Sunday, November 11, 2007

Stage Fright

I tipped up at an open mic session the other night, played a couple of songs, got away with it, retired unhurt. Open mic nights are a good thing all round, I think. For the performer there's the opportunity to try out a couple of numbers without the responsibility of having to carry the whole evening, and for the audience there's always the prospect of something better coming along than this nimrod.

Somebody asked me in a later conversation had I ever had stage fright?

Yes I have. Twice.

Stage-fright isn't just the understandable nervousness that anyone who's about to perform has to go through. It's a fear so irrational that if you were capable of making the choice between facing the audience before you and the grizzly bear that had somehow strolled onto the stage behind you, you'd choose the bear. (In fact I've since thought that Shakespeare's famous stage direction 'Exit, pursued by a bear' was the easy get-out clause.)

My first experience of stage-fright was relatively mild. It happened in a pub where some old friends of mine were playing - a jazz band that I'd been involved with some years previously. I'd turned up in passing, and thought I'd look in and see if they were still going. The band leader saw me at the back of the audience and said 'Bloody hell - it's Augarde. Come and have a go, mate. Sing us a song.' Well you can't not, and it was only a pub gig. No big deal, then. So I pushed my way to the front, and the band started playing the opening bars of a song that I must have sung with them a hundred times.

Jesus. I thought I was going to die. There was the microphone, all wet with someone else's spit, there was the cue, and I couldn't make a sound. Absolute terror. The lads had to go through the intro again as I just stood there shaking. Ridiculous. Second time around I managed to croak out some approximation of the song being played, but you could see people thinking 'Whose stupid idea was it to get him up?'

So I stumbled away from that experience and went logging in Canada for the next eight years. (I lie, but that's what I should have done.)

The next occasion was far worse. I was supposed to be giving a talk about children's books, and publishing in general, to a group of parents and teachers. This was at Bath University. I'd arrived a bit late, and so I was under some pressure to sort myself out quickly. The room was filling up behind me as I was still setting out my stall - getting a display of books organised, flip chart, pens, etc. I was maybe a bit flustered, but not especially worried or nervous. I'd given such talks before, and I hadn't felt the need to do much in the way of preparation.

So I turned to face the audience, the woman organising the event introduced me, and I was on my own. There were all these rows of faces, arranged in a semi-circle as I remember, everyone smiling. I stood looking back at the audience, searching for a few opening words...

But I couldn't seem to find any way of beginning. Couldn't get a single idea in my head to work on. The silence went on a bit too long, and I thought - my God, what if I really can't think of anything to say?

And then it was like everything just seized up completely. This white fog of terror came down on me, and I couldn't even move. Months passed, everybody still staring at me, and me staring back at them. The smiles were starting to look horribly fixed now, like everybody had begun to realise that there was a lunatic between them and the exit. I thought - I'm going to have to pretend that I'm ill. And I am ill, dammit. Yes, I'll double over like I've got renal failure or something, and stagger for the door. Pursued by a bear. Brilliant.

So I turned away, judging the distance I'd have to cover, and saw the blank page of the flip chart in front of me - realised that I had a marker pen in my hand. I think this was what saved me. Some Pavlovian reaction kicked in, and I put the tip of the pen onto the pad. I wrote the word Author. Then I drew a little arrow, and wrote the word Editor. Then another arrow leading to Distributor. I started to feel a bit better then.

I made the words go round in a circle: Author, Editor, Publisher, Distributor, Retail, Parent/Teacher, Child. And so back to Author. The publishing cycle.

'This is how long it takes,' I said, 'for an author's words to finally reach their audience. Seems like forever, doesn't it?'

Since then I've made very certain that if I'm booked to appear somewhere, I at least know how I'm going to begin. His Bobness once said something about knowing your song well before you start singing. Good advice, although not necessarily proof against stage-fright. Take your own bear with you everywhere you go, that's what I say.

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