It was the mid-'60s, and Ron Wilson was a college sophomore with one acting class under his belt. He was starring in Edward Albee's two-man play "The Zoo Story," and after an uneventful opening night, he was preparing to go onstage for his second performance. But as soon as his feet touched the boards, he couldn't remember a single line.
"I didn't know what to do, so I just started moving," he remembers. "The poor actor onstage with me almost died."
After a while, he began to remember some of the lines from a five-page monologue his character was to deliver, and he started reciting them … though not in order. He'd pick up a line somewhere in the middle of the speech and go backward and forward, sometimes returning to the beginning. Over the course of the night, he estimates that he delivered the same monologue five times. At one point, he remembered the switchblade knife, a stage prop, in his pocket.
"I knew I wanted to end it right there!" he jokes.
Wilson, now director of the Case-Cleveland Playhouse Master of Fine Arts Acting Program in Ohio, is far from alone — the list of successful performers who have suffered from stage fright is long and illustrious, including Laurence Olivier, Barbra Streisand, Carly Simon, Rod Stewart and opera star Renee Fleming, to name just a few. And the fear of public speaking, a more common manifestation of stage fright, plagues 40 percent of American adults, according to a 2001 Gallup poll.
Shake my nerves and rattle my brain
What's really going on when we get sweaty-palmed and sick to our stomachs?
Mary Fensholt, a consultant and author of "The Francis Effect: The Real Reason You Hate Public Speaking and How to Get Over It," puts it succinctly: "The fear of public speaking or performing is more than anything a fear of being eaten."
Building on the theories of sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, Fensholt argues that historically, being intently scrutinized and singled out was a prelude to being eaten by a predator, so human ancestors evolved a strong fear response against setting themselves apart from the protection of the group.
It's a fascinating theory, but all we really know for sure is that stage fright represents the fight or flight response, says Shara Sand, clinical assistant professor of psychology at New York's Yeshiva University. Sand is also a trombonist who has had firsthand experience with stage fright.
"What primitively is going on is that there's a kind of exposure and vulnerability," she says. And even though there isn't any real danger, it can feel like there is.
Some of the most common symptoms of stage fright include dry mouth, short-term memory loss and sweaty palms. Fensholt notes that these can be attributed, respectively, to the digestive system temporarily shutting down, the adrenal gland-produced hormone cortisol flooding the body and our primate ancestors' need for increased traction in the forest canopy. Even blushing can be understood as a form of arousal to perceived danger; thereaction carries increased oxygen to all parts of the body.
Help me get my feet back on the ground
The first thing to recognize in dealing with stage fright is that it's not universally bad.
"A little bit of stress, a little bit of anxiety actually makes you a little sharper," says New York clinical psychologist Lubna Somjee. "It heightens your arousal, it makes you cognitively more quick."
What's important is controlling the more extreme physical symptoms — the shaking, the dry mouth — and a key is realizing that your responses are completely normal, Fensholt says.
"If you find yourself not really understanding why you start to shake, why your hands sweat … then you start to explain it to yourself by 'I'm just not good at this' or 'I didn't prepare enough,' [and] that's when you get into trouble."
In fact, even the most skilled performers face attacks of the nerves in front of an audience. As the lead singer and guitarist of '60s band The Invictas, Herb Gross had no trouble playing in front of thousands of fans, but when he started his own advertising business and had to give presentations, he was "frightened to death."
"Playing in front of a crowd and speaking to a crowd are two totally different things," he says. "I actually took public-speaking classes and I remember the guy said, 'Is there anyone in the audience who knows more about the topic you're going to talk about than you do?' That helped me tremendously."
While you may not be able to shrug off stage fright entirely, you can minimize its effects. Breathing exercises, visualization, focusing on relaxing your muscles and drinking a glass of grapefruit juice to stimulate the salivary glands all can help with the physical symptoms of stage fright, and, as Somjee says, "If you can relax your body, your mind simply follows."
Another option is beta blockers, drugs commonly used to lower blood pressure and prevent migraines. The pills also inhibit the body's fight or flight response, so are sometimes prescribed to help counter severely debilitating stage fright. Experts disagree whether they should be a last resort or a standby. "There are so many other things you can do," Fensholt says. "It's better to work with the body instead of against the body."
A little perspective about what's at stake never hurts either. If you make a mistake, you may be embarrassed, but there are no real predators in the audience. As Wilson, the actor, puts it, "It's like that old Marine saying: 'They may kill you, but they won't eat you.'"