At first it sounded like fun to be one of nine storytellers in a Valentine’s Day show, “Sucker for Love.” But I had not signed up to boogie in public, nor had I focused on the “notes not allowed” edict. Now, having flubbed my first line the day before opening night, I remembered why fear of public speaking ranks higher than that of death. With death, there is so much less that can go wrong. With performing, you have to live with the consequences.
When I’d seen Speakeasy’s call for stories of love, misguided or otherwise, I knew I had plenty to say about misguided love, and sharing a story orally seemed a good way to nourish my attraction to the limelight. So I submitted a piece I’d written that centered on an encounter in Paris with a German boyfriend I hadn’t seen for 42 years. Less than an hour into our reunion, he choked on a chicken bone and went to a hospital. (No, it was not an exit strategy.)
For two days I phoned. No answer. Then finally I heard his voice on the phone. “Peter, you’re alive!” I said.
“No, this is Fredrik, Peter’s friend. No one had seen Peter for days.” (The whole chicken bone story is in my memoir, in a chapter called “The Last Time I Saw Peter.”)
I arrived at the initial show rehearsal uncharacteristically on time. As others drifted into the apartment of Amy, the director, it became apparent that I was the token AARP member among the “Suckers for Love.” After we introduced ourselves, Amy said, “Let’s start with Susan.” Yes! I thought and wondered how I would ever perform without notes in front of an audience 100 strong if I was so anxious reading to this group of only ten.
I have a tremor that becomes pronounced when I speak in public. A psychologist once told me if you begin a talk by saying you’re nervous, it helps deflect the anxiety. So before reading my piece, I mentioned that my hands shake even when I’m not nervous (even though I was nervous).
After I finished, I expected some praise or applause but instead, Amy simply said, “Andrew?” I had figured my literary skills would compensate for my shortcomings as a speaker. But, like me, Andrew was a writer. With perfect timing and steady hands, he read his tale of yearning for his roommate David, “who was not gay.” There was a scene in the kitchen in which David, while slicing eggplant, was wearing nothing but an apron tied in a bow “above his furry, round bottom.” Squirming to get comfortable in the 90-degree angle of Amy’s L-shaped sofa, all I could think was I do not want to follow Andrew in the lineup.
One by one, my castmates dashed the fantasy that my story was at least better-written. Tabbie–with a strong voice, broad arm swings and no notes–told how she greeted her husband on their first Valentine’s Day wearing nothing but a burka, then surprised him with a belly dance until he tackled her when the burka caught a flame from one of the 33 votives she’d arranged around the room. Believing he was in a passionate frenzy, she wailed, “Baby, I’m on fire, extinguish me with your hose!” How could I hold my own on stage with her?
I rehearsed in front of anyone who would let me. My daughter and her roommates listened on speakerphone, my friend Bill was a captive audience while recovering from knee surgery, another friend Robbie critiqued me while getting her hair styled. I performed before 90-year-olds at my mom’s retirement home and before my friend Jackie during her chemo treatment. At a nearby middle school, I did my shtick for a drama class, where my flaws provided that day’s lesson.
Opening night arrived and I didn’t have to follow David or Tabby. The audience laughed at my funny lines as well as at some I hadn’t realized were funny. And, with the benefit of wine instead of water in my metal Kleen Kanteen bottle, even my hands did not betray me.
What are your experiences with public speaking and former flames?
LOTS ABOUT THERAPY, MARRIAGE, RELATIONSHIPS AND MORE IN MY NEW MEMOIR . . .
The perfect book for worrywarts or anyone who enjoys a “neurotic, hilarious, poignant,” deeply personal story.
See also some of my Life Goes Strong posts: