In the process of trying to convince people of the value of attending a live event, performing arts people will often cite the opportunity for chaos. They will say something along the lines of a recording will be the same every time, but in a live performance, anything can happen.
I wonder if this is really fair to the performers and crew that worked on the show because it essentially tells the audience they should be rooting, just a little, for something to go wrong.
It may seem relatively harmless, especially if you aren’t out there loudly proclaiming the certain death of the lion tamer or acrobat who operates without a net. There are a lot of performers out there who (mostly) quietly suffer from stage fright and even just a little hype can exacerbate their anxiety.
A book review in the New Yorker last August recounts some of the more famous/infamous instances of stage fright suffered by Daniel Day-Lewis, Laurence Olivier and Glenn Gould, among others. It talks about the different things that weigh on performer’s minds, no matter how hard they try, including whether they can live up to the legend that has been attached to them.
The audience rooting against them or judging them is among the anxieties they suffer:
Some performers displace this cruelty onto the audience. The pianist Charles Rosen believed that the spectators were out there waiting for the performer to slip up: “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.”
Baryshnikov believes that it is the feeling of obligation to the audience that triggers stagefright: “Suddenly the morality kicks in. These people bought a ticket to your show.”
The problem of stage fright may be more widespread than we are generally aware. In addition to silently coping with the problem, the New Yorker article notes that many artists use beta-blockers to help them deal with their fear. This is not without some controversy.
Some people said they resulted in “phoned in” performances. Some raised the ethical question, asking whether the use of beta-blockers by pianists was any different from the use of steroids by athletes. (There is an important distinction, though. Steroids add to the body, increasing muscle mass in order to improve performance. Beta-blockers remove something from the body—the flutist’s lip tremors, the cellist’s hand tremors—in order to permit the person to produce the kind of performance he has already shown himself capable of, outside the auditorium.)
This reminded me that Drew McManus had written about the issue of “performance enhancing drugs” for musicians a dozen years ago for The Partial Observer.
I briefly thought that a more constructive use of the “anything can happen” phrase might be to associate it with idea that you may see a breakthrough performance or a moment of inspiration and synchronicity that transcends the normal experience.
I quickly realized this approach may increase the anxiety for the audience. “Am I witnessing a transcendent moment? How do I really know? I wasn’t really bowled over, but maybe I missed it. I should probably join the standing ovation just to be sure, right?”
The truth is, live performance has the potential for witnessing some crises and participating in moments of transcendence. To ignore that these opportunities exist does a disservice to the experience. Regardless of whether these factors are mentioned, performers are still going to experience stage fright and audiences are still going to wonder if they are missing something everyone else seems to get.
Not to mention, these experiences aren’t unique to the performing arts. Athletes fear they will lose the edge that makes them great and many spectators find themselves unable to figure out what is going on or why anyone gets excited by the sport in the first place.
While it is generally acknowledged that the arts have to be sensitive to the barriers that may exist for audiences, the same isn’t really true for the performers.
In many other fields of employment there are coaches, counselors and human resource personnel available. Granted, many of these resources are less than perfect. A highly paid athlete is going to get a lot more support and guidance from the team’s infrastructure if they fall into rut than a fast food worker will from their company.
How many theater companies, dance companies and orchestras have a program in place to provide coaching for a performer who has lost their edge? (Actually, the dance company practice of having regular classes might count as that.) Or acknowledge that people might have debilitating stage fright, much less provide help for people who are experiencing it?
I am left wondering how prevalent it is since it isn’t often discussed. Given that seven people, (a fairly large number for that column), commenting on Drew’s Partial Observer admitted to using a drug to deal with anxiety, I suspect it is more prevalent than we imagine.