Picture this: you are out there, on stage, rolling merrily along until something distracts you, perhaps someone snoring, and bam!, you suddenly have absolutely no idea, whatsoever, what comes next! Nothing. Zippo. Your mind is a total blank. Unlike film, you can't just stop and do another take, you have to somehow find a way to move on, which is not an easy task when your heart is racing 100 mph, and feels as if it's going to burst out of your chest like the creatures in ALIEN, and your mind emphatically refuses to cooperate. You have absolutely no life-line, so to speak, when you are performing live theatre.
In the past, there used to be prompters, in the wings, who would throw you your line, if in trouble. But they don't exist anymore, at least in regional theatre here, so you are left to fend for yourself. If you've had a reasonable enough rehearsal period, and you truly know your lines, you can usually get yourself back on track. But with the decrease in art's funding in this country, theatres can't afford to pay for long rehearsals, so the average is 2 1/2 weeks, and I've rehearsed as little as 1 week. The less you are familiar with your lines, the harder it is to recover. Sometimes fellow actors can 'save' you, by jumping in with their line, or prompting you by feeding you your line, if they happen to know it, but that's not often. You're lucky if you know your own dialogue, let alone someone else's. Saving another actor's proverbial 'behind' is easier with dialogue, but forget it if it's a monologue. You're on your own! And, the only thing the other actors can do is look on, sympathetically. And pray! If you are a good improviser, you're one step ahead, but for those of us who aren't, trying to fill the moment is a very frightening proposition. I have a tendency to just say whatever comes to mind, in hopes that the right words will miraculously materialize, and I'm sure audiences have wondered what on earth I was saying, or what foreign language I was speaking, but it really does amaze me what actually emerges from our mouths, when in trouble. And even when not. The mind and the mouth aren't always very coordinated, and they're certainly not best friends.
So what causes stage fright? Apparently it's actually a chemical reaction to the "Fight-or-Flight response". When we are stressed or in trouble, our body naturally produces Catecholamines, (a family of chemical compounds that includes epinephrine aka adrenaline, norepinephrine and dopamine). Humans can't differentiate between physical and social danger, and the body has only one set way to respond to what it perceives as a threat. So when we are faced with the thought that we might be harmed, even if it's on a stage, and not because we are about to be chased by a mugger (though it certainly feels the same), the body goes into its automatic emergency mode, and we are pumped full of those chemicals, which then produce a variety of symptoms, including the pounding heart, dry mouth etc. Even the thought of forgetting your lines can set this in motion. So there you are on stage, pumped full of catecholamines, your heart is pounding, which creates more panic, which makes you forget a line, which only serves to confirm you are embarrassing yourself, so the body creates even more catecholamines, which just compounds the problem, further. Then you start berating yourself for having messed up and the downward spiral continues, until you can finally find a moment to breathe and settle back in.
The trick to overcoming stage fright is to just not go there to begin with, by not thinking about yourself or about the possibility of screwing up. It also helps to be thoroughly prepared, by knowing your dialogue or material, by rote. It takes a lot of focus to not be distracted by audiences that seem to be less and less knowledgeable about their responsibilities as participants. People often think they are still in their living rooms, and believe it or not, we DO hear people's comments, or those noisy candy wrappers being unwrapped. And, no, the slower they're unwrapped does not make them less audible, it just prolongs the noise.
I actually had no problems with memorization, until a few years ago. There was a period of about a year when I was unable to work, due to some health issues, and somehow things have never been the same. But I take comfort that even Sir Laurence Olivier, at one point in his career, battled the demons of stage fright:
"He is always waiting outside the door, any door, waiting to get you. You either battle or walk away. ... Once you have experienced stage fright, you are always aware that it could be just around the corner waiting for you, just waiting for you to get cocky and confident."
— Laurence Olivier, "On Acting" (1986)
As a tribute to Sir Larry, Britain's, The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), is even offering 600 British Pounds, this year, to any individual who can verifiably prove they experienced, between January and May of 2007, the worst cast of stage fright in the UK.
The one thing stage actors get questioned about the most is: how do we learn all those lines? And granted there's not much brain work involved with some of the smaller parts, but there are some roles with mammoth amounts of lines to learn, and though I would balk at such a question, when I was in my 20s, I now wonder the same thing myself. How do we learn all those lines and more importantly, how do we retain them? Who knows!
They say that the number one fear is public speaking, followed by fear of death. And I can attest to that, because there have been times when I would have preferred a casket to the stage I was on.