Is it better not to be able to see the audience?

I am a star of stage and screen!

Well, no, of course I’m not, but I did have a boost to my ego recently. You may recall (well, you probably don’t, because you’ve got better things to think about) that I spoke to student nurses at Oxford Brookes University last year about what it is like to be a patient with a visual impairment. Apparently it turned out to be the most popular lecture on the course, so I got a repeat booking this year.

The format was the same. Helen Foord-Warren, the trainer, played the interview she did with me last year and then I came “live” onto Zoom to do the Q&A. As before, the students were really engaged and asked some great questions. After the students had left, one of the staff present said, “There were over 200 people on that call. That just shows how popular you are.” I was staggered. I think I was imagining around 20 – 30 participants.

I’m not saying this to make any claims that they were all queuing up to join because I was one of the acts on the bill. There are lots of reasons why people join Zoom calls. It did make me reflect on something, though.

I never go to the participants list when I’m on Zoom calls. This is partly because I am concentrating hard on what is being said and partly because I’m not confident that I would ever find my way back, so to speak. This means that I have no idea who is there unless they speak. As, generally, only a few of those present actually speak at any meeting, I don’t have a very clear idea of how many people are really there. What I wonder is, does it help not to know?

My father was a clergyman and, despite preaching all his life, he still got nervous before services. He would deliberately only wear his reading glasses when preaching so that the first few rows were a blur. It made him nervous to look into the faces of his congregation. My mother was always telling him to look up from his papers more when he was preaching.

My sister is a lay minister in the Church of England, my niece is a Baptist lay preacher, and I always seem to be addressing church meetings of one kind or another. It seems to be in the genes of our family to be able to stand up and speak in front of church congregations. I do wonder, however, if it helps if you can’t see your audience.

I particularly wonder this because my first appearance in a play was a disaster. I was six. I was dressed up in my beautiful fairy outfit. I was supposed to put a scarf round a snowman’s neck and say something profound like, “Here is a scarf for you.” When it came to the dress rehearsal I got stage fright and another girl got the gig.

I could still see at this point. The only audience at this rehearsal was my school class, but seeing them was obviously enough to put me off.

By the time I got to play an angel in a church play at the age of about 8 or 9, I was starting to lose my sight and I had no difficulty uttering the lines which completely escape me now. I could still see that there was an audience there, but I couldn’t identify individual faces.

When I got to my first school for the blind, I thoroughly enjoyed drama and that pleasure continued through to my secondary school, Chorleywood College.

These days, I am happy to speak in church and chair meetings and no longer get stage fright. Some butterflies sometimes, but that is normal.

So perhaps seeing the faces of your audience does make a difference. Perhaps not being able to see who you are declaiming to is actually a positive advantage.