When Laura Wiley started teaching English at a junior college in 1994, she was one of those hip, young, charmingly frazzled lecturers that students covet. Seven years later, she'd become a dowdy maternal figure. That became apparent in the fall of 2001, when Wiley tried to foist Shakespeare's Hamlet on a group of bemused twentysomethings. "At this point, I related to the characters, and the students thought the characters were losers," Wiley recalled. "I remember one woman would just sit there with her arms folded all day, glowering at me."
That's when Wiley started getting panic attacks. First, her stomach would rumble. Then the room would start teetering in front of her. Lines and colors would blur. Her heart would race. Her breath would quicken. She'd scan the room for an escape hatch. Students would gaze back in horror and fascination.
Wiley wasn't sure what triggered the attacks, but she had some ideas. Maybe they were a form of post-traumatic stress syndrome, triggered by 9/11. Maybe they were a sign of middle age, or ennui, or bottled-up grief after her father's sudden death from lung cancer. Maybe all of those factors were compounded by Wiley's over-identification with Prince Hamlet, and her frustration that the students just didn't get it. Perhaps, as she suggested, her body was rebelling against the situation, and hoping her mind would follow suit.
Whatever the case, the panic attacks were crippling, and they persisted for years. Ultimately, Wiley's only solution was to turn them into a muse. She joined a playwrights' workshop in Berkeley and began taking solo performance classes at The Marsh, with such local gurus as Ann Randolph and David Ford. She also began writing an autobiographical script about panic. The setup was familiar: An English teacher suffers bouts of severe apprehension while teaching Hamlet to an extremely apathetic junior college class. She is visited by the ghost of her dead father. Wiley invented ten characters (she eventually pared it down to eight) and played all of them herself.
Two years later, the resulting show, Panic!, is finally ready for a regional premiere at this week's San Francisco Fringe Festival. And Wiley's in good company. Also on the bill this year: Bill Bernat's Microvation, a self-help parody cataloging all the workplace irritants that stall, suppress, or otherwise infuriate us — including etiquette violators and stress inducers. Monologist Bob Brader will confront his father's pedophilia in Spitting in the Face of the Devil. Actor Joseph Atmore will reenact the "Brain Busters" and mind-reading gags that Forties-era radio host Joseph Dunninger (aka "The Amazing Dunninger") performed in Studio 6B at Rockefeller Center. Lorraine Olsen will recount stories from her career as a nude model for artists in Lorraine Olsen is Figuratively Speaking. In all, 44 shows are set to run over a period of 12 days at Exit Theatre (156 Eddy St., San Francisco). The festival runs September 7-18, and tickets cost $8-$9.99. SFFringe.org