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
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: