The title of the 1970 album by The Band. They were better known as Bob Dylan's back-up group on Blonde on Blonde and for their first album, Music From Big Pink. They put out some great music on their own. Robbie Robertson on guitar was my favorite element in the group, but others have found other members more interesting. Levon Helm, an Arkansas native, has become something of a cult figure in some circles.

However, back to the "stage fright." This song was written in honor of Van Morrison, and (should you ever see him play live) you'll know what it's all about.

See the man with the stage fright
Up there trying with all his might.

The darkness surrounds me, focusing my racing mind onto the rectangle of light in front of me. I pull at my clothes, the newness of them making them uncomfortable as if they are not wholly mine. I jiggle on the spot, then still as the stage manager smiles at me, giving me a thumbs up. I feel the blood drain from my face but no one will see with the thick layer of make-up caked upon my skin.

The tray in my hand feels cold yet comforting from the long hours of rehearsal with it. I move through the surreal darkness a landscape of angle, joints, sandbag and pieces of set. I stand at the door with its list of entrances and exits. A stagehand, face in the velvet darkness, waits listening intently to his headset for the whispered cue.

I can’t remember my lines! Coldness sweeps through my body, I begin to sweat, my stomach knots and I can feel bile rising in my throat. I think I am going to faint or vomit or maybe even both!

I close my eyes and concentrate on my breathing, I imagine myself standing in a cool soothing forest. The birds chirp and the cool breeze blows away the nerves. I draw my character to me and wrap it around me like a cloak. Taking on his manner and bearing, feeling the costume become his clothes. His word, my lines, drift through my head and out of my mouth soundlessly, the rhythm and taste familiar as my own words.

Suddenly I am plunged back into the dark, the sound of thunder disorientating me. It is the audience applauding and the stagehand is cueing my entrance.

The sound effect of a door knock echoes in the confined space. I grind my fear down into a small lump and step through the door in the blinding light.

A visit to New York City's theatre district at about 7:00 or thereabouts places one in the midst of literally thousands of well-dressed people rushing to and fro in a hurry to reach their evening's destination, a Broadway theatre. A few of the people you'll rub elbows with are performers, the rest possess tickets to what some would call the ultimate in live performance, the Broadway play. Now, forget about the performers, but if you were to ask the run-of-the-mill theatergoer if he or she would stand up on the stage and recite lines (not even necessarily memorized lines) in front of hundreds of people they'd probably say they'd never have the nerve to do it.

When I tried taking this unscientific poll, standing on a corner of Broadway at about 50th Street, indeed, some said "you must be crazy." A lady who was apparently hard-of-hearing battered me about the head and shoulders with her purse and insisted that she'd "be no part of no striptease show!" Still others were kinder, and said, "I could never bring myself to be in front of so many people" or something to that effect. Another gentleman said "say, you've got a nice ass, wanna go to my place and fuck?" But I digress.

Whether spoken word or song, comedy or tragedy, stage fright is a curious phenomenon that plagues most performers. What is so curious is that performers spend years learning from their teachers, practicing their trade, taking seminars and clinics; just so they can succeed in being the best they can be (and therefore drawing ever-larger crowds to their performances). But when the moment of truth comes; when the curtain goes up, when the announcer calls your name, that's when it hits. For some it's a lingering anxiety which comes hours before a performance. For others, it's just a few moments of sweat or anxiety that are forgotten once things are underway onstage.

I've never gotten over what they call stage fright. I go through it every show. I'm pretty concerned, I'm pretty much thinking about the show. I never get completely comfortable with it, and I don't let the people around me get comfortable with it, in that I remind them that it's a new crowd out there, it's a new audience, and they haven't seen us before. So it's got to be like the first time we go on.

Elvis Presley

The words of the artist some of a certain age would call "The King." The quote above is merely to demonstrate that even the most celebrated performers suffer this perplexing condition. As far as I know, Frank Sinatra has never said anything about having stage fright. But then, Ol' Blue Eyes was always good for a fifth of Jack Daniel's before, during and after a performance. It is said elsewhere on E2 that Van Morrison's live performances suffer because of his intense shyness when confronted with lots of people. Studio recordings, performed in the presence of only a choice few, are where Morrison's essence can be found. On the other side of the coin, Liza Minnelli has said that nothing makes her happier than making an audience happy (but she has admitted to having "butterflies" in her stomach once in awhile before going onstage).

I sing. I sing jazz. Not professionally, but lately quite often. So stubborn am I, it took a couple of real on-stage disasters to cause me finally to seek the services of an accomplished voice coach. What a difference that made. Now I can get on stage and make a fool of myself and actually be aware that I'm making a fool of myself. But really, each and every time I'm waiting for the cue from the band leader to go onstage, my pulse races, my palms start to sweat, my hands start to shake and my mouth becomes abominably dry. My hands continue to shake as soon as I pick up the microphone, no matter how hard I concentrate on keeping them from shaking.

In 1950, Alfred Hitchcock released a movie about a society murder and the woman who helps her friend, the accused, get vindicated. As I perused the quotes from the movie, I discovered yet another reason (albeit an egocentric one) why a performer might suffer stage fright. These words are spoken by a leading lady to an actress afraid that there's a murderer on the loose:

The theatre is the last place he would be seen. Now stop acting like a silly schoolgirl, the only murderer here is the orchestra leader!

Marlene Dietrich as Charlotte Imwood in Alfred Hitchcock's "Stage Fright"

Indeed, occasionally those with whom one is performing with can be the source of stage fright.

There are amateurs with whom I sing and the end result is just fine; but there's a lack of spontaneity there that these people make up for by rehearsing. A lot. Now being the only one of the bunch who hasn't rehearsed their arrangements, their cues, etc. puts me in a tough spot. It can be scary when I assume they're going to do a certain thing but they surprise me by doing another. And the end result is, well, not very professional. A performance like that means that my stage fright can linger throughout the song; and I end up breathing a sigh of relief when it's over.

On the other hand, I've had the distinct privilege to sing in front of some mighty fine jazz performers. In the professional arena, the singer is in charge. The singer's hand movements, or even a nod to a musician, indicate where the song's going to go; what's gonna happen next. To me there are few peak experiences that match the thrill of performing my favorite song with a group of polished professionals who're "in my groove" as the jazz vernacular puts it. Those times, the stage fright goes away the moment the first note comes out of my mouth (and I'm certain I'm on key). The thrill I feel when working with people like this is infectious; they know that I'm enjoying my time on stage with them far more than would a seasoned professional, for whom singing is sometimes just a job. At times, I get the feeling that they get a real kick out of just seeing me get a kick out of what I'm doing.

If you have stage fright, it never goes away. But then I wonder: is the key to that magical performance because of the fear?

Stevie Nicks

I like what this great singer has to say about stage fright. I've never met her nor seen her in live performance, but I've enjoyed many of her works on record. Her voice sounds so sure, so "on target," it's hard for me to believe she suffers stage fright.

I've never suffered stage fright. That fascinates people.

Ethel Merman

I made the acquaintance of Ethel Merman through a mutual friend. We ended up doing a lot of socializing (and a lot of drinking) together. Far be it from me to speak ill of the dead, but I will hand you another Merman quote that says it all about the ego behind the kind of performer who can get up and say that he or she has never suffered that all-too-familiar sinking feeling just before performance:

Broadway has been very good to me. But then, I've been very good to Broadway.

— Ethel Merman

The somewhat egotistical Henry Rollins also says he's not "felt just a minute of stage fright" but also finds his art the best way to say what he wants to say. "I can deal with people who watch me on stage but I am not good in communicating with people any other way than through my work." On the other hand, my experiences with Ms. Merman proved that all she wanted to do was communicate with people wherever she went.

Finally, there are courses out there that deal with ridding "public speakers" of stage fright. These courses are aimed mostly at executives who must give presentations regularly, leaders of civic groups, etc. The courses must work for some people, or else those who peddle them on the internet and in business magazines would go out of business.

Me, I'm not going to invest in any course. I'll just keep studying with my teacher and practicing. I'd like to believe that there's truth in the words of Stevie Nicks hereinabove. 'Cause I've said it before and I'll say it again, If life were easy, it'd be boring.


Elvis Presley Quote:

Stevie Nicks Quote:

Ethel Merman Quotes:

Michael Douglas Quote:

"Vanquish Fear and Anxiety" Course:

IMDB: "Stage Fright" (1950) Alfred Hitchcock:

Josiah, trembling from stage fright
coughed his first words out

the mic played

Josiah thought about laughing

the room answered
with a sigh.

As the silence ate through the podium
then slept

Josiah, struggled for his tongue
bit down

as the words consumed him.
His eyes lit

the audience took this
as a challenge.

The spotlight gave more shadow
than character.

The audience screamed
in unison

moved themselves
to the rain washed streets

vanished as beggars
pilgrimaging to another Mecca.

As the smoke lines his step
masquerading as stage

he opens his mouth again
sings until his heart breaks.

Drowns under a slow clap applause

Stage fright, n.

Nervousness felt before an audience.


© Webster 1913.

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