Don’t pick me! My fear of audience participation

The sun may not shine, T in the Park may not have any decent acts, but one thing is for certain this summer in Scotland – in August the Fringe will come to Edinburgh. Every year the city fills up with performers of all varieties, and the thousands of people who pay to see them. I will be one of them – however, I will probably have a bit more trepidation than most.

Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely love the Fringe. I love its carnival atmosphere, and the buzz of noise and colour. I love exploring the beautiful city of Edinburgh. But unfortunately, there is one factor that prevents me from completely immersing myself in it, and that is my fear of audience participation.

I know it seems stupid. I don’t actually have that many fears. Heights don’t tend to faze me. If I see a spider in my room, I put it outside with no fuss. But the idea of being dragged from my seat and put on stage in front of a bemused audience makes me break out in a cold sweat.

This fear hasn’t stemmed from anything in particular. However, it has grown steadily worse as I have got older. As a child I used to perform on stage in a youth theatre group – I got a buzz from the adrenaline of a good show. But back then I knew what I was getting into. The fear of the unknown, of attention being focused on me unexpectedly, is what turns my stomach.

It is this fear that has stopped me from seeing my favourite comedians live on stage. I love watching comedy on television because you’re secure at home, protected by the barrier of the screen. By actually going to their shows, you risk being exposed to ridicule by the people you have paid to make you laugh.

A few months ago I plucked up the courage to see Adam Hills – not exactly the most biting of comedians, I know. But even then I watched with horror as he made members of the audience tell jokes on stage. I was relieved to be safe up in the circle, rather than in the stalls.

If an Adam Hills show takes me to my limit, you can imagine that it doesn’t take much to make me cringe. Much as I am enchanted by the magic of Derren Brown, seeing him in real life would be my worst nightmare. His shows, both on television and on the stage, are wholly based on audience participation. He ‘reads minds’ and anticipates how people react to certain situations, and then builds his performance around this.

Something else I can’t cope with is Nina Conti’s ventriloquism act. At first glance ventriloquism seems like a safe bet – It’s just about the performer and their puppet, right? Not when it’s Nina Conti. She brings audience members on stage and straps a mechanical mouth over their face, making them ‘speak’ and controlling them like she would the puppet.  I can’t even watch this when it’s on television – I can only picture myself being the unlucky soul with hundreds of people laughing at me.

A weird fear? Definitely. A bit pathetic? Probably. Loads of people love the chance to bathe in the limelight. But I have never been fully comfortable being the centre of attention. I’m shy at heart, and would rather be a spectator than a participant.

So what am I really afraid of? Humiliation, for sure. It’s very human to dislike being laughed at. When you perform on the stage, you are accepting that the worst might happen, and you might not pull it off. Audience members have no such understanding – they are unexpectedly thrown into a situation that they have to try and navigate without messing up.

When I go to the Fringe this year – like I do every year – I will attempt to relax and enjoy it, even with this fear constantly in the back of my mind. I just need to pick my shows wisely. Most of the time it is perfectly fine. But I know that whenever a performer scans the audience looking for a volunteer (or as I see it, victim) you just need to avoid eye contact and hope for the best. Either that, or buy a ticket for the middle of row Z.

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