Commentary: He’s the man with the stage fright

In 1962, when I was 13, I took a summer drama class at the University of Oklahoma. The curriculum orbited around the one-act play “The Sentimental Scarecrow,” and culminated in a two-performance run in a little theater on campus. I was cast as the scarecrow, and half of the lines in the script were mine.

The play started with me in my ragged clothes, straw stuffed in my cuffs, standing alone on stage delivering a long monolog about how lonely I was and how I wished I had someone to talk to and, from there, proceeded through a series of encounters with passersby.

In the first performance everything went well, but the second performance augured differently. I took my place on stage, the introductory music (which I can still remember clearly) swelled and faded, the house lights came down, and the director prepared to open the curtain. In that moment of silence and darkness, I was struck by the Mother of Panic Attacks and ran off the stage.

The director asked me what was wrong and I told him I couldn’t go on. “You have to go on!” he hissed. “The whole play depends on you!”

Any Psych 101 student could have told him that that was the last thing to say to someone in my state. Better to tell me that my cat had been run over.

I sat on a couch backstage with a cold rag on my forehead, the entire cast gathered around me, for what seemed like an hour but was probably only a few minutes, and the director made a deal with me: If I went onstage and started the show, he would stand offstage and pull the curtain shut if I signaled him to do so with a flick of my head. Deal.

I took my place, the curtain opened, and I began my monolog, which looked and sounded something like this: “I sure am lonesome out in this field by myself.” [flick] “I sure wish I had someone to talk to.” [flick flick] “I haven’t seen anyone for such a long time.” [FLICK FLICK FLICK]

Of course, the director, whose grad-student reputation rested upon the success of this production, wasn’t about to close the curtain. If I was going to torpedo his baby, I was going to have to do it in front of God and my parents and everyone else. To my credit, I made it through the performance, but that was pretty much the end of my acting career. I did do more drama classes, because I enjoyed them, but I eschewed all roles of any substance, relegating myself to supporting roles such as “townsperson,” where my main function was to move about the stage in a pack with other actors mumbling on cue (“watermelon, watermelon”).

That same summer, I started playing guitar and discovered that being in front of people thus armed was not scary. Fifty years and 10,000 performances later, I ponder this paradox. How and why can I stand alone on the stage of the Fitzgerald Theater and sing and play with 1,400 people staring at me (and another 2 million listening on the radio) with little deviation in my blood pressure, while even the thought of speaking lines under similar circumstances elicits the panic of my scarecrow days?

Googling “stage fright” reveals no specific cure, but rather a palette of approaches and solutions, and one must find the protocol best suited to him or her. For me, there is a logic to music that transcends any prosaic order or system, and that logic is what keeps me calm.

I couldn’t remember the one sentence I had to recite at my wedding (I left out the phrase about being faithful), but I can recall lyrics, chords and melodies to 3,000 songs and tunes. My confidence in this skill—and the assurance that no matter what happens on stage I can cover as long as I’ve got a guitar in my hands—keeps me cool under fire. Another person will feel the opposite: confident handling the spoken word, but experiencing panic if faced with keeping a bunch of musical stuff straight.

No one knows who was the first to say that art imitates life, but to that oft-quoted aphorism I’ll add that artists, too, should imitate life. So, just as laypeople naturally search for occupations, partners and environments that give them the greatest pleasure and satisfaction, I think artists should gravitate toward those outlets of expression and creation with which they best click (including, especially, ones they are not scared of).

The comedian Red Skelton is said to have suffered such terrible stage fright that he’d throw up offstage during his live television show.

He should have bought a guitar.

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