Stagefright – fight or flight

stagefright babyI work in a business where I network a lot, end up standing on stage making announcements, and (as I type this) preparing to lead a workshop for 2hrs with a group of Newcastle based creative who I don’t know, and covering topics they will help to decide. Most of the time I am calm about all this. And then, just sometimes, my “fight or flight” mechanism kicks in and I am shaking with fear. Last night was one of those nights.

I was at a concert helping someone very special celebrate their birthday. It was packed. The performers were haunting and spiritual. The show started with an Om and I was scared. Suddenly I was being asked to participate – and I don’t do audience participation. That was over quickly. Quiet breathing. Listen to the haunting Nepalese flute player and German Sanskrit chanting.   But then the men were asked to sing with together with one chant, and the women with another. Had I been house manager at the back I would have listened to this with joy and a big smile. It must have sounded beautiful FROM THE OUTSIDE. But I was hit by fright. I was in the middle of the row. I felt embarrassed to be silent, but I could just get away with it. My palms turned to waterfalls and my breathe caught.

It is somewhat serendipitous that I am currently reading a stunning book on Introvert research by Susan Cain called Quiet. I highly recommend it – here’s her TED talk. Amidst my fear I could understand what was happening – and I knew the moment would pass.

The vast majority of readers will think, daft bugger – you were just meant to be enjoying a concert, not contemplating the jaws of a predator or a 60ft drop down a cliff. Just hum and enjoy it – everyone else is.

But worse was to come, and for the first time in years my body took over and I really couldn’t (or maybe chose not to) hold back the shaking and deep fear. The men in the audience were asked to stand and sing a beautiful sanskrit refrain in celebration of the feminine. Since I was there to do just that – celebrate the birthday of a divine being, what could be more beautiful. My answer, honestly, almost anything.   Am I making too much of a bit of stagefright? Was anyone forcing me? Was it a risky/dangerous sport ? – no it was an irrational fear.

Just to put it into perspective. If someone had tapped me on the shoulder and asked whether I could lend a hand, step on stage, talk to the audience whilst the musicians took a break, and draw the raffle in aid of the Nepalese charity of the evening, I would have had no problem. 1,000+ strangers, impromptu thanks to the amazing music and heartfelt involvement of the audience, draw a ticket, fill a bit of time until the concert resumes. No problem. I would have been momentarily nervous in the wings. Taken a breathe, and moved centre stage. I’d have asked for the house lights on, because looking into darkness scares me – I’d rather see the audience. Now that may seem completely counter-intuitive …but I can only feel what I feel.

I didn’t really recover my cool from standing for hours (well probably 5 minutes) whilst my whole body shook uncontrollably. I don’t think anyone around me noticed. My loving partner supported me, but is bemused by it. I write this to share and explore an incident.

It is the following day: As my train draws into Newcastle station and I head to an arts centre I’ve never visited (Six Space) to give a two hour impromptu workshop, the thing I am most scared of. I have booked an AirB&B and will have to ring someone’s doorbell and meet a stranger to find my room. That is making me nervous. Explain that if you can. Maybe the next chapter of Quiet will help me understand more about myself.

Nature or nurture, incidents in my childhood or an inherent genetic predisposition to be stark staring terrified of audience participation – the researchers continue in their studies, and I am becoming more and more fascinated.

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