Rapid breathing and a racing pulse. Trembling hands and sweaty palms. Quaking knees and a halting voice. Butterflies bordering on nausea. Did Laurence Olivier ever have to deal with this? Does Cate Blanchett?
Well, yes. It’s called stage fright, aka performance anxiety, and it’s an ancient malady. It’s not just a curse that besets actors and other live performers. Many of us would rather chew glass than give a speech.
The fact that stage fright is commonplace and almost universal is small comfort when you’re trying to remember the lines of a play, the lyrics to a song or the carefully crafted comments that just vanished from your head while an audience waits.
Performing in front of people or speaking before a group often trumps all our other fears, even far more serious threats to life and limb. Solo performers tend to have it worst of all.
“I’m more likely to experience stage fright if I’m giving some sort of on-the-spot talk as myself than if I’m playing a part in a play,” says actor David Mandell, associate artistic director for PURE Theatre. “If you don’t know what you’re doing and why you’re there—if you focus only on ‘everybody is staring at me’— that’s when stage fright will happen. But if you’ve done the prep work, the existential fear will evaporate as soon as the lights come on and the thing starts.”
What causes this scary adrenaline rush? When we feel stress, the adrenal glands act like your car’s fuel injectors, shooting epinephrine into the bloodstream and plugging us in like a live wire. The muscles tense, the heart pounds, we shake and perspire, our mouths dry, breath comes in gasps and we get nauseated or dizzy. We call it the fight-or-flight response. And without a quick release of the tension, it’s hello panic attack.
Some of those who have most famously dealt with debilitating bouts: Olivier, Barbra Streisand, Daniel Day-Lewis, Carly Simon, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Ella Fitzgerald, Bette Midler and Mel Gibson, not to mention such historic luminaries as Thomas Jefferson, Gandhi and Mark Twain.
Even the most experienced performers can suffer from it, as can athletes and public speakers. But most find a way to overcome the shakes, they even use the stress to energize their performance. Some use technique or sheer force of will to counteract the terrifying sense of exposure that accompanies stage fright, others use alcohol or drugs, yoga or meditation and mental exercises.
“I usually feel butterflies right before going on stage on opening nights, but they tend to go away [after] a few minutes,” says Lara Allred Swallen, who co-starred with Aaron Andrews earlier this year in the Village Repertory Company’s rendition of Daddy Long Legs. “I usually just say a prayer and take a few deep breaths, and then go out on stage and trust that I’ve done the work and am prepared. I think the more prepared you feel … the less nerve-racking it is to perform for an audience.”
The unsettling fact is that, for many, stage fright does not usually ease with time. But it can be managed, even utilized.
“I think that all stage fright stems from a fear of failure,” adds Andrews. “When you put yourself on display, the risk of judgment is immense. I’ve failed on stage many times and each time felt catastrophic, but if you can embrace the feeling instead of locking up, it can work to your advantage. Stage fright is a powerful motivator in the rehearsal process to put in the time so you can deliver your best work, and if you harness it correctly, it can fuel your performance.”
Or your speech.
Bill Thompson covers the arts, film and design.