Saturday, September 02, 2006

Stagefright and teaching


I just read the report on stagefright in the New Yorker for August 28, 2006. “Petrified,” by John Lahr, reports on disastrous attacks of stagefright on various actors, and quotes many actors and writers trying to describe the effects. At first, I thought, “Whew! I’m sure glad I’m not an actor!” But, as I read, I felt more and more uncomfortable, aware that I knew some of these feelings too well:

Instead of being protected , as usual, by the character he is
playing, he suddenly stands helpless before the audience as
himself; he loses the illusion of invisibility. His authority
collapses and he feels naked, as if he were exposing to the
judgmental spectators “an image of the man behind the
mask,” says the American psychoanalyst Christopher
Bollas,.... “There is this catastrophic loss of confidence, ...
You lose your radar–like a surfer. You can ride a ten-foot
wave with real confidence, not thinking about it, just doing
it. Then all of a sudden, you become too self-aware. You
think too much. You get wiped out.”


This is eerily like my experiences when I lose concentration while teaching. Aaagh! Stagefright can attack professors, librarians, anybody who performs in front of others. I usually sail along blithely, connecting to the class and building my confidence from that connection. But once in a while, a student who is IM-ing or
just not into it throws off my concentration and I have to really fight that sense of sudden exposure. It is a terrible thing to suddenly be aware of those judging eyes looking at you with no sense of partnership. “Petrified” discusses it:

The actor’s success depends on his ability to conquer the
audience, which is why the encounter is so often fraught
with excitement and danger. “The relationship is
undoubtedly sexual,” [yipes!] the British character actress
Anna Massey says. "You get to know an audience very,
very quickly. within the first five minutes. They become
your friends or they become difficult to woo. Sometimes
they’re never won.”


All the central traumas of childhood–being alone,
abandoned, unsupported, emotionally abused–are revived
for an actor [or a teacher!] when he appears before the
paying customers, who have the power to either starve him
of affection or reward him with approval. ... When things
are going well, the stage and the house merge and a sort of
imaginative union is achieved. The intimacy is palpable on
both sides of the footlights; the audience seems to breathe
with the actors. “There is brilliant intellectual clarity, a
sense of boundless, inexhaustible energy as the chambers of
the brain open up,” [Ian] Holms says of a successful
performance. “Your whole existence is lit up by a dazzling
sense of potential,” [Stephen] Fry, explaining why he put
himself through the stress of acting says, “You’re trying to
recapture the ‘first fine, careless rapture.’ The first time
you felt king of time and space, the first spinning joy of it

P. 40

The essay thus neatly captures both the heaven of intense and satisfying connection to the students and the absolute hell of missing that connection! It’s been a while since I thought of teaching as being this intense of an experience. But I certainly
experienced that when I started out. And when I “hit the sweet spot” with a class, it is, indeed exhilarating still. Perhaps you have to risk the terrible abandonment and terror of stagefright to achieve that “dazzling sense of potential!” Sleepwalking professors may not ever have experienced the awful sense of standing naked to the judgement of the class, just as they never have that sense of intense connection with their audience.

I have had faculty friends describe a bad class as “crashing and burning.” I have faculty friends who prepare for class and seem to me to be absolutely sizzling with energy. I only teach one class a week, and had not thought of these polar extremes applying to myself for quite a while. Maybe it’s time to give myself over to the muse if I’m going to go on teaching. Come to think of it, both these friends were rather young at the time I am recalling. I wonder if my faculty friends who’ve been teaching longer have that same sense now? Is it a matter of maturing as a prof or is it a matter of skating the edge of disaster in service of the art?

The decoration is Edvard Munch's The Scream, courtesy of an art education page,


Marie S. Newman said...

I know this comment is irrelevant to your post, but I was delighted to see that the two Munch paintings were recovered in Norway.

Betsy McKenzie said...

Yay! I found that, too, when I was searching for a new image. Was there ever a painting that could more accurately depict the feeling of being a stolen painting? If you stole the Mona Lisa, she would go on smiling ambiguously. When they stole the Scream, the painting just looked horrified! Love it.