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On Stage Fright

Stage fright is one of the many horrors in the life of an artist, and, like any proper nightmare, it takes many forms.

It can be the lightheaded dizziness that sometimes strikes right before you meet your audience.

It can be the rush of cold sweat that accompanies a wrong note on stage.

It can be the bottom dropping out of the world when you’re scanning the newspapers for a review and they turn out to be brimming with exactly the kind of news you didn’t want to read.

We signed up for that, though. We danced along with the circus and jumped through the hoops. We promised ourselves a rose garden at the end, although we knew from the start we would probably take our entire lives to find out exactly who would be trimming the hedges. We took the criticism – sometimes constructive, sometimes not – and either worked with it or decided not to. Either way, we grew, and learned, and eventually became professionals.

Because the question for any artist isn’t whether or not everybody will appreciate what you play, or write, or make, or draw. It’s not even about what you learn from the mean comments and nasty backstabbery you invariably endure.

It’s about whether you get back on stage afterwards.

Musicians aren’t the only ones who get to deal with this. Every form of art has to cope with stage fright in some way or form. “Producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty, controversy or emotional power” is essentially the job description of an artist. Besides, an artist can’t be an artist without an audience, and it is sheer folly to expect to be able to please everybody and still be interesting.

I predict that any attempt at that will bear the title “Captain Bland’s Monogamous Adventure”.

So, if you’re going to take a spotlight somewhere, you’re going to have to deal with a certain amount of disapproval, censure and denunciation.

And you can’t whine about it, not really. After all, you signed up for it.

But what is the limit?

Where does the person end, and the spotlight begin?

In a recent TV programme, John Cleese said that “making it” requires a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication and some strokes of luck. He went on to reason that as long as you have enough of the first two, you’ll be able to hold out until the third shows up.

He also stated that ideas shouldn’t be held responsible for the ones that hold them.

And that, in my opinion, is what the entirety of civilization is really about.

The word civilization entered the English language by all accounts in the mid-eighteenth century with the meaning “the act or process of bringing out of a savage or uneducated state”. Currently, Google defines the word as “the stage of human social development and organization which is considered most advanced”.

I myself consider civilization to be somewhat synonymous with progress. The rules within a group of people are constantly changing in order to adapt to new impulses, ideas, technologies and points of view. Civilization, to me, would be the measure of skill with which a group of people is able to play a game of ever-changing rules without it immediately devolving into a “monopoly-at-Christmastime” sort of situation.

The antithesis to that would be retreat. And when evaluating this particular definition of civilization, retreat would not mean halting the game. It would mean breaking the board.

The pen is mightier than the sword, so Cardinal Richelieu stated. Apparently, the analogy doesn’t hold true when concerning pencils and Kalashnikovs – at least not in the literal sense.

Of course, one can only speak of pencils and Kalashnikovs when one considers some pretty extreme cases. So does it follow that civilization lies in temperance? Should we be satisfied that we can say everything we like, provided that we don’t actually do so?

We, the artists, signed up at the start for the freedom to get on stage and take the consequences. But did we sign up for this?

Either way, that question is irrelevant.

One can argue all day about whether or not one should be mindful of the consequences any action may or may not engender when taking into consideration the shifty rulebook of civilization.

The die has been cast. The consequences are here.

The real question is, does civilization take them lying down or standing up?

Do we play the game or break the board?

Would you get back on stage?

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