Stage Fright- The Focus Group

Jan 16 2017

Holly Stoppit
Image credit:

Stage Fright

For the last 2 days, I’ve been at Devoted and Disgruntled 12, an Open Space event designed to give theatre people from all over the UK opportunities to discuss whatever issues are relevant to them and find answers, connections, inspiration and hope. More about Devoted and Disgruntled and Open Space technology here.

It was a surprise to find out, on entering a huge space full of theatre makers of every variety, that my most burning issue was to generate content for my show, so I decided to hold a focus group to hear about other people’s experiences with stage fright.

My full session title was: “I’m making a show about stage fright (my own) and would like to hear about some of your experiences stage fright.”

When I sat down to write up the session, I couldn’t stop writing for 4 hours, so the following is a write up of the session, interspersed with bits of theory I’ve been working on. I hope it’s useful to someone.

I had about 10 people in attendance including notetaker Amy Rose, who is also my facilitator for the first work in progress show. I have kept the individuals stories anonymous to protect their identities. We started with names and a quick check-in as I wanted to offer an opportunity to connect before asking for people’s potentially fragile stories about stage fright. I gave a bit of context for the session:

I’m Holly Stoppit, a dramatherapist, university lecturer, clown teacher, workshop facilitator and Artistic Director of Beyond The Ridiculous. I stopped performing 7 years ago, after a 20 year battle with stage fright. I’m about to get back on the stage for the first time, presenting three work in progress shows at The Wardrobe Theatre in Bristol. The first one (at least) is about stage fright.

Once the context was established, I asked the group the following questions; “Who’s got a story about stage fright? What does it feel like to you? How has stage fright impacted your performances? How has stage fright impacted your life?”

“It’s irrational!” explained participant A. Stage fright doesn’t seem to follow a logical pattern. For this person, stage fright seems to strike at random times and is getting worse, the older they get. They explained that even though you know you are not in any physical danger, the surge in adrenaline kicks in and kicks off all the danger signals; leading to “desert mouth” and “lack of breath control,” which create a living nightmare scenario for this particular vocal artist. 

“What helps you get through it?” I asked. Participant A has a team of “backstage people’’ who are aware of their propensity towards stage fright and will offer the grounding gift of physical contact before the show. The artist seems to internalise the physical touch and brings it onto stage to protect them and keep them grounded throughout the performance.

I asked the question: “Are you able to ask for this directly from your team?” It seems the artist has not reached a point where they feel comfortable to express their fears and needs to every person they work with, but has been fortunate to have had enough friendly people in their backstage teams to be able to negotiate getting this need for physical contact met. There is a sense of shame which seems to cling to stage fright, making it impossible to ask for what we need- because first we’d have to admit we’ve got a problem. I love how this artist has recognised their needs (physical contact / connection with a human being) and has worked out how to meet them (by stealthily grabbing a cuddle before they go on stage).

I wholeheartedly believe making theatre a place where we can be authentic in our communication and clear about our needs will help to alleviate the suffering associated around shame (which in turn could help with stage fright). Having done a lot of research into the relationship between vulnerability and shame in performance, I’m now thinking about how shame could be the main catalyst for stage fright. In the reading I’ve encountered about stage fright, I often pick up a sense of superstition around talking about it. There’s a sense of “If I talk about it, I’ll be jinxed and it will stay with me forever.” These ingrained superstitions often have their roots in shame. So why is it shameful to have stage fright? Is it because as performing artists we are doing the thing that we love and it’s not really OK to be frightened of doing the thing you most love? Is it because the performing arts are often seen as frivolous and performing artists are portrayed as lovvies? Therefore why should anyone give a shit about a lovvie doing a pointless thing? Or is it more about the shame of neediness? Perhaps all these combined create a pressure cooker of emotion, heightening the feelings of shame which ultimately lead to disconnect.

Participant B, this one an actor, spoke of how their fear of forgetting lines has created a limit in the work they are now prepared to do. Once a Shakespearian actor, this person’s “fear of being unprepared” has led them to the same conclusion as Jacoby , who apparently said “I just can’t do this any more” and decided to no longer perform full length theatre plays. Instead participant B has adapted their career towards becoming a director and performing interactive work for children.

I wondered about this transformation. How is it that participant B does not display the symptoms of stage fright in these two other contexts, 1.) interactive children’s theatre and 2.) directing, when they are absolutely knobbled by it in a full length play? I wondered whether this was something about how the performer casts their audience? Had this actor deemed 1.) children and 2.) the actors he was directing; “safe” audiences and thereby making himself safe to “perform” for them? (There’s another essay here about the director as performer, or using performance skills in directing…)

I’ve been reading about the history of stage fright and one theory, from Stage Fright, Animals, and Other Theatrical Problems by Nicholas Ridout, associates it with theatre’s switch to electricity in 1879. Back in the olden days, theatre was performed in the daytime, where the performer could see the audience. Theatre was performed as a conversation with a rowdy crowd. The focus was shared between the performers and the audience. But with the advent of electric lights, the focus was shifted onto the performers, leaving the audience in the dark, which re-cast the audience as spectator (rather than participant). Perhaps this absence of reciprocity opened up more space for ambiguity? Ridout cited Stanivlaski's description of the newly faceless audience as a “black hole,” which I believe enabled the performers to project all their demons onto the invisible crowd.

This coincided with Stanislavski introducing his method of using your own personal material during the creative process of finding a character and bringing it to life. So now, when the crowd responded to the performance, the performer was more personally involved with their material and could take any reaction from the crowd as a direct comment on themselves.

So it’s dark out there and we’re exposing ourselves. The audience of our imagination is full of whoever we put there. Do we fill the auditorium with kind, friendly people who want us to do well, or do we fill the theatre with critics, haters, judges and devils? In my experience, when I came inside after years of performing on the streets, I found the lighting massively affected my stage fright. I had a chip on my shoulder about not belonging inside, having been passionately involved in the anarchic art door arts scene for years, so I think I subconsciously slapped judgmental masks onto my unseen audiences faces to help me maintain the storyline of “I don't belong here.”

Participant B went on to tell a story of getting stage fright in real life. Mingling with a crowd, post-performance after an immersive murder mystery show and feeling the expectations of the “audience” to keep playing a part they no longer wished to play. They described their symptoms as “quickening heartbeat and sweaty palms” and the fear relating to “being seen as I am.”

This links into another discussion I had this weekend, during a session on “What is performance?” We boiled down the definition of ‘performance’ to; “an act that has an intention to provoke a response in another person.” Participant B no longer wished to impact other people in the way they’d been doing all night, yet the audience wanted them to continue.

I probed a little as to how this actor might have been casting their audience (in this case, the people in the bar, after the show). Did they think the expectation to continue performing lay with the audience or with them? Could this have been their projection? The actor was certain that it had been the audience that were demanding more of the character. 

Thinking back to my own experiences of the after-show parties, I remember those conversations, and how I would turn every well intentioned “It was an interesting show,” to mean “It should have been so much better!” and every avoided glance to mean “You are shit and you should probably die right now.” I would cast my audience as my harshest critic and use them to punish myself for not being good enough (which was my deep down belief at the time). When we feel shit about ourselves, it’s easy to find the evidence to support whatever negative argument we’ve constructed about ourselves. Theatre is generally performed to silent onlookers who sit in the dark. It’s easy to see how we could mistake their murky presence for judgement if we are already carrying stories about our low self-worth.

Our next sharing came from participant C, someone who reported a total lack of stage fright on the stage. Their “chronic” stage fright (their description) emerges during the process of tour booking. Their stage fright appears as a saboteur and stops them from ringing venues. Once they are on the stage, they are fine, they just “walk towards the edge and fall in.”

This took us to the importance of the role of producer. I recognise the difficulty in selling your own work, especially if you feel vulnerable about it. I once proposed that we should all make a circle and support the person to the left of us and be supported by the person to the right, as it’s so much easier to sell someone else’s work than your own. I asked whether participant C had considered either hiring a producer or creating an internal producer who could take on this work?

The internal producer; the part of you that is boundaried and clear and logical and practical. The part that can talk turkey with no embarrassment. The one that’s fighting your corner and looking after your needs. What would yours look like? How would they hold themselves?

I linked back to participant A’s backstage team, and thought about whether, for my show, I could have a producer character on stage with me (played by me), taking practical care of my needs. How would that effect my stage fright? Participant A suggested I could have a whole team on stage. Someone else reflected how it might be interesting for an audience to see how a solo artist is supported to present their solo work.

Our next sharer, participant D, was a university student, who talked about their stage fright emanating from the fear of “doing it wrong.” Their stage fright was intensified by the fear that they’ll “ruin it for everyone,” for the audience and for their fellow performers. This fear brings a lot of pressure onto the stage. Mix this with the vulnerability endemic in sharing something of yourself and you’ve got yourself a potential shame storm right there.

Whenever we offer something of ourselves to an audience, whether it’s a painting, a part in a play, a song or whatever, we are stepping into our vulnerability. Vulnerability and shame researcher Brene Brown explains that we feel vulnerable when we 1.) take a risk 2.) emotionally expose ourselves 3.) step into the unknown. Performance links to all three definitions, to varying degrees, depending on the style of performance. So to be vulnerable, to make an offer of ourselves with an open hand, when we can’t control the audience’s experience of us… could be beautiful if we’ve cast the audience as our friends. It could be the beginning of deeper connected living. It could inspire audiences to step into their vulnerability and connect deeply with others. But. If you are casting your audience as your enemy, then this act of offering yourself to an audience could be the theatrical equivalent of feeding yourself to the lions (otherwise known as the shame storm).

So my question is; what support do we need to enable ourselves to experience the positive side of vulnerability through our performance? What safety mechanisms can we put in place?

Our next sharer, participant E, spoke about their “withdrawal from performance,” after realising the pay off was dwarfed by the struggle. I wonder how much of creativity is about addiction to the struggle? Another D&D session I attended, titled “Theatre As Addiction.” showed up some familiar concepts; the glorification of burn out, the negative drives behind the desire to perform (adulation, approval, validation) and the ever- unsustainable adage at the heart of our profession; “the show must go on!” Struggle could be seen as the heartbeat of our industry, which seems ridiculous, when we consider what it is we’re actually doing when making theatre; sharing something of ourselves, creating spaces for shared experiences, inviting audiences to dream their dreams with us…

Our next sharer, participant F, a singer, described the gut wrenching experience of forgetting all the words to a song. After a lengthy introduction, explaining where the song had come from, our singer signalled the band to start the introduction. As it got closer to the start of the song, the singer reached around in their memory looking for the opening words. Nothing, not the words, not the tune, not even a hint about how the song began. They signalled to the band to go round the introduction again. Nothing. Just the “hot burn, starting from the feet, moving up the legs and taking over the whole body.” They sent the band round the intro again. Still nothing. With terror in their eyes, our singer looked to their guitarist “help!” they mouthed. The guitarist, looking flustered, began strumming the chorus, hoping this would help jog the singer’s memory. Nothing. Eventually, our singer stopped the band and admitted to the audience that they just couldn’t remember the words. Of course the audience roared with laughter! 

Now in the world of clown, we would call this a huge success. Our performer let the audience into their struggle, owned it and allowed the audience to share the awful truth. The audience, recognising this as a very human thing to have happened, something they themselves have all experienced on some level, opened their hearts to our performer, offering their laughter in recognition of how it is to be a human. Boom! The room is connected, heart to heart. 

But our singer is not a clown. They are not trying to make the audience laugh. They are trying to share an English Ballad to the best of their ability. Cue shame. 

How do we measure our success on stage? Is it to perfectly convey something pre-rehearsed to an audience? Perfectionism; the enemy of relaxation and the conduit to shame / stage fright. When we are aiming for perfection, we are putting ourselves into a state of unnecessary tension that can hinder our connection with ourselves and our audiences. When we are tense we become solid and this solidness becomes impenetrable for audiences, no-one can get in and you can’t get out. So perfectionism can lead to disconnect, isolation, fear and shame. 

So what if we place our measurement of success on the quality of our connection with audiences? These days, participant F rates their performances by “How much did I feel I was in it?” To be both immersed in the performance and present to the audience is their measurement of success.

Participant G spoke of the chemical / hormonal experience of fight / flight / freeze, how the body is flooded with hormones to aid survival during trauma. They shared how they’ve learned to manage their stage fright symptoms by “doing a lot of physical exercise before getting on the stage.” They cited a recent study about disorders of the sympathetic / parasympathetic system which concluded that different people need to manage their trauma symptoms differently according to their unique chemical make-up.

Participant H spoke about how this trauma response effected their experience as an events organiser, leading them through a chain of increasingly catastrophic thoughts until they reached the inevitable “EVERYONE’S GOING TO DIE!”

I spoke about The Story as the problem here. From my own experiences with trauma, I’ve found that when I’m in a state of trauma (real or imagined, it doesn’t matter), if I just let the stories run and run, I’ll eventually get to a point where I need to die. Right. Now. But over the years I’ve been receiving therapy and practicing meditation and learning about the human mind, I’ve have learned to put a pause in between the stimulus and the response. I can now feel the sensations of fight / flight / freeze, recognise them and press pause while I slow down my breathing and find something solid and real to touch. I use my breathing and the sensation of touch to anchor myself while the stories fly about. I keep choosing to stay present to my experience of breathing in and breathing out or stroking something furry, soft, shiny or cold and eventually I calm myself down. Of course I don’t always get there in time! And whenever I slip back into old patterns, I’ve learned to forgive myself and start again.

So this is all hunky dory, but… I haven’t put myself on the stage for 7 years. So I’m curious to know whether I can access this precious pause that I’ve practicing so diligently when I’m on stage in front of an audience…

Back to participant G, the one who brought up fight / flight / freeze. Apparently, according to Clive Barker changing the shape of your spine (through movement) enables the spine to reach the shape where the synapses fire effectively, hence the importance of physical warm ups before performances. When we are frightened, our spines become rigid and ready for battle, introducing movement into the spine may help to alleviate fear by physically taking you out of a position of fear.

Participant I spoke of their current crippling experiences of stage fright, which have started 3 months before going into rehearsals. They report an increase in crying, an urge to be sick and a desperate desire to run away. This person’s stage fright is related to the technical precision required of them in the show they have created, they told us, “It has to be perfect in front of an audience.” As a trained clown, this performer has no problems with playing the flop and connecting with audiences when things go wrong (as described in the English Ballad story above). But in this particular show, the performer has to move props around the stage as a support to the protagonist of the play. During these sections, our performer is supposed to be ‘invisible’ and does not have the clown clause of being able to connect with the audience when things go wrong. This disconnect from the audience and the need for physical precision combined, are the source of the biggest stage fright in this performer’s career. 

After offering various techniques for remembering physical sequences, the group then began discussing how different kinds of stage fright are perhaps endemic to different forms of theatre. Many of the group had discussed a sense of freedom from the symptoms through being able to improvise which helped us by either: 1.) allowing us to be authentic / name it / connect with the audience that’s here in the room and release the tension or 2.) not having to remember script or precise actions, freeing us up to be more present. But what about theatrical forms that do not have these “safety” mechanisms at their hearts?

I have a respect for forms that use precision in performance, but I am not interested in performing in this way. I have always been an improviser, discovering this to be the only way I could beat the stage fright. As soon as there’s something to be got wrong, I am at the mercy of my “not god enough” demons. With improvisation, they don’t have time to get a word in.

The group shared various stories of theatrical flops and their impacts on the artists and audiences. Phillip Glass forgetting one of his most memorable pieces, causing audiences to walk out in disgust (is this to do with audiences not wanting to see their heroes vulnerable?); another singer who’s in-between-song disclosures began as charming little interactions (“I need a wee!”) but escalated to uncomfortable trauma dumpings (prompting a mini discussion around how much disclosure is too much); Patti Smith’s recent stage fright during her performance of Bob Dylan’s Hard Rain on national TV, where she stopped the band, saying, “I’m really sorry, I’m just so nervous,” and the international coverage this act of authenticity provoked.

Our time was drawing to a close and I wanted to get a sense of what this group wanted to see in my show about stage fright. Here’s what they requested:

  • precision- we want to see you do something really precise / something that could go wrong
  • AND THEN WE WANT TO SEE YOU LET RIP!
  • We want to see you do learned text
  • We want to see you play with a 4th wall
  • We want to see you be someone else- play a character who’s not like you
  • We want to see a split second representation of stage fright, moment by moment
  • We want to see you do it on beta blockers
  • We want to see your sick bucket on the stage
  • We want to find out with you whether performing is worth all the stage fright in the end
  • We want to see you play with costume- wear something you wouldn’t normally wear.

You can come and see one of my three work in progress showings (February 5, March 5, April 2) at 7.30 at The Wardrobe Theatre in Bristol. Pay what you decide. More info here.

You can follow the progress of my show by checking in with my blog.

I’m massively grateful to all the participants of my focus group and to Devoted and Disgruntled for creating the conditions that allowed this to happen. 

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