Pulling back the curtain on stage fright

Posted on September 12, 2007 

Pulling back the curtain on stage fright

It was the mid-’60s, and Ron Wilson was a college sophomore with one acting class under his belt. He was starring in Edward Albee’s two-man play “The Zoo Story,” and after an uneventful opening night, he was preparing to go onstage for his second performance. But as soon as his feet touched the boards, he couldn’t remember a single line.

After a while, he began to remember some of the lines from a five-page monologue his character was to deliver, and he started reciting them … though not in order. He’d pick up a line somewhere in the middle of the speech and go backward and forward, sometimes returning to the beginning. Over the course of the night, he estimates that he delivered the same monologue five times.

Mary Fensholt, a consultant and author of “The Francis Effect: The Real Reason You Hate Public Speaking and How to Get Over It,” puts it succinctly: “The fear of public speaking or performing is more than anything a fear of being eaten.”

Building on the theories of sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, Fensholt argues that historically, being intently scrutinized and singled out was a prelude to being eaten by a predator, so human ancestors evolved a strong fear response against setting themselves apart from the protection of the group.

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