I remember listening to a recording of a very interesting interview Richard Attenborough gave on a radio program back in the 1970s. He discussed his role, that of John Christie, in the motion picture “10 Rillington Place.” John Christie was an English serial killer who was hanged for his crimes in 1953. In particular, Attenborough discussed how he went about inhabiting the character of Christie. What struck me in the interview was his opening comment (offered in a lighthearted tone), something to the effect that “actors are dramatic people.” I chuckled when I heard his comment. “How true this is,” I thought. He continued the interview explaining that he needed a very deep level of concentration to inhabit the character of John Christie. In addition, in a subsequent interview Attenborough credited the director, Richard Fleischer, who instilled in him the confidence he needed to successfully inhabit the character of John Christie. I understand the need for a deep level of concentration and confidence to successfully inhabit a character. This comes as no surprise, but listening to Attenborough discuss acting technique made me think of stage fright, the actor’s nightmare.
I experienced stage fright in the summer of 2012. It was a most horrifying experience. I played the role of Treadwell, the butler, in the Ottawa Little Theatre production of the Agatha Christie murder mystery, “Black Coffee.” For some reason my confidence faltered and I stumbled through the scene. I remembered my lines, but the delivery was awkward and I felt horribly self-conscious. Through it all I thought “I’ll have to leave town after this.” Actors are dramatic people indeed. Following the performance, the director (Johni Keyworth) asked me what happened and all I could say was “I was distracted tonight.”
Johni Keyworth is a seasoned professional actor and director and under his tutelage I created the character of Treadwell and confidently performed the role in all but the one performance where I went off the rails. I cannot remember exactly what triggered the episode, but looking back I think when self-consciousness takes hold of me the “gremlins in my head” taunt me with their all too familiar refrain: “Do you have any idea how ridiculous you look? Can’t you see the audience rolling their eyes and snickering at your God-awful acting? What were you thinking when you took up stage acting?”
Stage fright strikes actors, amateur and professional alike. Ian McKellan described an episode of stage fright he experienced performing on stage, noting:
I was acting twenty years ago in a much praised production on Shaftesbury Avenue. At a late night supper in Soho, I eavesdropped on a couple of actors discussing my performance. They criticised my diction, damned my physique and agreed on my total failure as an actor.
I thought I was impervious, but the next night, in the second act, I stopped in mid-flow, certain that every member of that night’s audience agreed with my critics. Unable to say the lines, unable even to walk offstage, I longed for the proverbial trapdoor to open and release me from the hell of being a failed actor. For the next four months the last place on earth I wanted to be was appearing in public. (Ian McKellan Writings)
I am well into rehearsals for a production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” with the Ottawa Little Theatre. Tom Taylor is directing the production. I am playing Charlie Cheswick, a patient in a state mental hospital. Charlie is a voyeur (he enjoys looking through windows and watching women undress) and experiences drastic mood swings. He puts on a tough guy act, but when push comes to shove, he backs down and cringes. He is not committed to treatment. He is free to leave the institution if he wants, but his personality disorders essentially make him unemployable and unable to cope with life in society. He stays in the institution, tolerating its repressive routines, because he has nowhere else to go. Inhabiting the character of Charlie Cheswick is challenging. Mental illness is a sensitive issue and portraying it on stage is no easy task. I have my lines down and am developing the character of Charlie Cheswick under Tom’s capable direction. Tom is an experienced director and does a masterful job inspiring confidence in the cast, myself included.
As we continue rehearsals, I am mindful of the peril that is stage fright of which Laurence Olivier warned “is… always waiting outside the door, waiting to get you. You either battle or walk away.” (Laurence Olivier, as cited in (Ian McKellan Writings) That said, it is great seeing the cast and crew pull together and the play taking shape. I remain positive that when we take to the stage on February 23rd we will succeed in presenting a first-rate performances through the entire run, Feb. 23 – Mar. 12, 2016. I am blessed to find myself taking part in a production with such a talented group of people.
Posted by Geoffrey