Stage Fright

Most of the students I’ve taught and many of my professional colleagues (including myself) have suffered from stage fright at some point in their lives. So, dealing with this phenomenon is essential in any performance or public speaking training.

The fear of being witnessed is the fear of being judged and found inadequate. People talk about wanting to disappear, to become invisible, when in front of an audience. We’re desperately afraid of “making fools of ourselves.” There is a profound and corrosive sense of shame that we have not lived up to our own or others expectations of us. It’s a fundamental human need to be accepted by our community.

When we look closely at stage fright we see that it’s a phobia: an “unreasonable fear”. The relationship between performer and audience is fraught with adversarial and threatening language: “I died last night” “I killed”. “I bombed” “I knocked ‘em dead.” We seem to see performance as a matter of life and death.

The habit of comparing ourselves to others and constantly assessing who’s “better” is deeply entrenched in our culture. We want to be the “best”. Nothing less will do. We think we will be shunned by our community if our performance is not the most gripping, intelligent and entertaining of all the performances in the room, the theatre world, the workplace. Is this actually true, or is it just a far-fetched idea? As a performer who has received both positive and negative reviews and has forgotten whole pages of text in well rehearsed plays and been creatively blocked in improvised performances, I can tell you that I have never been “shunned”.

Oh, the great relief when we allow ourselves to release from judgment and to ask ourselves what “best” is, anyway. Doesn’t that depend on who you’re asking?

I now think of each show as part of an ongoing learning process. There will be another day, another show. My life will not be destroyed by a less than stellar show. Nor will it be transformed by one terrific performance (even if I’m on American Idol !)

If you have suffered embarrassment, you won’t die from it. You’ll recover. In fact, in most cases, an audience, whether made up of colleagues, friends or strangers, is ready to give us support. They’ve come to the theatre/ conference/ gathering…to have a good time. They’re usually on your side. I like to think of the audience, (whoever they are) as a group of friends. In my Beginning Full Spectrum Improvisation classes students practice standing in front of the group and allowing themselves to feel the supportive energy being radiated from their fellow students in the “audience”.

Although it‘s the thoughts and images we hold that create anxiety, the symptoms are felt in the body: altered breathing, excelerated heart rate, dry mouth, sweating, maybe even shaking. Interestingly, these sensations are similar to those felt in a state of great excitement, so we can view stage fright and excitement as being on the same emotional spectrum, just at opposite ends. In fact, it can be useful to be in a heightened state on stage, where a little extra adrenaline will provide energy and alertness. It’s a matter of degree.

Sometime during my twenties I developed claustrophobia. Most of the time it was mild, but during pregnancy it became acute. I was terrified to take an elevator or spend time in any small windowless room. This was especially awkward as most public rest rooms are small and windowless.

After a few years of suffering the restrictions of this unreasonable fear, I enrolled in a 12 week phobia de-sensitization group with a psycho therapist and learned that phobias are a spill over of held anxiety and that avoiding the feared situation doesn’t reduce the fear, it perpetuates it. With the therapist’s support we talked about our phobias and we faced them by riding elevators and standing in dark closets holding the therapists hand. We learned positive self-talk, re-assuring ourselves that we were safe. We monitored our breathing and the tension in our muscles. The treatment was quite effective. Though I still don’t like 4ft by 4ft bathrooms or elevators, I use them frequently with no apparent damage. This phobia provided me with material: I wrote a short solo theatre piece in which the protagonist is having a panic attack in a dark movie theatre.

One of the things I enjoy so much about improvisation is that we don’t have to be inspired to do it. We just have to be willing to be transparent and connect with the audience from a place of authenticity. Accepting anxiety or confusion as the state the “character” is in, makes it possible to use it theatrically. Self-expression and creativity are fundamental needs. We need to be seen, to be heard, to be recognized. One of the most obvious benefits of participating in carefully taught theatre training is the transformation of the experience of being seen. When a person feels the attention of the audience as empathy, it is a transforming experience. It is a kind of victory over fear. It creates an amazing “high”. This is one of the joys of theatre for the performer. I’m privileged to have seen this transformation many times.

Some suggestions:

  • Get to know your “inner critic“ and learn to identify his/her hectoring voice: “What if they find me boring? What if they hate my content or style?” Our habitual concern, voiced by our inner critic, about the opinion of others, is the primary obstacle to our creativity and joy of self-expression. If we can locate the original source(s) of this nagging voice we can begin to find some freedom from it’s impact. We can begin a dialogue with this voice and find out what’s driving it. For me, it’s my mother’s fearful voice. She was trying, in her way, to keep me safe. Hypnosis is often effective at uncovering past sources of emotional trauma.
  • The audience will be as engaged as we are. If we are fully committed to what we are doing on stage (or the “stage” of life) we will care more about sharing the magical world of our imagination than about what other people think. When the critic’s voice is distracting you, bring yourself back to telling your story.
  • Develop soothing pre-show rituals which include sensory awareness, movement and some encouraging self-talk. One of the things we can do to shift our thinking is to change our language from adversarial and threatening to compassionate and connecting.
  • Get back on the boards as soon as you can after an unpleasant performance experience. Within a supportive context, re-visit your exposure to the triggering situation. Give and get support from those around you. Perform at home, at parties, where you can be witnessed in less high stakes situations. Allow yourself the aliveness of experimentationand the fun of play.
  • As in all activities, the more you practice, the more skill you develop and with skill comes more ease.
  • I’ve found that a warm-up that combines movement and self-revelatory talking can relax us and release us from the vise grip of stage fright. Anxiety triggers a flood of adrenaline into our system, getting us ready for “fight or flight”. Movement can flush some of the adrenaline out, restoring more psycho/physical balance. Some people pray or chant before a show, some do yoga, some meditate, some carry a good luck talisman. Back stage, if you have the space, dance, shake, run in place, sing. One performer colleague of mine would often leave the theatre a half hour before curtain and jog around the block.

All of these activities will tend to ground your consciousness in your body, which is where it needs to be.

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