Stagefright has been aptly described as “self-poisoning by adrenaline.” In response to stress, the adrenal glands pump the hormone epinephrine (adrenaline) into the bloodstream, causing the body to shift into a state of high arousal. The person’s muscles tense, he sweats and shakes, his heart pounds, his mouth goes dry, he has trouble breathing, he may become nauseated or dizzy, and his throat constricts, making his voice rise in pitch. This is the so-called “fight or flight” response, which our species is thought to have developed because it helped prepare the body for forceful action in response to a threat. But what Cro-Magnon man needed upon finding a bear in his cave is not what a modern person needs in order to play King Lear. Without the release of abrupt action, the hyperactivation becomes, basically, a panic attack.
As for the thoughts accompanying the physical response, the most important seems to be a feeling of exposure. The English theatre scholar Nicholas Ridout, in his excellent book “Stage Fright, Animals, and Other Theatrical Problems” (2006), compares the situation to that of a snail having its shell ripped off. His countryman Stephen Fry, who, one day in 1995, left London—indeed, England—to avoid appearing in the play he was scheduled to perform in, says that, when stagefright hits, the audience sees “the shrivelled penis in your head.” And, in the typical case, the performer can do nothing to change the spectators’ minds, because he feels utterly empty. In 1989, Daniel Day-Lewis, playing the title role in Richard Eyre’s production of “Hamlet” at London’s National Theatre, turned on his heel in the middle of the show and walked off the stage, never to return. (In the twenty-six years since then, he has acted only in movies.) “I had nothing in me, nothing to say, nothing to give,” he said. Others stay, but only by force of sheer, grinding will.