Wednesday, March 7, 2012

My One And Only Time On Stage

So there I was, in a theater packed with a thousand people, all eyes riveted on me as I stepped out onto the stage. I felt weak as a blade of grass and I could feel my heart beating in the middle of my forehead. My palms were wet and my shoes were filling with ass sweat. If I were wax I’d have melted away.

The stage was situated in a new multi-million dollar center being dedicated to the music director of one of the most prestigious colleges in the state. This gentleman, in addition to being responsible for his college’s musical excellence, also founded a nationally renowned jazz festival. He was being honored this evening, but he wasn’t in attendance; he’d passed away from cancer the year before.

So what was I doing there? I don’t sing or dance, and the only music I could play was half of Oh! Susanna on a harmonica. I was there because I’d been hired by the college’s faculty board to paint a portrait to honor the deceased. I’d entered a competition to paint the outgoing president of the college and didn’t get that job, so I was surprised when the Dean called to inform me that I’d been the unanimous choice selected to portray the late music director.

I couldn’t believe my luck; the president’s portrait would hang in the campus library crowded together with a dozen other paintings, whereas this portrait would hang on a wall by itself in the entry of the new music auditorium.

For reasons too complicated to explain there were only two photographs available for me to work from. One was thirty years old and showed the man in robust health, while the other was snapped a few months before he died, his face ravaged by cancer. My task was to combine the two into a pleasing image that honored and celebrated the beloved educator.

The portrait needed to be finished and framed in time for the auditorium’s dedication scheduled in one month. I worked hard, knowing my painting would face the critical gaze of the college board, which included the school’s art director. When the painting was far enough along I met with the board to show them my progress. I’d been through this process before and knew the ropes: the art director would need to validate his opinion by finding something wrong with my painting, so I intentionally made a small mistake for him to find in the subject’s eye.

Sure enough, the art director rose from his chair. He actually (I swear to God) held a thumb up to my portrait and said, “The left eye doesn’t track properly with the right.”

I pretended to study my canvas, and finally admitted, “You’re absolutely right. How could I have missed that?”

I’d brought my portable palette with me and I quickly painted out the white highlight in the left eye and repainted it a millimeter to the left, where the highlight belonged.

“Now it’s perfect,” the art director said, beaming.

Everyone was happy, except me when I was informed the Dean had decided to have me stand on the stage beside the draped portrait when it was unveiled at the ceremony. Back then I was painfully shy and tried to get out of being dragged onstage, but the Dean insisted.

And that’s how I came to be standing on that stage. I was perspiring in an auditorium with a thousand people, faculty and students of the late music director who’d flown in from all over the world. The dead man’s family was present, I was told, including his eighty-year-old mother who’d been flown in from Florida. At that moment it occurred to me that among all those people, I was the only one present who’d never laid eyes on the man I’d painted.

What if the painting didn’t look like the guy? What if I’d exposed too much of the cancer that had claimed him. A thousand doubts preyed on my mind, so much so that I barely noticed when the Dean finished his speech, mentioned my name and pulled away the cloth covering the portrait.

The silence was deafening. I fought the urge to run, not that I’d have gotten far since I couldn’t find my legs. Time seemed to fossilize. And then there was a shriek, more like a wail. The eighty-year-old mother was standing, and sobbing, and blowing kisses at me. The entire auditorium burst into applause. I’d succeeded. At a gathering after the unveiling I was clapped on the back by those who’d known the music director and told I’d captured him perfectly.

The next morning when I stepped on the bathroom scale (I foolishly did such things back then) I saw that I’d lost nearly five pounds, no doubt from all that sweating. I decided then and there that painting portraits for a living wasn’t for me. I didn’t think my heart could take it, not for a crummy few hundred bucks.

Have you ever had an uncomfortable on-stage moment?


  1. This is wonderfully written. I think you mentioned you've written some books - I might like to buy one (depends on the subject of course) I always enjoy your posts.
    It sounds like pure hell. Thank goodness for the lovely mother.

    Worst sight I ever saw (it wasn't me thankfully) was in a 10.000 seater Victorian town hall when the choir of a religious sect which shall be nameless was giving a performance. I was there ONLY because the BBC was, I wasn't a member of this group.

    A mother had brought along her baby and as the choir launched into their first melody the baby began to cry. The conductor stopped the choir in mid song, turned round and slowly pointed his baton at this woman. She got up clutching her baby and in front of the whole packed hall she walked out, in total silence.
    Of course she shouldn't have brought her baby with her. But I'll never forget her hunched figure with bowed head and the poor little crying shape in her arms. Like she had been a Nazi collaborator or something.

  2. The last time I had to go on stage was about 18 years ago for an accounting skills competition for various schools in the area. I won a 1st and 2nd place in two categories so I had to go up and get my trophies and then stand there. It was a cold winter day so I had my winter coat with me and wasn't sure what to do with it so I wore it up there. Which made me very warm and uncomfortable. So the moral of the story: don't win anything.

  3. So where's the photo of the guy???? I'm totally curious. You have seen glimpses of me on my blog writing, so you KNOW I'm rarely uncomfortable on a stage. Who me? Where's my spotlight??? LOL!

  4. "I was stone and he was wax, so he could scream and still relax. Unbelievable!"

    I can relate to the melty-kneed feeling of public performance (and maybe so can David Bowie). It's too bad you didn't give yourself a few more opportunities at public appearances. You'd have found, I suspect, that it gets considerably easier with each time you do it. My only performances these days are in front of TV cameras rather than an audience - easier in some ways, harder in others - and in Chinese, for the most part, but I do still love to perform.

  5. My mother started me off early by making me take ballet, and we had a yearly recital. It was painful, because i am in no way, shape, or form a dancer.

    It would seem to me that it's easier to paint portraits for people who are still alive and sit for the painting, they can tell you as you go along if they like it, and you only have the audience of one.

  6. Been in front of large crowds many times. Some were good experiences and others not so much. Sometimes you're hot and sometimes your not. I can relate to your story though. Been there, and done that.

    Have a terrific day. :)

  7. Well told and a great story! I do semi regular speaking and have learned to handle most things, but there is still one incident that is so embarrassing I can't bring myself to tell about it yet. Maybe one day, though...

  8. Glad to hear your work was so well received. :)

    Oddly enough I have no trouble speaking before large crowds. I say "oddly" because I am certainly not handsome, not a fashion statement, not exceptionally brilliant, and my voice could be best described as average at best. Before speaking I just tell myself, "If there was somebody better qualified to speak on the subject of ____ than me, they'd be up here instead." That's all the confidence boost I need. Sounds dumb, I know, but it works.


  9. I was in a play in high school. Threw up before I went on, shaking as I left the stage from my bit part, written up as stealing the show in the school paper, but knew it was definitely not for me. People say it gets easier. I went to college at 48 and in almost every class I had to do some kind of oral report, either singularly or in a group...for years. It never got any better. I dreaded it, felt sick, shook, and talked too fast. Even when I was passionate about the subject and talked too long...I would never volunteer to do it again...ever!

    You must be excellent with portraits to have combined those two. I hope you still painted and didn't give it up! :)

  10. " shoes were filling with ass sweat..." OMG - that made me laugh. I'll have to remember and use this phrase.

    In nursery school (I was maybe four years old), we put on a play about Hansel and Gretel. I was the wicked witch. I can't even remember if it was during the final rehearsal or during the actual show, but I was so nervous and so excited and so full of ... well, you know ... I just wet my pants. That's worse than ass sweat. I decided to NEVER EVER take the chance again.

  11. I'm on stage in front of six classes a day. I'm rarely comfortable. But after the first fifteen years, I didn't dread it on the way to work every morning. These days, I look at my students as a captive audience for my imaginary stand-up routine. I'm really good with hecklers.

  12. Nice story. We had our portrait painted a cpl. of years ago. It was great ... the painter made us look five years younger and ten pounds lighter than we really are!

  13. An artist AND a writer. Well done :)

  14. I have seen some of your work here on your blog, and have always been very impressed. It would be lovely to see the result of this portrait. At one time in my life I was not at all bothered by appearing on stage and having to speak. But as I've got older I find I'm more and more uncomfortable, more and more self-conscious.

    1. In fact, I want to say that I like your work very very much!

  15. Hi Stephen, just wanted to let you know i picked your joke as the winner.. shoot me your email so i can get your prize out. Amy

  16. I think it's absolutely amazing that you had the guts to do a portrait with so little information to go on. That's tremendously brave. Sweating on the stage? I would have dropped dead long before then, I think. And that it turned out to be a success? Wonderful!

    I'm generally at home on a stage. Since I make my living by doing voice-overs (and doing production work for other talents), and used to like to pretend I was making a living as a musician, I find that I am not at all subject to the usual death-like fears of public speaking and/or performing that most others have to some degree. As a matter of fact, I'm wired in such a way that the more people there are in the audience, the more comfortable I am. One-on-one makes me much more nervous than standing in front of thousands and performing (which I've done a few times as a musician, albeit in the far distant past.)