposeful, an unconscious wooing of crisis, a trap the performer closes on himself because the total concentration
that can make him better than he deserves to be comes only when he stands truly at bay, every sense and faculty alert.
At least one actor thinks the fright itself is the root and motive of performance. Not long ago Donald Davis asked, “Why is one willing to take that risk every night? I suppose it’s for the same reason that people risk their lives racine cars,” he answered himself, “or risk their whole professional careers for a sordid visit to a red-light district . . . it’s the gamble, the satisfaction of fear itself.” ^