Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Performance anxiety

Another day, another evening. I went to a show. Someone I know — a little — was performing.

The last time I’d been to a show in this hall was to see Jerry Dammers’ Spatial AKA Orchestra — a guileful reconsideration of the jazzy sounds of Herman Poole Blount from Saturn (or perhaps Sun Ra from Birmingham, Alabama). Half the audience walked out. Presumably, they’d hoped to be hearing Let’s Two-Tone Again (Like We Did In The Eighties). Those of us who stayed were so entranced that when the band finished onstage and single-filed out of a side door, we followed. And there, outside, the band played on and on, by the river, as dusk fell and fountains hissed.

This night’s performance was not like that. It started fine. People had flown in from around the world to see the performance. The performer hadn’t done a show in a very long time — stage fright, I’ve been told, by someone who knows.

The show started wonderfully. Performer and performance were welcoming, clever, moving even. The audience was glad it had come and showed it by applauding, loudly. It was having a great time. The performer expressed surprise and pleasure at the audience’s enthusiasm.

Then the performer began fluffing notes and forgetting lyrics. At first, it was occasional. Then the mistakes grew more and more and more and more relentless. They, rather than the performance itself, came to define and dominate the performance.

The audience never let on that it knew this. Not consciously anyway. It kept on applauding, only louder, perhaps in the hope that this would confidence-boost the performer. Later, I wondered it the audience was — unconsciously — making amends for less honourable thoughts. Thoughts such as: we paid good money for this?

There were encores. And it was a good show, actually. Just not what it could have been, perhaps should have been. Stage fright. Performance anxiety. I couldn’t work it out.

Then, later, I find myself thinking about the emperor’s new clothes. A few year’s ago, I wrote a piece of fiction for a magazine. It was a version of the fairy tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes as retold by the tailors. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good either. But I could live with that. Until, that is, I was talking to a therapist friend about it and she said: you know, I always thought the real secret to the story is that the emperor got what he really wanted: that, between them, the tailors and the little boy, uncovered his heart’s desire. Which was? Not to be an emperor.

So what is going on in a performer with stage fright? What are they actually afraid of?

The audience? Well, maybe. But then why did they become a performer in the first place?

Failure? Well, maybe. But who isn’t? Fear of failure is perfectly rational and sensible. Generally, it’s what either drives us on or convinces us to give up before we start.

Performers with stage fright are long past that stage. At least, the ones I’m thinking about are. Not the ones who walk onstage for the first time, take one look at the crowd and freeze. Almost certainly, they will give up there and then and take up something less anxiety-inducing — base-jumping, say, or parenting.

Rather, I’m thinking about the ones who develop stage fright as their career progresses — generally as it blossoms or blooms. Stage fright never seems to happen to the also-rans, only to the genuinely talented — generally, the generously talented. It’s rare in stars, too. In fact, it seems to happen most often to performers who never quite hit the highest of heights, certainly not the heights that were predicted for them. They’re the performers who never fulfilled what was expected of them. They’re the stuff that cults are made of.

Which made me think of the naked emperor and how he got what he secretly desired. Does the stage-fritted performer’s stage fright, in fact, given them exactly what they secretly want? If so, what is it? Failure, I guess. Stage fright certainly all but guarantees they’ll never achieve what they’re capable of — no matter how loudly their small(er than it should be) crowd applauds.

So what are they so frightened of? Success, I guess. It’s the only thing that makes logical sense. For the performer with stage fright, failure is the success they crave.

Why should success be so frightening? Now there’s a question.

I know there’s a reference to something like this somewhere in Freud. It’s a story about one of his patients, a highly talented young man who repeatedly scuttles his own career, mostly by to losing his CV or forgetting to turn up for interviews on time. He knows this, he knows he keeps doing it, he wants to stop doing it, he tries very hard to stop doing it but keep doing it he does.

Why? If memory serves, it’s because he’s afraid of outperforming his father. Which, I guess, introduces a whole new set of possibilities about stage fright.

(I’ve tried to find the actual story but can’t. I’ll keep looking, though. I thought the young man was given the pseudonym K but that doesn’t seem to be right. Maybe I confused him with my imaginary encounter between Freud and his contemporary, Kafka’s K. I day-dreamed of K going to see Freud and telling him he thinks he might need psychoanalysis: he’s been accused of this terrible crime, only he doesn’t know what it is.)

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