Stage Fright

Stage fright can be mortifying. Some freeze up while others respond by accelerating and trying to finish in as little time as possible. For me, it’s exhilarating. It’s bottled fear and it’s something I chug. — Wait. That sounds a lot more cocky than I meant for it too. Let me try again.

I face my fears. Whatever they may be. I face them and know I can survive just about anything. I still avoid horror flicks but that’s a topic for another time. Fears come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and the one that I got hit with today was stage fright. But not the normal stage fright. Not the public speaking stage fright. It’s the “I’m doing a show I’ve never done before” stage fright. Oh sure I’ve done it in my head, in front of the mirror or in the car, but that’s a little different.

It’s my grad show from SAK University and it’ll be a theater filled with friends, family, and people who(m) I’ve never met. Up to today I’ve been totally fine with the idea, but while I was stocking concessions (about ten minutes ago) I was suddenly gripped by this urge to get up and run away as fast as possible and not perform in the show.

I must be insane!

I’m crazy, this is crazy, I can’t do it.

What the @$!$*@& was I thinking?

And about three minutes later, after slowing my heart beat and regulating my breathing I calmed down and began facing the fear. The truth is that stage fright is fear of several things.

It’s fear of rejection – “What if I’m not funny?”

It’s fear of what others will think – “What will they think of my performance?”

It’s fear of messing up.

For public speaking I can overcome all three of these with preparation and a deeply embedded faith in my own ability as a public speaker. But for Improv, the preparation is a little different. We hear all the time “How can you practice improv?” It’s a lot like practicing a sport, you work with others, hone your skills and find what messes you up. You’re not preparing a scripted show, but you’re building skills and honing your talents.

What I have to remember is that on stage, I’m free. First off I’m doing something very few of the people coming to the show do or would do. I’ve overcome the stage fright and I’m on the stage, so that’s a win for me. The second part is that while I’m on stage, I can be anyone. On top of that, it isn’t going to be just me on stage. There are thirteen other people in my class, three of which who will be on my team, and I can rely on them to help me if I get into trouble. So I have to remind myself that I’m not alone up there.

Trust, that’s a big part of improv. I’m almost ashamed that I had to remind myself about it, but I did. The fact though is that I have the trust in my teammates.

I’ve prepared for this for years, dreamt of it even. I won’t say I’m as ready as I possibly can be, because there is always something more to learn in Improv – but I feel pretty confidant that I can avoid being a horrible flop.

The butterflies are still there, but they’re no longer scary, now they’re exhilarating for me and they’re a reminder that I’m only a few days away from taking a big step for myself. A Big step. BIG. But then, I’m a big guy, so I should be fine.

2 thoughts on “Stage Fright”

  1. I know this is an old post, but I still kinda want to weigh in. This improv performance thing is kinda tricky. There’s a hell of a lot of pressure to do a good scene and entertain your audience, who is in effect your boss, the ultimate decider of whether or not you’re any good at this shit. Looking out over the audience on a first performance night is scary as hell. Your perception of the audience is very different from the reality. They’ve come to laugh and enjoy themselves, not to ascertain your performance skills. Yet, once they realize you’re too busy worrying about them to actually perform a good show, your chances of successfully entertaining them diminishes greatly. Its a vicious catch-22 that’s very hard to pull out of as a rookie performer. The more afraid of the audience you are, the worse you will do on stage. The worse you do on stage, the more the audience scares the living hell out of you. So what comes first, bad improv or fear of the audience? Either. It can go back and forth. If you start sucking, your only chance at pulling out of the nose dive is to force yourself to not be afraid (or tentative).

    Here’s one answer: Over time, you just stop caring about the audience. Or, to rephrase, you just don’t give them as much gravity. They simply become bystanders to your performace. And their laughter is simply a byproduct of your good performance. You only start sucking again when you begin to let the audience’s perception of you negatively weigh on the choices you make on stage. I still make this mistake in almost EVERY show I’m in. The best improvisers will do amazing work on stage in spite of, yet much to the pleasure of, the audience. We then begin to realize that brilliant improv is not dependant on the presence of an audience.

    The other side of the story is this: The type of shortform improv we do at SAK requires us to keep the audience engaged and to sometimes actively engage the audience. Once we learn how to prevent the audience from negatively impacting us, we need to learn how to use each audience to positively impact us. Once you’ve become comfortable on stage, its much easier to decipher what each audience wants and how to milk them for laughter. I like milking things.

  2. Thanks for the article! I’ve had problems with stage fright myself so it’s good to read other perspectives on this.
    I still get nervous any time I have to perform in front of others, but I find the best things to do are to be totally prepared, accept that a mistake doesn’t mean the whole thing is a disaster and get your breathing under control.

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