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The little girl with pigtails and big black eyes rushes onto the stage, smiling and even giggling. She pauses at the right moment, confronts the spotlight and sings in duet a short, sweet song in French, ignoring an audience overflowing assigned seats and every other element of her first stage performance except her role.
She is 6 years old. She is fearless. She is calm. She amazes.
How can one so young respond with such aplomb in such a fearsome situation?
I certainly couldn’t have done it. Could you at 6? Do you even recall when you first were asked to stand and deliver before a group in something more demanding than parts of holiday songs heard by parents? Remember having to memorize something new, understanding that you would be watched and critiqued? Were there butterflies, nausea, sweats and the shakes? You wouldn’t be alone.
The experts who measure such things say that 74 percent of us have something called “speech anxiety.” Heck, that question alone has been asked of Google about 224 million times, so we understand that it’s a prevalent fear.
Now add to that lines and cues and directions and, well, French, and you are in awe, aren’t you? I was.
Were you and I alike? Did you dread having to stand before your elementary classes and recite Abou Ben Adhem? Maybe you eschewed a solo in the church choir.
When I was in third grade, the elementary classes at Simpsonville were putting on a big musical about the four seasons. Don’t ask me the name, but I recall vividly that when teachers sent home a permission slip, I told my Mom that no way would I be in that play. Mom said she would write on the form that I didn’t have to participate if I didn’t want to, but, next thing I knew, I was Autumn, wearing a leaf on my head, clad in fall colors and answering Mother Nature (aka Donna Smith) with my great theatrical entrance, “Here I am, Mother Nature!”
My stage career diminished after that Tony turn, but my fear of being on the stage didn’t. I hated making speeches in class or addressing any group in a situation that required something more polished than smart-mouthed ad libs. I hid from that spotlight. Not until my late 20s would I rise before people and be called the “speaker.” Even now I want to run before I rise, but I’ve managed to understand that I could do this, even if my words come out too quickly and too mumbly.
I have read variously that the best way to get over stage fright is to imagine the audience in their underwear. I’m not sure how that’s supposed to help when you are the one laid bare by the glare. But there have been opportunities to learn what I was supposed to say and not what I probably could say.
I’ve been president of two national groups of journalists, which bring all sorts of assignments. I’ve introduced important people and been the least important in a panel discussion. I’ve spoken of strategies with corporate captains and about workflow models with those given to creative and not constructive. Never does it get easy.
But I’ve come to this: Never underestimate the value of being able to stand before a group and say words that must be said in the correct way and with the desirable impact. Life demands that from everyone at one time or another.
That always has been my sermon to students: Study, read much, learn to write cogently, be reliable humans and, if you truly want to succeed, learn to stand and deliver. To that I suggest a theater experience or course as a fun and subtle way to polish that talent.
Which brings me back to that dazzling 6-year-old. She executes this role voluntarily and increasingly with the cold eye of a budding professional. She appears with her brother, 12, a stage veteran. These are my children. These are scenes from South Pacific at Shelby County Community Theatre. These are among life’s awesome moments.
I’ve been blessed to see my children take to stages and star. My older daughter had a breakout performance of Once Upon A Mattress, and her brother played guitar in a heavy-metal band, his talent and passion admired even if the music wasn’t always appreciated. And now here were the little ones, scampering among adults to launch a familiar and lovely musical.
I don’t know if I ever will see them on a stage like this again. I don’t know if she will want another role (he already has one). But I do know this:
Each has found from the stage a milieu not simply to emote and have fun but as a tool for developing confidence and assuredness that will provide firm purchase on the paths up and down the mountains of their futures.
However scary as those paths may be, they can stand and deliver.