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  • Stage Fright, Animals, and Other Theatrical Problems
  • Jim Williams
Stage Fright, Animals, and Other Theatrical Problems. By Nicholas Ridout. Theatre and Performance Theory Series. New York: Cambridge UP, 2006; pp. v + 197. $75.00 cloth, $32.99 paper.

Why is it that during performance, actors have moments when they suddenly freeze up, become discombobulated, and experience a physical and mental meltdown? Why do spectators pay to see a performance, but then shudder and try to hide when an actor unexpectedly directs his or her gaze toward them? Why would an animal on stage be the cause of spectator discomfort? In his book Stage Fright, Animals, and Other Theatrical Problems, Nicholas Ridout ponders these fascinating questions. In so doing, he offers an intriguing and playful examination of how stage fright and other "theatrical problems" undermine a part of the spectator–performer relationship, and it is in "such encounters that the wrongness of theatre appears and organizes itself" (29).

The core of Ridout's study rests in his proposition that "in the modern theatre, something of our relationship to labour and to leisure is felt every time the theatre undoes itself around the encounter between worker and consumer" (34). In his four chapters, he delivers an assessment of the spectator's "ontological queasiness" (borrowed from Jonas Barish's The Antitheatrical Prejudice) brought on by the theatrical experience as a result of unexpected face-to-face (or, in some cases, face-to-animal) encounters. This queasiness stems from those moments when the theatrical machine breaks down, revealing cracks in the stage illusion via stage fright, embarrassment, or in a few instances, the reverse-gaze of the animal on stage. Ridout admits that this type of disjuncture, one that attracts us yet continually disappoints the audience, appeals to him as a site in which to investigate political meaning in the sources of uneasiness (31).

Ridout proposes that such disjunctures result in meanings that lend themselves to historical, economic, and political inquiries in the modern theatre "shaped by new patterns of economic production, and, in particular, by the organized and pervasive division between work and leisure" (3). These disjunctures often stem from unexpected face-to-face encounters between the spectator and the performer in scenarios where reciprocality is balefully absent or conversely all-too-evident. Ridout asserts that "[s]tage fright is a modern phenomenon" (40). He argues that the scientific advancements of the Industrial Revolution, the development of urban cities, the breakthroughs in the studies of psychology, the advent of electricity, and the acting theories of Stanislavski all play a part in an actor's momentary incapacitation on stage. In the close quarters of urbanity, Ridout cites "blasé attitude" as the mode of public social interaction among fellow dwellers. As a result of this attitude being adopted as the cultural norm, time becomes more regulated and precise in social and employment settings; the psyche is cast as something that is best acknowledged in the privacy of the home rather than in public; electricity completely immerses the spectator in the dark to be largely unseen by the actor; and, perhaps in turn, Stanislavski encourages the exploration of psychoanalysis as an element towards "naturalistic" acting. Ridout views the culmination of these elements as a "historically determined symptom" converging with social and economic scenarios that heavily influences the actor's emotional state of mind (51).

In his perceptive analysis of embarrassment in chapter 2, Ridout turns his attention to the bourgeois consumer of entertainment, who is the economic power and force behind the growing urban metropolis. Acknowledging that theatrical spectatorship in the modern world is a dialectical relationship between the performer and the spectator for the purposes of entertainment, he argues that embarrassment takes over when a character suddenly makes face-to-face contact with the individual spectator, or even worse, when the actor accidentally locks eyes with the spectator (76). Embarrassment is the telltale sign that appears on the face during an inner experience of shame, and it situates itself as an obstacle in face-to-face communication among other human beings (85). Because, as Ridout contends, theatre is the "machine of illusion" (88), the unexpected face-to-face encounter with the spectator reveals...


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