Fear is good because it makes every sense sharper. Your mind works faster and better. Nothing is wrong with fear unless it rules you. ~~ Robert B. Robeson, author and Vietnam veteran
Everyone is afraid of something. Most of us expend a great deal of energy avoiding the things that make us afraid: public speaking, trips to the dentist, spiders, heights. I’m sure you can think of a few I missed.
I confess to having spent much of my life being afraid: I worked in the performing arts and had a terrible case of stage fright. But dealing with my fear also led me to some surprising truths about it. (And if you think this doesn’t apply to writers and other “non-performing” artists, ask me how I feel when it’s time to hit the “publish” button for this blog.)
Truth #1: Fear can be fooled
My first public performance was at the age of five singing Suzie Snowflake in my kindergarten Christmas program. But I didn’t experience full-blown stage fright until I slid into the trough of puberty and seemingly overnight became a self-conscious, trembling wreck backstage – flooded with adrenalin and scared out of my wits.
Fortunately, I had a mother who without realizing it gave me my first acting lesson: whatever you’re doing, whatever you’re feeling, for heaven’s sake try to look good doing it.
I took her advice, and – lo and behold – I found that if I could manage to look calm and confident, I could fool the audience every time. Not only that, the audience felt confident for me, sending that confident energy back to me, which made me feel even more confident, creating a positive feedback loop. As it says in the song “I Whistle a Happy Tune” from The King and I:
Whenever I feel afraid,
I hold my head erect,
And whistle a happy tune,
So no one will suspect I’m afraid.
I suck at whistling, but you get the gist.
Truth #2: Your fear is almost never about what you think it’s about
My mother was more terrified than I was whenever I had a performance. I eventually figured out that my stage fright was a learned response – that I had internalized her fear. Once I recognized this, I kindly returned her fear to her with “address unknown” written all over it in bold letters.
It also didn’t escape my notice that, even though I was forever fighting nerves, I never truly failed onstage. Sure, some gigs went better than others, but I came to understand that what unhinged me wasn’t the fear of being in front of people – it was the waiting. I died a thousand deaths pacing the green room, or standing in the wings, and the longer I had to wait the more terrified I got, until I was sure I’d pass out.
But when I stepped onstage, I was fine.
Truth #3: New experiences will stir up more fear; familiar ones, less.
You’ll find that as you get comfortable with the venue, the material, or the other performers, your anxiety will decrease. By the end of a long run you may not experience any nerves at all. The more you perform (or do any fear-inducing act), the easier it becomes, until it’s just another day at the office.
But expect your nervous system to completely forget all that when you’re in a new situation, trying something new. Don’t worry if you’re a little – or a lot – more nervous. Give yourself time to adjust. Before long even the newest experiences will be old hat.
Truth #4: Fear can be motivating
Since I’m mortally afraid of screwing up and looking like an idiot, I learned to prepare my butt off for any performance, especially for one-shot deals like auditions.
Auditioning is a strange animal: you have one chance to get it right. It’s nerve-wracking knowing you can’t control the outcome – you can only do your level best at that moment. The rest is out of your hands.
Yet, this very thing focused my preparation – the one thing I could control – and gave my performance an edge I rarely had at any other time. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t shaking in my boots, but in a weird way I learned to love auditioning. I was either going to get the part or I wasn’t, which was strangely freeing. I had nothing to lose, and it made me (almost) fearless.
Let your fear motivate you to do your homework, then go for it.
Truth #5: Fear of things going wrong is a waste of time
My entire performing life, my biggest fears were of missing an entrance, forgetting my lines or lyrics, and – the Big Kahuna – falling onstage.
Ironically, what cured me was actually having those things – and many more – go terribly wrong.
Here are some of my more impressive onstage blunders:
- Spilling an entire glass of “wine” down the front of my elegant costume.
- Getting my wig caught in a massive flower arrangement. Twice. In the same scene.
- Being attacked by a motorized chicken (no one told me the batteries had been replaced).
- Slicing my finger open with a prop knife that turned out to be a real knife.
And yes, I once got tangled up in my costume while running offstage, resulting in a spectacular, full-out, Carol Burnett-style belly-flop. It was the first and only time I’ve ever stopped a show. But the worst had happened – and I’d survived. I immediately thought, “Well, I don’t have to worry about that anymore.”
It’s when things go wrong that performing gets interesting. You’re pulled into the moment – forced to call upon your training and your deepest resources to find your way out of the weeds, and perhaps lead everyone else out with you. And here’s the part no one tells you: that’s also when it gets fun. It was during those moments that I felt truly alive.
So stop worrying that things will go wrong. They will. You’ll learn to improvise, then you’ll have your own stories to tell for years to come.
Truth #6: Fear can be channeled into usable energy
Because of nerves, I once flubbed a solo entrance in the Mozart Solemn Vespers. I suddenly felt a furious surge of energy. I knew the piece backwards and forwards! I was prepared! And I remember saying to myself: You’re better than this – get with it, girl! I then proceeded to burn down the house for the rest of the performance, turning what could have been a negative into a positive.
Anger and fear are both emotional energy. It’s just that fear puts you back on your heels; and anger takes you forward. I’m not suggesting that you walk around in a perpetual state of anger. But a strong dose of it now and then will show your fear who’s boss.
Another fear-buster is laughter. For me, the worse the snafu (see Truth #5), the funnier it is. When I can laugh at, or laugh off, my mistakes, my fear ceases to have power over me: I’ve channeled it into constructive energy.
Truth #7: A little fear is necessary for a good performance
I know you don’t want to hear this. But bear with me.
When I was in college, my teacher’s studio was full of singers using beta blockers to quell their nerves. A beta blocker is a cardiac medication designed to keep the heart from pumping too fast and hard, which inhibits a symptom of stage fright that many performers find unbearable.
I tried it – once. My conclusion? It was like making love with my clothes on. Imagine being in love and not feeling the heart-pounding, nerve-tingling thrill of being near your lover. If you love your art, the last thing you want is to dampen your ardor.
There’s a big difference between being relaxed and being deadened. To deliver a top-notch performance, you need to hone your edge, not dull it. A little bit of nerves – let’s call it excitement – is guaranteed to do just that. So work on your mental game. You – not some drug – will be in charge, and the effects don’t wear off.
Truth #8: You can handle your fear
We fear being fearful because we imagine we won’t survive it. But unless we take a risk, we’ll never know if what we believe is true.
With the hundreds of people I’ve taught, only two students ever melted down in performance from nerves. They got through it, but they weren’t prepared for the intensity of the adrenalin rush, and were unwilling to experience it again. I give them full credit for trying. Most people would never have gone through what they did to find out.
You have to decide if the risk is worth the payoff. My deep love of music and theatre made it worth confronting my stage fright so I could perform. But not everyone is cut out for a life upon the wicked stage, just as not everyone (me, for instance) is cut out for mountain climbing or sky diving.
Ultimately, all artists, whatever their field, perform on a public stage. At some point you’re going to be called on to put your work out there. You’ll have to address your fear, but you’ll also find you can handle it, even make use of it. In the process, you’ll learn what you’re made of, and you’ll no doubt discover a few brave truths of your own.
Especially when things go horribly – hilariously – wrong.
I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do. ~~ Georgia O’Keeffe, artist