Written by Ben Beaver
I had originally thought to call this piece something like “Overcoming” or “Conquering” Stage Fright, because it sounds like a more robust and definitive solution to an age old problem. But I long ago came to the conclusion that stage fright is not necessarily an obstacle that needs to be overcome, or in spite of its name, a fear that needs to be conquered. In fact, I’m of the mind that a certain amount of stage fright is actually beneficial, healthy, and a potential asset to a performer!
I decided to focus more on the mentality that surrounds stage fright, and some key points to try and keep in mind that may adjust how you visualize stage fright and react to it, rather than thoughts on how to eliminate it completely. If that’s even possible, of which I’m highly skeptical.
Stage Fright, or “Performance Anxiety,” as it prefers to be called when it’s feeling classy, is simply the physiological response from the body, reacting to the mind putting an extreme amount of pressure on the individual to perform at their highest level. This makes perfect sense when you think about it. The response to this fear is not unlike the survival instincts we all possess; the “Fight or Flight” response that our bodies trigger automatically when we feel threatened or in serious danger. Performing is generally not physically all that dangerous, unless you’re a Blue Angel or some other sort of high-stakes daredevil stunt performer! But to the ego, the pride, the fragile psyche that seeks approval and cares about how we’re perceived by others, performing can be interpreted to be as threatening as being attacked by a bear in the woods.
Performing is an inherently crazy proposition… Volunteering to put yourself on an elevated platform under bright lights or in front of cameras, subjecting yourself to the judgment and criticism of a bunch of strangers, and then trusting yourself and possibly several other people to execute a difficult task and not make you look like a complete fool!
It’s a rather precarious position for one to volunteer to be put into, and it’s no wonder we experience fear at the idea of failing in front of an audience. But there are enough positive sides to the equation to make it worth the gamble every time. You can learn to develop enough confidence and trust in yourself and your teammates to reduce stage fright’s role in your life to that of a quiet onlooker in the back row. So here are a few things to keep in mind the next time you feel your legs start to tremble, your hands start to shake, your heart rate start to elevate, and you find yourself tugging at an invisible turtleneck you aren’t wearing…
Everyone experiences Stage Fright. It’s completely natural.
Even the best of the best among actors, musicians, comedians, athletes, public speakers, or anyone else who does performance for a living… You may not know it by looking at them, and that is what makes them so great at what they do, but I guarantee they all still experience stage fright. Every. Single. Time.
There may be a few performers on Earth who have been lucky enough to have never experienced stage fright, but those people are a glitch in the Matrix, and by far the exception and not the rule. Rihanna admits she needs to take a shot of alcohol before every show to calm her nerves. Adele once climbed out a fire escape window to avoid having to perform. Henry Rollins shared a story of a recent backstage encounter with Ozzy Osbourne, where he recounts that Ozzy told him that he still gets really nervous and stressed out that no one is going to show up to his concerts, even though he has been selling out huge arenas for decades.
Whether it’s your very first time performing, or you’re a veteran performer with hundreds or even thousands of live performances under your belt, the desire to execute well under pressure will always result in some level of mental anxiety or stress. The ones who are the best simply learn to cope with it in whatever way works for them individually, and they press onward!
What You’re Doing Takes Courage!
Performing in front of an audience is the #1 fear among the general populace. Technically it’s “Public Speaking,” but it’s the same general idea; making yourself the focal point for the attention of an audience. Performing in front of people outranks even Death, which comes in at a modest #2 for greatest fears! Performing in front of an audience is the thing that scares most people more than anything else in the world. So give yourself some credit, be proud, and remember that even if things don’t go the way you hope, you had the fortitude to step up and put yourself out there. That’s worth a lot by itself. To actually perform well, consistently, in front of an audience, is a pretty amazing feat. It’s why people will pay good money to watch performers who are very good at what they do.
Stage fright can actually heighten your focus and abilities.
This is why I believe stage fright can actually be a good thing, and it’s the ability to do this that makes the true pros the best at what they do. We’ve all heard of the miraculous things human beings are capable of accomplishing while under extreme stress and pressure, like someone who lifts a car with their bare hands to save a loved one trapped underneath, or the Apollo 13 astronauts making hundreds of precise calculations in a matter of minutes in order to improvise a recovery from disaster. While not nearly on that scale of life or death, stage fright can still release adrenaline, similar to a roller coaster or other controlled thrill, that will instantly heighten your focus and your body’s ability to carry out its duties as a performer, if you can learn to channel it to work for you rather than collapse underneath it.
The audience emits a type of energy, and so do you as a performer. You can each feel that energy, absorb it, manipulate it, and release it as an even greater energy. This is the exchange between performer and audience. The pressure of a live performance pushes us to our limits. Good performers learn how to channel the energy of the performance and to use the elevated senses brought about by intense pressure, in order to help them focus and better execute their performance at a higher level. How can you learn how to do this? The same way you learn how to do anything else! By repeatedly practicing it over and over and continuously falling flat on your face until finally you don’t anymore!
Experiencing stage fright shows you care.
We humans generally experience anxiety whenever we put something at risk. There is a rush of endorphins, and we feel excited and stressed simultaneously, at the uncertainly during the moments between outcomes. The spin of the wheel, the flip of a coin, the turn of a card, the roll of the dice… the thrill we experience in that moment of uncertainty can be exhilarating and addictive.
There is an inherent gamble in every performance; you are risking your pride as a performer, by putting yourself in front of an audience, and betting all of your pride that you won’t embarrass yourself by failing at whatever task the audience has come to watch you perform. The difference here is that the chance of success or failure is not set in stone; you are in control of the amount of risk you are taking every time you perform. The more experience and the more practice you accumulate at your chosen craft, as well as time spent in front of an audience, the less chance you will have of making mistakes. You reduce the risk of failure a little more with every performance you complete.
The performers that can charge a lot of money and sell tens of thousands of seats every night are the ones who consistently deliver high rates of success in their performances. They make very few mistakes on a consistent basis. They are confident because they have logged thousands of hours of practice at their craft. They’ve spent a lot of time performing in front of people, to the point where it doesn’t affect their mindset in the slightest.
But they still experience stage fright. Because there are never any guarantees in a live setting, and you always want everything to go as well as it possibly can, every time. There are a lot of variables to a show of any type, which means something always can and probably will go wrong. The best performers are simply so good at adapting to the unexpected that you might not even notice if something goes wrong! They learn how to make their mistakes look intentional! I didn’t miss a note, I made a creative choice!
If you didn’t care about the quality of your show, there would be nothing to be worried about! But you do care, and so you will always experience some level of anxiety. The idea is to not let that voice become the dominant voice that overpowers all the others, which it can easily do if you allow it to. Instead, try to confine that voice to background noise. Acknowledge its presence and existence, but don’t get lost in it. Address your doubts, and remember that it is a strength and not a weakness to care enough about your performance to be concerned with its quality. Promise yourself to do the best you can no matter what happens, and move forward with the show!
The audience wants to see you succeed!
This one took me a long time to understand, and took my own evaluation of myself as an audience member to finally accept: No audience goes to a show hoping the performer will be bad, so that they can boo and taunt and throw rotten tomatoes at them! There’s a booth at the Renaissance Festival you can visit that provides exactly that experience if that is what you seek.
But most regular people are not going to commit their time and money to see a performance they are hoping will turn out to be a train wreck so that they can have a cheap laugh at the performer’s expense. This is a false illusion that somehow gets implanted into our brains through the voice of our insecurities.
With the exception of some rare instances, I’ve found that most of the audiences you’ll find yourself in front of will be very encouraging and very forgiving… even if you don’t perform well. Most people acknowledge and accept that performing is not easy, and they will admire your courage and your attempts to entertain them, and they will give you a round of applause regardless of how good you are, in genuine appreciation of your effort. And that applause will be well deserved.
So rather than imagining your audience in their underwear in order to ease your stage fright, just imagine them all as really supportive, encouraging friends who all want you to be the best you can be, because that’s a lot closer to the truth than you might think!
I prefer to think of stage fright not as an enemy to be defeated, or a challenge to be beaten, but more as a wild animal to be respected and understood, before it can be tamed and you can have an ever-evolving relationship with it. Conventional viewpoints seem to approach stage fright as an obstacle to overcome, or a sickness that needs some sort of cure. But for myself, I simply like to embrace stage fright as just another part of the whole package; a necessary element to the function of the show, as vital to the production as a microphone or an amplifier. I like to think of stage fright as a force that is interwoven into other important aspects of the performance, and that its absence would indicate that something was wrong.
I believe the best approach is to accept stage fright as proof that your heart is in the right place, and learn to make peace with it and be open to the idea that it could actually be your ally rather than your nemesis. Like a coach who is there to give you a motivational pep talk before the big game, even if that talk can be harsh and make you want to throw up at times!
If you can convince yourself that stage fright is there to help you rather than obstruct you, you can mentally convert it from one of your biggest hindrances into one of your most powerful tools. As crazy as it might sound, you may actually learn to look forward to the onset of stage fright with a kind of warm anticipation!