I have read that among the most potent fears experienced by the human
the fear of falling, and
the fear of public speaking.
In one of my "CorporateTheatre" workshops, I met the expat
head of a multinational corporation who was petrified by the fear of public
speaking. In his organization it was customary for the head of the team
to give a Christmas speech, attended by all the employees in the Head Office.
From October onwards, this experienced professional was under stress
thinking of the speech he had to deliver in December.
This is quite understandable. Even after decades of experience, a
theatre actor goes through immense pressure, tension, and nervousness before
going on stage. I recently saw a post by a well known actor and stand up
comedian, saying that there comes a point before every performance, where every
actor wishes he or she didn't have to go through with it. After over 4
decades of performing on stage, a day or two before a show, I often catch
myself hoping that something would happen to scrap the play. The fear is
immense. Even so, once the performance starts, and as the audience begins
responding, and you hear the applause, the magic and the
intoxication of it is such that you are eagerly waiting for the next show and
the next production.
Though I have not done any formal 'research' on the nature of this fear
of performance, my gut feel is that arises from the vulnerability of exposure.
There you are on stage, with the curtains up, the lights on, the
audience's eyes on you, and this is the moment of truth. There is no
scope for pretence. You can only deliver what you are and what you have.
And every moment you are being watched, analysed, assessed, and judged by
hundreds of people. The stakes are very high.
Sometimes in corporate workshops, an occasional participant has some
difficulty in connecting the workshop experience with the corporate
"But there are no stakes here", they say. "There
are no incentives or appraisals or promotions involved."
I often respond by saying that the fear of being judged and the need to
be positively assessed is as critical and visceral a stake as anything else.
Probably even more . . .
Recently, I experienced this practically during the process of a theatre
production, and it offered me a powerful example how even under immense
pressure, fear, and uncertainty, we can exhibit the ideal dynamics of
individual and team effectiveness.
Some months ago, our theatre group decided that our next production
should feature 'objects' which were significant to our lives some years ago but
have since become obsolete - like the audio cassette, or the typewriter, or the
gramophone. We had to present our thoughts or write-ups over a series of
meetings. At one such meeting, I presented a story which received a
healthy round of applause from the other group members. After the
meeting, our director - a maverick known for highly challenging and
experimental work, and admired across the country, asked me if I would like to
do my story as a 'monologue'.
I was terrified. Being on stage with a group of actors in a
regular play is scary enough, and the prospect of being the only actor on stage
with nothing and no one to fall back on, for about an hour, was mortally
I had two options. To decline and play it safe. Or to take
the risk and plunge headlong into it. I had complete trust in the director's
instinct and knew that if he directed a piece it had a good chance of becoming
a worthwhile production. Moreover, I had just crossed sixty and realised that
if I let this opportunity pass it might not come again and also that mustering
the necessary courage would become that much more difficult later on.
I accepted the challenge.
After a couple of meetings during which we adapted a 'reading' script
into a 'performance' script, the director decided that we needed to focus on
this project exclusively for a few days. We booked ourselves into a
beautiful resort on the banks of the Kabini river, with nothing but virgin
countryside and water bodies around, which offered total privacy, the scope for
long walks along the river banks and through timeless villages, a spacious
pool, and a cosy bar surrounded by a moat. We booked ourselves for a 10
day stay. And without even a play in hand we made a commitment to our
hosts that we would rehearse for five days and from the sixth day onwards we
would perform for the resort guests, in exchange for an affordable package that
could cover our stay and food. As this resort was frequented by guests
from all over India and abroad, we had no idea what the audience would be like.
This made the prospect even scarier. However, I had already made
the commitment and was now into free fall without any soft options.
Committing to performances from a particular date onwards was a way of
putting pressure on ourselves to make it work.
The first few rehearsals and trial performances were disastrous.
The director had asked me at the outset,
"Do you want me to be nasty or do you want me to be polite?"
"There is no point in being polite," I had replied. "Be
ruthless and don't try to make it gentle. We are performing in 5 days and
I know that you and I are working with the same goal in mind - to make this a
good play, which an audience will enjoy and applaud."
Thereafter he didn't mince any words. He was ruthless. After
the morning rehearsals on the 3rd day, followed by a brutal feedback session,
we had lunch and then retired to our separate cottages for a short rest.
I decided that it was not going to work and that I would tell the
director to forget about it, apologise to our hosts, and return home.
While committing to performances, we had also warned our hosts that this
was an experiment and there were no guarantees.
As I lay down and began to doze off, it suddenly hit me. We were
trying to mix two styles - performance and story-telling. We were
beginning in a performance mode and switching suddenly into a story-telling
mode. This wasn't working. The challenge was to evolve adequate
clarity about the flow and structure, the text and the movement, while making
it look as if I had just met you at a bar and was sharing a simple story with
you casually over a drink, while transferring the experience with the same
intensity, humour, and variations that made the story interesting.
I realised that right from the beginning we had to adopt and sustain a
story-telling style. This involved trashing the entire opening sequence
which till then was considered to be a 'master' opening and a key element in
As we met up for the evening rehearsal I told the director that I wanted
to try out something new.
"Go ahead", he said.
I went with the new format, discarding many things that we had worked
with earlier. At the end of it, for the first time, the director
"This will work!", he said.
2 more days of rehearsals with the new format and from the 6th day, we
invited audiences to come in. The shows were well received by people from
a variety of backgrounds, Indians and foreigners, 8-year-olds and people well
With a play in hand, we left the resort and returned home. We have
since done 4 more shows for general audiences and the response has been
uniformly rewarding. The play works!!
We are now planning to do at least 50 or more shows over the coming