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In the spotlight

Ranked as the single most common phobia, this fear of speaking in public affects 75% of the populace. So you know the feeling, writes Shernaz Patel.

india Updated: Apr 08, 2009 20:47 IST
Unscripted | Shernaz Patel

Stage fright is the most common fear known to man, the second being death and if death is less frightening than public speaking, then at a funeral you should feel more pity for the person giving the eulogy than the person in the casket”
– Jerry Seinfeld
.

It’s Saturday morning, 9 a.m. I walk through the backstage doors of the theatre. All is quiet. My footsteps echo as I climb on to the dimly lit stage, inhaling the comforting smells of musty wood, staring at the rows of empty seats in front of me. In just a few hours they will be full of expectant faces. Tonight is the play’s premiere, when I will perform this piece in front of a live audience for the first time.

Just focus
Will they sit at the edge of their seats? Laugh at the right places? Or will they yawn? Have a coughing fit? Or worse, leave?! Maybe, just maybe, we will get a thunderous ovation. I so want to get it right. I shut my eyes. Don’t think of the end, I tell myself to focus.

And yet, try as I might, a crippling fear consumes me. It’s called glossophobia or informally, stage fright. Psychologists describe it as the “fight or flight” syndrome.

The performer sees the audience as a threat. And a primitive, automatic, inborn response prepares the body to fight or flee from this perceived danger. The hypothalamus then initiates a sequence of nerve cell firing and chemical release into the blood stream. Our pupils dilate. Awareness intensifies. Sight sharpens. Impulses quicken.

That sinking feeling
Ranked as the single most common phobia, this fear of speaking in public affects 75 per cent of the population. So you know the feeling I’m sure. Ice-cold hands, dry mouth, nausea, runny tummy, pounding heart. Experts advise deep breathing, meditation, relaxation. I try them all. They fail. And it’s only lunchtime.

Lawrence Olivier once said, “Stage fright is always waiting outside the door, waiting to get you.” He was so petrified that in a run of a play at London’s National Theatre, the stage manager had to push him onto stage every night. In 1967, Barbra Streisand had such a severe panic attack, that she blanked out midway through a song. Humiliated, she stopped performing live for the next 27 years. So I’m in esteemed company.

It’s 6pm and the stage is set, the lights focused. I begin the ritual of getting ready, hands still shaking. Most of us in the theatre follow a certain routine on opening night. Actress Anahita Uberoi reads good luck cards she has collected on opening nights over the years. Director Arghya Lahiri listens to a specific piece of music on the auditorium’s sound system. “You are just waiting for that moment when you can be in front of the audience and let go,” Uberoi says. I quite agree.

Suddenly it’s 7.15 pm. The first bell rings. The doors of the auditorium fly open. The audience comes pouring in. I can hear their collective buzz on the monitors backstage. My heart is beating so hard I can’t think. I try to remember my first line and draw a blank. I pace. Breathe deeply. Actor Zafar Karchiwala says he uses that time to connect with the energy of the audience, to absorb it. I pray silently to lord Ganesh and to all my colleagues in the heavens to please look after me on stage tonight.

Second bell. A huddle with the team. Final words of motivation from the director. I take my position in the wings. This is it. No turning back now.

On the third bell, the auditorium lights slowly fade. The chattering audience goes quiet. The music kicks in and I step on to stage. I take a final deep breath. Fear is behind me now. Ahead of me the incomparable ecstasy of performing live. As Zafar says, “It’s like someone just shot you with a dose of heroin.”

And boy, am I buzzed. It’s show time and I’m in the light.