It’s almost like a cruel joke: your mouth is bone dry and the rest of your body has sprung leaks in places where you didn’t know sweat glands even existed! All this while your stomach feels like it’s either left your body or turned into an anvil. I know this from my experiences as a stage magician but it’s a wicked twist of fate that’s an all too-common feature in most people’s lives.
Yes, that’s what I’m saying: you’re not alone. Karen Dwyer and Marlina Davidson are researchers at the University of Nebraska-Omaha who in 2012 carried out a survey of eight hundred and fifteen college students. The survey asked students to select from a list of the most common fears including such favourites as death, deep waters, heights, money problems, flying, speaking before a group and getting stuck in a lift with a famous stage magician*. Guess which one won out? Yes, as Seinfeld rightly pointed out, most people would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.
Dwyer and Davidson’s study confirmed it again:
public speaking is the number one fear.
Stage fright isn’t just something that afflicts the amateurs though and for most it isn’t something that you can just shake off with experience either. Barbra Streisand famously dreads going on stage and it was in 1967 at a Central Park concert in New York City that she blanked on the lyrics to three songs in front of 135,000 people. The experience scarred her so that she didn’t officially sing on stage for twenty-seven years after the fact. Another famous example is actor Daniel Day-Lewis playing the title role in Richard Eyre’s Hamlet at the National Theatre in 1989. He collapsed on stage, afterwards having reported to have seen his father in place of Hamlet’s father’s ghost. He withdrew from other performances during the run as well, the official reason being exhaustion. But his career has never set foot on stage again since. More recently, the singer Adele ever so delicately told British Vogue that she can ‘puke quite a lot before going on stage.’
As American baseball legend Yogi Berra once said, “90% of the game is half mental.” Which I think meant that the problem lies between our ears. When I’m booked as a stage magician and a big show is coming up that’s keeping me on edge, here’s what I do to help avoid being a nervous wreck by the time I’m waiting in the wings for my entrance.
7 STAGE MAGICIAN TIPS TO BEAT STAGE FRIGHT
1. Shoo away the evil imp
It’s that little critical imp that perches on your shoulder whispering poisonous thoughts into your ear. Those pesky thoughts about how unqualified, underachieving and untalented you are. In a singing masterclass at Julliard in 2013, internationally renown mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato gave the sound advice to ignore the negative talk, just breathe deeply and remind yourself that you’ll be fine!
And after you shoo the imp off your shoulder, try replacing it with nurturing advice; the sort you’d give to someone else who’s a nervous wreck like you. “Everything’s fine, don’t worry, enjoy it, relax!” (You can hear Joyce’s whole talk full of grounded advice starting here on this video.)
2. The Neill approach
A coach I admire (who gives coaching a good name!) is Michael Neill. His advice on the matter is simple:
“Be prepared, show up and do your best.”
I think the ‘be prepared’ bit is the biggest part. The preparedness of course means that we’re approaching our preparation with a critical eye, with intent to be as good as possible, discarding what doesn’t need to be there, and basically doing the donkey work. If we’ve done all that, then the nerves ‘on the day’ should be much less than otherwise. This way, the ‘big night’ is merely about delivering the goods and as long as you do the best you can at it, you’re good.
3. Polish your book ends
In my work as a stage magician I’ve found that it’s the start and the finish of the show or presentation that are the most important. On a few occasions business people have hired me to consult on their presentation skills. When I do this, we focus 75% of our time on the opening and the closing. Audiences don’t take long to formulate opinions about who’s up front so if you want to pour your focus into something useful, focus on making a clear likeable impression then a succinct wrap-up as your closer. If you get the opening and closing right, you’re usually more than half way there.
4. The power of now
During a performance it’s too easy to be drawn into the future (thinking what might happen if your presentation goes well, or not) or the past (that time the audience threw rotten tomatoes at you). So fully engage in the moment when presenting. Ask yourself ‘how do I feel in my body’, breathe regularly, observe the present moment and turn down the chatter in your brain about the past and the future.
5. Nothing’s at stake
When you’re on stage is no time to be thinking of your reputation, promotion, a good review, a possible tournament win, or a repeat booking. Just try to do your best in the moment. If it doesn’t go so well, it’s simple: just work so next time it goes better. Keep it simple, lose the drama, get back to work.
6. Own the space
This is a ritual I do whenever I can. I arrive at the venue in plenty of time to sit in many seats in the auditorium, classroom or theatre. I imagine watching myself walking on stage, decide where the entrance will be from, imagine how well the audience will be able to see what I’m doing in various positions in the auditorium. I visualise my stage magician performance taking place. When you’ve done this, suddenly the room belongs to you and the ritual of making that happen feels very good.
7. Bring your team
Stage fright can be an almost primal fear. Like being thrown into a den of wild animals. So take your fan club with you when you go on stage. Of course you don’t literally bring them, but you think of them being there with you, or scattered throughout the audience at that very moment. Who’s your team? In my case it may be a stage magician mentor, a friend, my partner, or a teacher. If you’d like to know more about a way to ‘anchor’ the feeling of your team being with you, just ask. It’s surpisingly simple and effective.
I hope you can take some of these ideas in your pocket with you as you approach and deliver your next public performance. If you’ve found things that work for you, pop it in a comment below so everyone can try it out.
*Disappointingly, the stage magician in the lift scenario was not included in the study.
Top: origin unknown. 1950’s.
Second from top: 19th-century story illustration by FS Coburn.
Third from top: Charlie Chaplin behind a black velvet curtain in Hollywood Babylon.