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  • June 10th, 2011

Stage Fright


By Joel M. Vance

Ben Franklin said that death and taxes are the only inevitabilities, but I’d add the inevitability of being asked to perform in public.  Sooner or later someone will ask you to give a program, make a presentation, accept an award or otherwise put yourself at risk of humiliation.

“Imagine they all are naked,” is the advice often given to those with flop sweat.  As rampant as my imagination is (I can, for example, imagine Angelina Jolie naked with no problem whatever), I could not mentally disrobe an audience.  Rather I imagine them as Goths, armed with studded clubs, dressed in animal skins and with eyes as red as those of a hungry jaguar.

Death, taxes, public performance–of the three, the latter is the most terrifying.  You don’t have to think about dying.  You just do it and no one will be critical of the way you did it. Taxes are only criticized when you don’t pay them.  But an audience is chock-full of critics, just waiting for you to fart loudly or succumb to projectile vomiting right in the middle of your slide show.

A few folks have managed to combine death and performance.  The great Metropolitan Opera baritone Leonard Warren died onstage, ironically during a performance of Verdi’s “The Force of Destiny.”  And Brooklyn Dodger mogul Branch Rickey suffered a fatal heart attack while speaking at his induction into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame.

Most people faced with their first public performance (or, for some, every performance) would welcome death rather than the terror of getting up in front of an audience.  My first encounter with public performance was enough to keep me from public exposure the rest of my life, and I’ve often wished it had.  I was 15 years old and my mother talked me into singing “Dear Hearts and Gentle People” for the Methodist Church congregation.

Aside from a geriatric lady who fell asleep in a front pew, punctuating my quavering song with syncopated snoring, it was a sympathetic audience—it was the Christian thing to do.  Then a somnolent wasp lost its balance and fell on my neck.  Apparently it blamed me for its clumsiness for it stung me and I exclaimed “God damn!” which was both appropriate and inappropriate, given the setting.

I didn’t face an audience of more than two or three people for many years after that, but part of my job for the Missouri Department of Conservation was to make public appearances and once again I was forced into the lion’s den.

One outing was at a turkey calling contest in Hermann, a German town fond of its beer.  And there was an open bar during the contest, after which I gave a stirring address on conservation.  The crowd, those who weren’t looking at their watches, applauded (possibly the brevity of the talk) and everyone milled around in the crowded high school gymnasium.

A fellow who had spent most of the evening sampling the lager, weaved over to me and slurred, “You Joel Vance?”  I modestly admitted that I was.  “You the guy that writes that bullshit for the conservation magazine?” he challenged.

Now that is the kind of question for which there is no saving answer.  You admit you write bullshit or you say that you’re not the guy who writes it, an obvious lie, making you both a liar and a purveyor of bullshit.  “Hey, Charlie!” he shouted at a fellow halfway across the gym.  Heads turned.  “You know who this is!” he bellowed, indicating me as if calling attention to a noxious bug.  “This is the guy that writes that bullshit for the conservation magazine!”

My late boss Jim Keefe was a self-destructive type, his own worst enemy (he once walked into a parking meter while ogling a pretty girl and broke three ribs).  Once he was making a talk from a stage below which loomed an orchestra pit.

Carried away by his rhetoric, he gestured dramatically, lost his balance and fell with a thunderous crash into the orchestra pit.  There was stunned silence.  Then he rose from the darkness, clambered back on the stage, faced the crowd and said, “Don’t tell me I don’t know how to grab an audience!”

Rodney Green, an education consultant, now retired, from the Missouri Conservation Department, was giving a talk to perhaps 100 Girl Scouts and their mothers and leaders.  He chose to talk about snakes and had a couple of non-venomous snakes in a cotton sack.

One was a kingsnake which he had not gentled.  As he held the snake in one hand, he carelessly passed his other hand by the snake’s mouth and the kingsnake obligingly bit him and held on.  Blood began to stream down his hand and wrist.  The snake was firmly fastened and Rod, thinking to make the best of a bad situation, said, “See how the snake’s fangs are recurved so it can hang on?  And it has an anti-coagulant in its saliva so that’s why I’m bleeding.  Does anyone have a spoon or something to pry the son of a….the snake’s jaws open?”

With help Rod got the snake loose and silently congratulated himself on handling an embarrassing situation not only well, but educationally.  But he wasn’t done with snakes for the day.He also had a black rat snake and, believing it was somewhat more docile than the kingsnake, he hauled its three-foot length out of his sack.  While demonstrating something he passed the snake in front of him and it leaned over and grabbed the crotch of his britches, fortunately not all the way through to the tender bits inside.

But it startled him and he let go the snake which dangled, swinging to and fro, from his crotch at which the 100 Girl Scouts broke into giggles and shrieks and the adults turned crimson.  Rodney, who knows a good story when he creates one, has refined and expanded the story into epic proportions over the years, but for most folks an experience like that would lead to an intense desire to crawl under a rock.

The perils of performance got summed up for me graphically when I was invited to speak to an evening meeting of a local fraternal club.  Usually there are 30-40 members who manage to stay quiet for 20 minutes after the tail twister has done his inane job and they’ve inhaled a gob of roast beef and mashed potatoes and, in some cases, knocked back a couple of stiff drinks.

Then they return to talking to each other about things they’re really interested in (stocks, land development, golf, the weather, etc.) and I go home.

But I expected at the very least a free meal.  There were two men at the restaurant when I arrived.  Three more showed up close to meeting time. That seemed to be the peak attendance. “We usually have more…” the club president said, leaving unsaid what I assumed he was thinking “…but they heard you were speaking.”

There were no plates on the table and no one appeared bearing steaming platters heaped with delectable food items.  We made small talk until I realized the five of them were waiting for me to do something.  “Is this a dinner meeting?” I asked finally—hell, we were in a restaurant for God’s sake.

“Oh…well, we all ate before we came,” the president said.  “But you go ahead.  We’ll wait.”  My stomach growled and I was miffed enough to take him up on it. So I ordered a cheeseburger and we waited for a while until it came, then they all watched me eat it.

Suppressing a belch, I got up to make my talk after which the president approached me with a paper sack.  “We have a little something by way of thanks,” he said and I hoped it was a fifth of Jim Beam, even a bottle of 75-cent Sweet Lucy wine.  God knows, I needed a stiff belt.

He withdrew a framed certificate from the sack and said, “Here,” thrusting it at me.  I started to take it and he jerked it back.  “Wait a minute!” he said.  He began to scrub at the glass with his thumbnail and I realized the price sticker still was on it.  It was a flimsy $.98 frame from Woolworth’s.

“That’s okay,” I said, half-jokingly.  “Leave it on—then I’ll know how much you thought of me.”

“Yeah, I know,” he muttered, continuing to scrape furiously.



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