At dress rehearsal with its stomach-turning surprises, like having to dance onto stage, I asked myself, What was I thinking when I agreed to this? 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 SpeakeasyDC'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, after which no one had seen him for days. I thought he had died.
I arrived at the initial show rehearsal uncharacteristically on time. As others drifted into the Columbia Heights 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, wondering 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 college roommates listened on speakerphone, my friend Bill was a captive audience while recovering from knee surgery.
I biked to Bethesda and performed for my friend Robbie while she was getting her hair styled. I also performed for my hair stylist at Okyo in Georgetown.
I practiced in front of 90-year-olds at my mom's retirement home and at George Washington Hospital for my friend Jackie during her chemo treatment.
At Sidwell Friends Middle School, where two of my daughters had taken drama classes, I did my shtick for a drama class; my flaws provided that day's lesson.
For a month, I traded in worry for obsession. When no one else was available to listen, I recited to my dog Casey and, while biking and falling asleep, I went through the lines inside my own head.
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.
In D.C., public speaking is as much a part of life as political scandal. How do you deal with fear of speaking in public?