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Embarrassed? Me?

December 06, 2012

STANDING UP TO THE PRESSURE

(Performing – and surviving – on your feet)

© David Astle

In silhouette the island of Corfu resembles a phallus. If you don’t believe me, look in your atlas, the sealed section. I made the discovery in 1985 when teaching a bunch of 17-year-old girls in an exclusive Sydney school that needs to remain anonymous.

The book, My Family and Other Animals, is based on Corfu. It’s a harmless yarn about owls and octopi and Kalamata olives that seems to prick, sorry, invoke a desire among the younger set to see the world at large. Barely free of pimples myself, I was a student teacher under the Gorgon eye of my college assessor, as well as the gaze of my 30-strong gingham harem.

I drew the island on the board and took a step back. A rising tide of murmurs should have spelt the danger, but I pushed on. I asked the class to identify the object I’d just outlined. A girl with a name like Angela Lakonikakis – who by rights should have known – suggested a fire extinguisher. Other proposals included a caveman’s club, a lamb chop and the Loch Ness Monster. No, I replied, then No, No, No, slowly losing my voice, and nerve. I was dying on my feet. My Gorgon was tsking, but the Rubicon was crossed. Dignity and decorum had left the building.

I had no comeback, no presence of mind. As a teacher, I’d flunked the Practical. My best friend became a blackboard duster. Rubbing out the smut, I began expounding on the Ionian Sea, the role of Corinth, the coming of Fascism, and any other distraction I could muster, but my career was in the toilet. To Gerald Durrell and your literary estate, my heartfelt apologies. Your book deserves better.

Eighteen years later, I have a chance to find out where I blew it. I don’t blame Corfu; I blame myself. What ploy, what gesture in that overheated room might have saved my bacon? Was the mess irrevocable? Soldiers might win crosses for courage under fire, but the rest of us are lucky to survive the next battle. In this story I hope to glean the answers from six people who CAN think on their feet, who recover from unfortunate doodles, or grand gaffes, hecklers, stumbles, mini-disasters, severed arteries. What’s their secret? How can they face the limelight and survive? Do all of us nurse this poise under pressure, or just the gifted few?

PREPARE, PREPARE, PREPARE

Bodies fold. Arms blur. The four dancers seem like 40 in the mirrors, moving fluidly under the lights. Stanton Welch, the choreographer, examines each arabesque with knitted brows. He chooses his moment to step among his charges and demonstrate what arabesque he’d prefer. Simone Goldsmith, like modeling clay, responds to his touches. Welch withdraws, he claps his hands. The piano and pageant resume.

Rehearsing, says Goldsmith, a principal dancer with the Australian Ballet Company, increases muscle memory, schooling the body how to behave as if the mind may one day desert its post. Or Lady Capulet for that matter. The nightmare took place on opening night in Melbourne this year. ‘It was my debut as Juliet,’ says Goldsmith, ‘my very first entrance. I came on, did a little bit with the nurse. We were playing around, and she said, ‘Oh look Lady Capulet is here.’ I turned around and there was no Lady Capulet.’

The adolescent Juliet (Simone herself is 29) had to caper in a vacuum, a thousand eyes watching, with no stage-mother to bounce off, no gown to drool over, as Nurse went stage-right to flush out a remedy. If that wasn’t bad enough, Paris, the boy-next-door, stood up Juliet at the Capulet’s Ball on Night #2. Once again Goldsmith had to alchemize thin air into art. ‘More than anything I was astounded,’ she laughs – only now can she laugh. ‘I felt jinxed. I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. When [Lady Capulet and Paris] missed their cue, there was nothing else I could do.’

Effectively, Simone performed a pas-de-deux for une, the ballet not missing a beat. A lesser dancer would have panicked. But twenty years of living en pointe, the last half relentlessly, kept Juliet safe from ridicule. Though after the second no-show the Veronese lover grabbed a texta to mock up a sign backstage. ‘ANYONE WHO FORGETS THEIR ENTRANCE,’ it read, ‘WILL PAY $100 FINE STRAIGHT TO ME – JULIET!’

Muscle memory is also the stuff of juggling. Keeping a chicken, a machete and a rubber ball turning in the air – while you’re balancing on stilts that balance on ‘Weeboks’ or tiny shoes – rates 9.65 on the scale of difficulty. But TimTim (alias Tim Hurley) has unlocked the art, thanks to a decade of practice. ‘I fell into stilt-walking,’ he says, the Clown Prince of One-liners. Hurley’s schtick has evolved from sculpting balloons for toddlers to breathing fire for a Singapore phone company. The 36-year-old thinks on his Weeboks every week, from bah-mitzvahs to corporate bashes. But sometimes the chicken falls from his hands. How does he recover?

‘It’s more embarrassing than dangerous I guess. The great thing is the comic ability to keep moving on, because that’s the real clown – the person who in the moment of failure is able to find the humour. You have these standard lines when you drop a club or ball, like ‘The show’s really picking up.’ Or ‘You wanted a floor show.’ Or you give a ball a personality and say, ‘Come back here. I told you not to do that again!’ Sugar-cubes to sweeten the failure.

Still on juggling, Philip Dunn QC, a barrister with 20 years’ experience, is currently juggling a camel-handler accused of murder and a CEO faxing tax fraud charges. With Rumpole diction and Pomeroy glow, the silk has defended Dr Carmen Lawrence, Alan Bond and God (that’s Gary Ablett for non-AFL fans). The pressure is constant. The scrutiny on his logic is shared by judge, jury, the Crown and the client. ‘I never feel overconfident. I am my harshest critic. Like every barrister, there’s a performance anxiety.’ On crucial days in court, Dunn confesses to bringing two identical shirts to chambers, the second intended to hide the morning’s sweat.

Preparation of course helps lessen perspiration. ‘The more I’m prepared, the more my client is prepared to handle what they’re going through. Every cross-examination is like an exam, an exam inside a larger exam. I review it before I do it, and I review it after I do it. Every time I finish a final address to a jury, or a submission to a judge – I think afterwards, how could I improve on that. Where did I stuff up?’

STUFFING UP, SMOOTHING OVER

Chris O’Shaughnessy, 44, was selling a house in Richmond, Melbourne. Deed rolled in the palm, eyes on the look-out for potential bidders, the auctioneer began his opening spiel. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I wish to welcome you etc”¦’ He knew the patter by heart. The art deco features. The new wiring etc. Except this time Chris emphasized the ‘beautiful tree-lined street’.

The crowd followed the auctioneer’s gaze. For those unaware of Lincoln Street, Richmond, the street is devoid of foliage, save for one sick sapling some 12 doors away from the point of sale. The crowd looked the other way, in case the adjective applied to the south, but the street was a no-tree zone. Two-hundred people looked back to the auctioneer, who grinned like a brat with his hand in the cookie jar. ‘From little things, big things grow,’ he said. ‘Just imagine the potential of a street like this.’ The laughter was infectious.

Mistakes happen. We are human. Vets get bitten. Ice-skaters fall. Newsreaders bloop. The secret to thinking on your feet seems as much about recovering on your feet. Or in some cases, finding your feet.

Doing a pub gig one night, TimTim’s stilts hit a puddle of beer, and the clown keeled over. (‘It’s really hairy, trying to be funny, and keep your balance at the same time.’) Corinne Grant, who films a lot of Skithouse sketches around the treeless plains of Richmond, has lost her feet doing stand-up, which seems paradoxical.

‘I was walking up to the stage, going up stairs and fell flat on my face. I’m spectacularly clumsy. I just got up and said ‘Heyyyy I’m unco!’ Pretended it was slapstick and got away with it.’

Even Dunn QC has lost his balance in robes and wig. The case involved an alleged chicken-molester from Mildura. I was cross-examining the bloke. I said, ‘Now you like a bird on a Saturday night, I said. Do you kiss the chicken first, or rub her on the breast? And the witness said, ‘You low thing.’ And I said, ‘Not as low as you are.’ With that, he leapt out of the box and took a swing at me. He actually missed me, but I went arse over tit trying to avoid him. And then he jumped on top of me. I said to the jury, get him off me, get him off me!’

Moral of the story: if you can’t maintain your dignity, maintain your humour. As a comedian, Corinne Grant needs the knack to laugh at herself, as much as the world around her. Prior to her Rove Live and Glass House tenures, Grant relied on singing spoof songs to help pay the bills. ‘Once I strapped on a guitar and people were laughing quite a lot. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. And then a friend whispered my name. My guitar had pulled my skirt right up. You could see all my undies. I was wearing stockings – the gusset wasn’t even all the way up. There’s NOTHING you could do in that situation. I just said, ‘I’m an idiot’ and pulled it back down. Best to move on and not dwell.’

Though clearly some blunders can be more crucial. Auctioneer O’Shaughnessy, with his mind fixed on the reserve price, may accidently bump up the bid by a cool $100,000 – only to be reminded by the alarmed crowd. (‘Just checking you were listening,’ he’ll grin.) In court, with lives in the balance, Dunn QC will opt to confront his own mistakes head-on. ‘To confront the jury and say I made a mistake. If I can’t smudge it, I’d rather take the knife wounds in the front.’

Knife wounds take on realer meaning in the realm of Professor Andrew Kaye, Director of Neurosurgery at Royal Melbourne Hospital, and Professor of Surgery at Melbourne University. Of all the fast-thinkers, Kaye has the least stories to tell, his ‘team’ a valid means of diffusing kudos, his theatre reserved for an exclusive audience. ‘We don’t joke about surgery. If you’re clumsy for 1%, it could be a disaster. In neurosurgery, you’re on the brink of disaster the whole time.’

Kaye is the first person in the world to insert a brain stem implant to allow a patient to hear again. He’s spent more than 20 hunched over microscopes, staring into the cosmos we own for intelligence. I wonder if our brain has a quadrant set aside for coolness under pressure. ‘Not necessarily,’ he answers. ‘Things like personality are diffused in the brain. Some of it is learnt. You need to be cool in an operating room, but outside you might go berserk at a football game.’

Professor Kaye finds operating relaxing. ‘I often think it’s a bit of a con. I can’t believe people are paying me to do this. The operating room is one place people can’t harass you. I can operate for 8 hours and not be stressed, but give me 5 minutes in a meeting full of bureaucrats and managers, and that will cause me considerable stress and heartache.’

THE FEAR FACTOR

Professor Kaye goes on. ‘I’m not nervous about an operation. I have anxieties, but they’re different from nerves. I feel nervous talking to large crowds. Anxiety is concern about the outcome. I’m not nervous about how I’m going to perform. I’m just going to do my best.’

Chris O’Shaughnessy suffers nerves every week. In fact he has two phobias – needles and public speaking. ‘I was never going to be a junkie, but I am an auctioneer. I forced myself to do something I didn’t want to do. Some Friday nights I dread the thought of Saturday. I even dread the auctions on the day. I’d much rather be a penciller because there’s less pressure, but auctioneering is my job.’ Like stilt-walking, Chris fell into it, picking up the rhythms from his father’s real estate game in Albury. ‘I actually don’t like being the centre of attention.’

TimTim once suffered a jolt to the nerves, a close friend dying hours before a show. ‘It was pretty heavy. Really upsetting. Two hours later I was doing a standup gig at the Windsor Castle for a 21st party. It was upstairs, a room full of young pissed people. I was wearing a cowboy outfit. I had no amplifier. I had to get the whole room to focus on me and the birthday people and somehow I pulled it off. It was a magical moment.’

The key word here is ‘somehow’. ‘I guess it’s a duality. Even though my friend had died I still managed to be hilarious. If it was just the same old routine everyday you wouldn’t like it. My work thrives on those unknown surreal sorts of spaces. It’s like losing your ego and looking into the void. Where do I go? What do I do here? You reach that plane where you float above what’s happening.’

Other performers know the phenomenon as blanking, separate from dying or drying up. It equates to watching yourself on stage, critic-like, more angel-like, as if seeing your own moment on Imax. ‘I remember blanking in this Stanton Welch ballet called Divergence,’ says Simone, missing the irony. ‘It was a very structured piece, lots of movement, one to every beat. And I remember thinking, Oh my god I’ve blanked. I wasn’t there for about 4 counts. I couldn’t believe it. I said to myself, What am I doing? Luckily my body kept going.’

‘You need a certain level of butterflies, says Corinne Grant, ‘to really get you kicking.’ Grant thrives on live TV where the only danger – from a legal POV – is ‘saying anything definite essentially’. As performance fears go, Grant has two – ‘I get nervous when I have to memorise something, and you have to get it out word perfect. That’s far more nerve-racking.’ Her other fear? ‘That television work will dry up and I have to back to singing Monster Truck Driver.’

Philip Dunn QC, the man who needs short stories to switch off at night, fears the one-question-too-many. A key female witness once claimed in court to have been talking in the backseat with a male acquaintance. Talking?! The car was parked. The couple was alone. It was midnight. They’d been drinking. ‘The woman claimed to be watching what was happening down the road,’ says Dunn, who had his doubts.

‘I asked the woman to explain herself,’ he says, expecting a blubbery Mills-and-Boon confession, but getting something else. ‘The witness said, We’re half-brother and sister. I hadn’t seen him for six months. We were talking about our mum having cancer.’ Years on, Dunn QC blushes at the pause the ruled the court – for a second only. ‘I made out as though it was the answer I expected. The answer caught me out, but I acted in the opposite way. If you blink you’re dead.’

Lohengrin, the eponymous hero of Wagner’s opera, knows the fatality of blinking. Or more correctly, Glenn Winslade, who played the German hero back in 2000 at the Sydney Opera House, where the ultimate fast-thinking frisson took place. With an auctioneer’s voice and a surgical sense of timing, Winslade is the ideal tenor (a Heldentenor, or hero-tenor) for the Wagnerian stuff. You can also add coolness to his armory.

His aria sung, Winslade was waiting onstage for a swan to arrive. The opera house was packed; the swan was nowhere to be seen. Much like a golf-cart car with feathers, the swan was meant to coast onstage, collect our hero, and sail off. But Lohengrin was left jilted in the footlights, his scene spent, breathless, swanless. The audience grew restless. Lohengrin grew restless, but never blinked. (Harking back to Dunn QC, ‘When I feel tense I act the opposite.’) Winslade rolled up his gabardine sleeve and glanced at his invisible watch. ‘Can anyone tell me what time the next swan arrives?’

When the Lohengrin story is recounted by guides on the Backstage Pass Tour at the Sydney Opera House, the laughter is universal. Uruguayans, Somalians, Icelanders as one can recognize the gift of poise under pressure, that uncanny art of vertical thinking. Even the wonderful people of Corfu.

OOPS – SIDEBAR 1

‘Life isn’t meant to be easy,’ pontificated Fraser. ‘This is the recession we had to have,’ millstoned Keating. With some remarks, there’s very little hope of going back. Here are some clangers from the Gaffers Hall of Fame.

Gaffe: ‘I like the boy,’ says Bert Newton at the 1979 Logies, speaking in collard-greenese of Muhammad Ali who towered beside him.

Outcome: Bert claimed to have said Roy, not the racist overtone of Boy. Ironically, geriatric child-star Mickey Rooney, guesting at the 1988 Logies, refers to Bert as Bert Winston

Gaffe: Premier Steve Bracks, at the 2003 Heineken Golf Classic, announces the winner as Ernie EELS.

Outcome: Bracks blamed a dodgy PA system. Others blamed the sponsor’s free-flowing product.

Gaffe: On a trip to Beijing in 1986, Prince Phillip spoke to a group of British students, ‘If you stay here much longer, you’ll all be slitty-eyed.’

Outcome: Her Royal Other Half was not amused.

Gaffe: ‘The regretful verdict is ‘Dead in the Water,’ wrote Times film critic, Richard Corliss in 1997. The film was Titanic.

Outcome: Tried to ‘salvage’ his reputation with the next week’s review.

Gaffe: ‘I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word,’ said British PM Neville Chamberlain, speaking on Adolf Hitler in 1938.

Outcome: Enter Churchill in 1940.

Gaffe: In 2000, Melanie Griffith said she’d happily smoke pot with her son Alexander, if that’s what he chooses to do.

Outcome: Twelve-step programme for Griffith Junior.

Gaffe: BBC commentator, Harry Carpenter at the 1977 Henley-on-Thames, ‘The wife of the Cambridge president is kissing the cox of the Oxford Crew.’

Outcome: Deathly silence

FAST RULES FOR FAST THINKING – SIDEBAR 2

  • Preparation is nine-tenths of the law.

  • Don’t be terrified of mistakes – fear of failure can paralyse.

  • Best not dwell, says Corinne Grant. If you err, recover with humour and grace. Move on.

  • Philip Dunn QC is not so hugely different from Philip Dunn – be yourself. If anything, the limelight should magnify who you are.

  • Enjoy the pressure (or the scrutiny), and it will seem to dissipate.

  • Separate your outside cares from the immediate moment.

  • Where did I stuff up? Review, and comb out any mistakes for the future.

  • Always pre-check the silhouettes of Mediterranean islands.

[Sunday Life, September 2002]

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Well done to Sam for his Emmy makeover in our latest Storm, turning Best Actresses into the best wordplay, and winning a copy of Superstar Crosswords.

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