Stage Fright

Further proof that I’m watching too many Youtube documentaries came in the form of last night’s dream. The first of two startling vignettes involved Joan Crawford.

It was the mid-1960s thus in black and white. She was backstage at the Ed Sullivan Show preparing to do a dramatic reading of a poem. I found her alone cowering in the corner, en tremblant. She was surrounded by the stage crews’ brooms and cleaning equipment. Her ashen face pleaded with me to get her out of there, “there’s no way I can do this!”

The second, much grander scene was in technicolor and involved the last days of the Romanovs. I was with them in the Ekatrenberg basement as they and their captors made a very lurid porn movie together. It was going to be called Lust in the Dust. When I pointed out there was already a John Waters’ film with the same name, they decided to change the title to Lustful and Dustful. I woke up laughing

In the 2018 film Tea With the Dames, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright have a conversation about their careers in acting. The movie looks like a producer’s dream. All they had to do was turn on the camera and the women wrote the script on the spot. The only production value needed was a skillful editor to splice it together. Which they found.

Throughout the piece the actresses love to goof on the numerous elocution exercises they performed through the years (Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.) And the editor’s masterful sprinkling of brief clips from their careers show how the exercises paid off. Their intrinsic articulation of every syllable in an English sentence is unequaled.

The most surprising takeaway is how all four dealt with stage fright. I know many suffer from this but I thought it was the exception. They talked as if it was pervasive and maybe the norm.

The paralysis I felt before any performance was just chalked up as another of my many personality defects. No one in their right mind would sit through such terror struggling for any possible way out of the situation. Scenarios that are completely wrong and that under normal circumstances would never even be considered are, at times like this, perfectly viable alternatives.

Eileen Atkins said every night in the car on the way to the theatre she wonders if it wouldn’t be better to be maimed or killed in an accident. She always just barely comes down on the side of “no, it would not.”

It’s reassuring to find out I’m not alone in this psychosis. But as Gilda Radner doing Barbara Walters would say, it comes “too widdle, too wate” to do me much good.

In 1995 I did my final performance, a benefit for the new Gay and Lesbian Reading Room at the library. It had been almost a decade since my previous show and AIDS had drastically changed the landscape. My mailing list had taken a big hit, the pool of worker bees who usually helped out had dwindled, plus those who remained were so burnt out there wasn’t much enthusiasm for another event. Most of all I missed Brian.

Brian didn’t do much hands on work until the day of a show when he would drop everything to help. But as projects unfolded he was a sounding board and source of encouragement. When I did my first solo Halloween show in 1981, Queens’ Christmas, he told me to stop brooding over a budget, concentrate on ideas not bookkeeping. He urged me to book the overpriced hotel ballroom I wanted but couldn’t afford. Worry about the money later. I did and somehow it worked out.

In 1995 I did almost all of the prep work myself. Everything went fine until the night of the performance. When the sleazeball entrepreneur who rented the space took my money he magnanimously said we could have access anytime that day to set up. We agreed on 7:00 PM.

That evening four of us arrived at the appointed hour and rang the bell. There was no answer. We rang and knocked again, nothing. So I called and got his voicemail. He didn’t return the call. Soon it was 7:30 then 8:00. All we could do was wait and keep leaving messages. We stood in the cold November night with all of our stuff on the sidewalk as a few more set up people joined us. Finally the proprietor showed up at 8:30 with a blithe smile and a “lets get this party started” fake attitude. I was furious but there was too much to do to waste energy on anger.

All day my stage fright had been increasing incrementally. But during the long wait at he door the trauma of one terror was replaced by that of another. I thought I’d been bilked out of $1500, the guy wasn’t even going to show. I thought of the people I was letting down, how they’d arrive only to find nothing there. I’d been given the stage fright fanatic’s ultimate wish, an excuse to not go on. Instead, to appear to be this irresponsible and incompetent and the damage it would cause to my reputation would hurt more than any humiliation I might have on stage.

The saving grace was that it was billed as a party that included a performance. Not a show with a curtain time. 9:00 PM was on the invitation and, given my chic friends, no one was going to show up on time. Indeed, the crowd didn’t start trickling in until 9:30. There was plenty to drink and by 10:30 a decent number had assembled. The show started at 11:00. We’d had barely enough time to get through the preparations.

My performance that night was not very good. I was so drained by the pre-show angst I had difficulty summoning the nerve to get through it.

I do think I redeemed myself with the encore, Dusty Springfield’s You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. It had melodramatic chops I could sink my teeth into. I’d begun the evening with Ms. Springfield’s I Only Want to Be With You. So, in the spirit of Romanov porn, I introduced the final song with “Ashes to ashes, Dusty to Dusty.”

Satisfied with that effort I did not wish to end on a downer. I came back for a second encore, Tina Turner’s version of (Darlin’) You Know I Love You.

The choreographer of the great Russian ballets, Petipa, said always listen to the music. It will tell you exactly what to do. And the message from the bluesy beat of this B.B. King song came through loud and clear: strip. I have always been the happiest on stage when taking my clothes off.

Moving from the fantasy land of dreams and memories, harsh reality confronted me in the form of The Graham Norton Show. In one episode Lesley Manville made the case for what a trouble maker Judi Dench was. In their early careers they appeared together in Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard.

Well into the meat of the play Manville would stand alone to deliver a soliloquy. It was her character’s big moment in the production.

One night she noticed Dench in the wings awaiting her cue in the usual spot. She was hidden not only from the audience but also the cast and crew. The only sight line was between the two actresses.

As Manville bared her soul, Dench bent over at the waist to simulate an act of anal sex. Her pantomime was so convincing, with every pounding thrust of the phantom anal invader the actress in the spotlight could feel her concentration evaporate. She ended delivering a speech laced with uncontrollable laughter.

Manville regretted her lapse in professionalism. But actors on their level have such skills, who knows how it came off. The crowd may have perceived it as the madness of a talented performance. The actresses were probably the only ones who noticed the difference. Well, those two and the stage hands.

Lesley had given birth a couple of weeks before and was still having bladder control issues. As the mime in the wings reached around to apply more imaginary lube, Manville urinated all over the stage. Fortunately her costume included a long skirt.

50 years ago in the first year of our friendship, Dale and I were crammed in the back seat of a car leaving a party in Bloomington. Out of the blue he turned and said, “you’re the person most like Joan Crawford I’ve ever met.” Whether it was a compliment or a dig I wasn’t sure. An educated guess would be the latter.

On one hand Crawford was glamourous and adored. On the other, to achieve that adulation she had the reputation of being the most single-minded, calculating and ruthless of all the stars in Hollywood’s firmament.

I’ve always enjoyed the vagueness of not knowing what he meant.

A few years later that same sagacious queen offered another tidbit that has haunted me through the decades. He cautioned me to “be careful. All images eventually ring false.”

And I think I was careful, I never fell for the hype. I spent so much energy convincing others to believe in a persona I could never believe in myself. It was a job whose paycheck was the joy of pretending.

To quote Edward Albee:

Martha: Truth or illusion, George, you don’t know the difference.
George: No, but we must carry on as if we did, Martha.


For those who would like to read more about my life coach Dale, his new book will be published October 3rd. Hippie Faggot Freak details his harsh adolescence. The experience forged a determination which served him well when he became a leader of the emerging gay liberation movement of the early 1970’s.

We had not yet met so I can’t really speak to his years as a troubled teen. But, when I came out in college, it was quite a luxury to have access to my own private Simon Bolivar.

Click here for a preview of Hippie Faggot Freak.

4 thoughts on “Stage Fright

  1. Thanks for the plug, Chris. I’m glad you mentioned your fondness for stripping because that’s what you do in your one scene in Hippie Faggot Freak, which, except for a brief flashforward to the halcyon days of Gay Liberation, recounts the bad old days before we claimed our right to a personhood. It’s always nice to know memory is at least somewhat reliable.
    BTW, my favorite quote in Who’s Afraid of Virginia is another one we’ve never been able to fully disprove: Martha’s bray “I’m not a monster! I’m not!! I’m not!!”

    1. I picked up my copy last evening, it’s quite voluminous. But if I can get through four volumes and 2600 pages of Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs I should be able to handle this. I haven’t commenced reading yet because your mention of me stripping sent up a red flag. I have no idea which incident you’re referring to and categorically deny everything. For now. My attorneys are reviewing my copy to make sure there’s nothing actionable. It doesn’t jibe with the Up With People!, Youth for Christ image portrayed in this blog.

  2. I love reading these, it’s almost like hanging out with you which, my the way, I would love to do. Maybe someday.

    1. I hope that doesn’t mean you think our conversations are one sided where I control the agenda, hog the mic, and don’t listen to others’ opinions. Which is the luxury of writing. I know you don’t. We shall overcome and converse again one day.

Leave a Reply