Understanding (and beating) stage fright

  • Instructor Lennie Dean, center, leads students including Emily Winfield, left, as part of individual workout of full expression during the Ensemble Playwriting Workshop at the 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa, on Monday, May 19, 2014. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

Fourteen-year-old Ismena Jameau of Sebastopol has no problem performing on a soccer field, but ask her to give a speech in English class and she feels "extremely nervous and out of control."

Theater director Elizabeth Craven said not all actors have stage fright, "but the really good ones frequently do."

Internationally acclaimed opera singer John Duykers of Sebastopol said it took decades of performing before he realized his nervousness might stem from excitement and not fear.

Whether it's you alone in front of 25 classmates or a theater full of ticket payers, the symptoms are familiar — butterflies, sweaty palms, shaking hands, dry mouth, racing heart.

Fear of public speaking even has a name — glossophobia.

"Energy looking for a place to go," is how one of Craven's teachers defined stage fright.

The fact that it's common and happens to the super famous — actor Sir Laurence Olivier routinely threw up in a bucket before making an entrance — may not help. But some things do help prepare the body and mind to perform.

Veteran public speaker Padi Selwyn of Sebastopol learned to watch what she eats and drinks before hitting the podium. Seafood causes dry mouth. Dairy's too hard to digest. Save the alcohol for after the applause.

Once, while addressing 1,000 people, her mouth went "completely dry after a wonderful crab salad lunch."

A fix for that, said Selwyn, past present of the National Speakers Association of Northern California, is to keep a glass of warm water nearby. Not cold. "Cold constricts the vocal cords," she said.

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