Reflections on 'Stage Fright'

Feb 06 2017

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Jenny Drew

Holly Stoppit’s Work In Progress - Show One- Stage Fright - Reflections

On 5th February 2017, I performed the first of three monthly work in progress shows to a full house at the Wardrobe Theatre, opening the door to my creative / research process. I spent an hour and a quarter showing semi-prepared / semi improvised new material developed through a month of writing, researching and playing under the guidance of  facilitator Amy Rose and an impro coach, Brenda Waite. 

I had note cards laid out on stage, one for each chunk of material. I’d put them in a proposed order, but had given myself permission to veer away from that order and to discover new material in the moment. Musician Paul Bradley improvised a live score for some of the show with guitar, loops and voice. Aisha Ali improvised with lights. Jenny Drew captured the show in cartoons.

I provided feedback forms for the audience as well as holding a 20 minute Q&A after the show. Feel free to email any more feedback to holly@hollystoppit.com.

Making the decision to treat the whole process of creating and sharing new material as a research adventure helped me get beyond my stage fright enough to get back on the stage after a 7 year break. So for this first show, I made my research foci:

(1.) how’s the stage fright now, after all that therapy and the 7 year break?

(2.) do I enjoy performing more or less than I used to?

(3.) what would it be like to bring a high level of support into my process?

I made a commitment to voicing the stage fright whenever it appeared, using a microphone at the back of the stage to give this commentary.

I assured the audience that I was safe enough to explore all this, pointing out my support team in the room and giving everyone permission to relax and enjoy the ride.

Here are the performance propositions I had selected for myself:

  • Greeting the audience / Do nothing
  • Physical symptoms of Stage Fright spoken into a mic
  • Framing the night 
  • Embodiment of The Little Voice who wants to do a show
  • Fun facts about stage fright
  • Nicolas Ridout’s stage lighting theory 
  • Experiment with lighting
  • “I know what you want” Both the healthy and shadow parts of me tell the audience what they think the audience want to see
  • Talk about how life as a touring performer used to be
  • Do Something Physical
  • Neuroscience of Fear explained and embodied as characters
  • The story of how the character, “Fuckknuckle” (a character I’d created and performed for 9 years in various different forms) came to be.
  • Transforming into Fuckknuckle
  • Fuckknuckle sings to the audience
  • A story about being bullied at school
  • Where am I now?
  • A poem / song / movement sequence from Little Voice

I may write the show content up as an essay at some point, but not today. I’d also like to provide links to my research, but again, this is for another day.


Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Jenny Drew

(1.) how’s the stage fright now, after all that therapy and the 7 year break?

Disgusting. It feels like I've eaten a barbed wire fence. I feel utterly ravaged by it. But it has been fascinating to re-experience it with all the self-knowledge and therapy / neuroscience theory I’ve accumulated. Through turning up the curiosity, in the lead-up to the show, I’ve been able to step back and name the symptoms, preventing the automatic self-critical thought loops from spiralling me down to the depths of despair like they used to. But this required a high level of vigilance, as my neural pathways were forcefully leading me into “everybody hates you and you’re going to fail” territory. I cranked up my meditation practice to between 4 and 6 short sittings per day, whatever was happening. This gave me time to check in with myself and calm myself down before shining my attention on the negative thoughts and soothing them with compassion. This was tough work and many times, the fear and self-loathing got so intense, I felt like sabotaging the project. But my massive internal and external support team kept me on track. I’m glad that they did.

Stage fright struck in all the possible ways at various points in the show with; sweating, stuttering, losing track of my thoughts and words, self-doubt, self-sabotage, wanting to push the audience away, shaking, nausea, inability to breathe.

Having the microphone as a place to go whenever the stage fright struck was a brilliant safety valve which allowed me to name it and release it every time it arose. And the audience seemed to appreciate being let in to my process through this device.

Interestingly, I didn’t have any stage fright symptoms during the feedback Q&A after the show.

Writing this, the day after the show, I feel very ill. After not eating or sleeping much for several days (thanks to stage fright), I feel pretty vile inside. I am exhausted. I have been swinging between feeling really proud of myself and crying and shaking uncontrollably. I’ve spent most of the day in bed, seeking out connection with phone-calls, emails and a real life cup of tea with a very close friend. It does not feel wise to be alone today. I am being very gentle with myself, making good food, wearing soft clothes and swaddling with my blanket.

3 days after the show. Strangely, I am not experiencing high doses of shame like I used to post-performance. I have all the physical symptoms of self-poisoning by adrenaline; I'm still not sleeping properly and I feel extremely fragile, achey, exhausted and hungry. My appetite is slowly returning, but I can still only manage very small amounts of food. This feels like an incredibly familiar state, only I'm not getting into the usual after-show negative self-talk spirals, I can smell them, but I'm not going in. I feel a bit like Morgan Spurlock when he was making Supersize Me; I have poisoned myself in the name of research. But curiosity and mindfulness (formal meditation, bringing myself to presence by being with one sense at a time and swaddling to feel protected and contained) are keeping me from being sucked into what could be an easy void of chaos and despair. 

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Jenny Drew

(2.) do I enjoy performing more or less than I used to?

I haven’t watched the show footage back yet, so I don’t know for sure, but I think I had some deeply enjoyable moments. My body remembers many moments of flight and flow, laughter and attentive silence, but my brain doesn’t remember much at this point.

I think I also had some crushingly awful moments, but I think I enjoyed being able to share these with the audience.  

I will be able to write in more detail after I’ve watched the footage, but today is not the day for that.

***Update*** One month later and I've just seen the footage!

Watching myself on stage was a weird nail-biting experience, but I can now verify that there were moments during Stage Fright where I appeared to be experiencing pure pleasure. Things I seemed to be especially enjoying:

  • chatting with the audience, learning from them, riffing off their remarks, for instance learning that Justin Bieber had been sick on stage because of stage fright and getting into a dialogue with the guy who shared this fact, asking him how he’d come across that particular youtube clip?
  • material found in the moment, like lying on my belly on the stage with my heels kicking together, asking the audience if they could see me, before backing up to help the site lines, when I knocked my knee on the wall. I stood up and shouted accusingly; “none of you fucking told me that was there!” before slipping into the character of Hypocampus (an earlier character, represented as a bored Brummie data entry guy) “It’s because nobody cares.”
  • The sanctity of the microphone and being able to tell the truth. I felt calm and connected here.
  • Sharing all my research- although I felt I hadn’t nailed it all, I really enjoyed the process of exploring how to make research fun.
  • Telling my stories and the reception they got.

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Jenny Drew

(3.) what would it be like to bring a high level of support into my process?

Incredible! Wow! What a difference it makes to not only ask for, but also receive support! I had the ultimate dream team in place:

  • Brenda Waite- impro / movement coach
  • Paul Bradley- musician
  • Aisha Ali- lighting operator
  • Steph Kempson- video 
  • Jenny Drew- live cartoons
  • Beccy Golding- my administrator
  • The 10 people who attended my focus group at D&D
  • Devoted and Disgruntled for providing the environment and the permission for the focus group to happen
  • the Wardrobe Theatre for having me
  • Everyone who shared my facebook event
  • The audience for coming
  • The ones who gave written feedback and the ones who stayed for the Q&A
  • My boyfriend for cooking me dinner and giving me cuddles
  • My friends and family for checking in with me
  • My therapist
  • My clinical supervisor

I have never felt so supported in any creative endeavour. It made a huge difference, allowing me to take greater risks, knowing that I had a huge team behind me. Deep gratitude to everyone.

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Jenny Drew

Audience Feedback

I will delve into the audience feedback in more detail in due course, but right now, here’s a flavour of their experience, in answer to the question "What was that?"

“A psychonautical exploration of stage fright via a series of dimensions and characters.”

“The beginning of an incredible journey of HELL YEAH!”

“A fantastic, wonderful, unique experience”

“Leaning towards performance art rather than a clown show”

“Work In Progress was a good title, but it was so much more.”

“Emotive and thought provoking”

“Exuberant and deeply personal trip though fear.”

“It’s like going on a train that goes through a planet with colourful landsc….”

“One persons journey towards understanding themselves.”

“Lifelong performer and comedian showing the other bits too.”

“Great level of fragility and love.”

“Honest, human, vulnerable improvisation around a theme”

“A process of digging from quite a funny, light place to somewhere more cerebral to shamanic demon exorcism.”

“An adventuresome insight into Holly/someone’s brain”

“Hilarious, inspiring and heartwarming.”

“Brave and fragile and honest and funny and human.”

“A rollercoaster baring of the soul and the inner parts of the psyche with some brain chemistry thrown in.”

“emotional - creative - exciting - very physical - a journey”

“Unexpected. Very genuine.”

“I had heard about Fuckknuckle- OMG!!”

“An explosion of thoughts and emotion in a package of humility and honesty.”

“Like having the contents of the human brain splattered all over us, in complete kindness and tenderness.”

“imaginative. bonkers. informative.”

Come and see the next show on Sunday 5th March at 7.30 at The Wardrobe Theatre. Pay what you decide at the end. Venue info here.

Facebook event here.

More about Holly Stoppit's Work In Progress

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