Getting over stage fright

by david

On my wedding day, just before walking through the doors at the back of the chapel, the minister said, “Try to be as present as possible.” This was the best possible advice he could have given me at that moment. It seemed tailored for me. Maybe it was off the rack. I have no idea. But it fit me and what I needed. I think about that moment a lot when I’m getting ready to go onstage.

In the past few years, I’ve been on stage a lot. Not just doing comedy and theater, but also in my professional life, giving presentations, demonstrations, trainings. I’m by no means the best at any of it, but I’m also no longer an amateur. I rarely choke, bomb, or lose my cool. I’m getting better every single day at doing better work with less insane levels of preparation, getting better at recognizing what’s effective and what’s just a distraction. The end result is that if I have my act together, whatever act it needs to be that day, I’m fairly confident of the outcome.

So it may come as a surprise to hear that I still have stage fright. Not pants-pissing, tunnel vision, vomit-inducing fear, but fright nonetheless. I have friends who I watch walk onstage as if they’re getting a beer from the fridge. That’s not me. I worry. I fear. I get deeply into my own head, my brain running a separate path from my mouth. It’s very easy for me to discover, minutes into something, that I can’t remember what I’ve said and done, because my entire conscious brain was occupied with worry and self-doubt, my eyes and ears scanning the audience for signs of failure.

This, the act of separating from the moment, is itself a failure. I do everything I can to avoid it. I first started finding ways to do it in high school. I learned in 9th grade English that while giving a presentation, I wouldn’t physically shake if I laid my hands on the table in front of me and pushed some weight into them. It must have looked awkward, but it gave me some confidence. Years later, I understand that it worked for two reasons: a) pushing my weight to the table physically stopped the shaking because my hands were occupied (pushing the table), and b) being physically aware of my hands raised the degree to which I was aware of and actually living that moment. A piece of my conscious mind was attached to that sensation, and it dragged me into the here and now. It’s the cousin of a common technique in meditation, focusing on touch points, the physical points at which your body interacts with your chair, the floor, your bed, whatever.

Now when I get onstage, I reduce the effect of the initial fear by demanding of myself that I remain consciously in the moment. I force myself to concentrate on the meaning of the words coming out of my mouth, even if they’re rote. It’s not easy, and I’m not always successful. I’m especially unsuccessful if there’s an early hitch: a laugh line that gets no laugh, a laugh where I didn’t expect one, a too-wordy improvisation. But when I find myself in my head, when I realize my mouth has said words that my conscious brain didn’t screen, I slow it all down. I plant my feet and I feel them. I reestablish eye contact with an audience member. I breathe, which only takes part of a second, but feels forever. It sounds easy, but it’s hard to do, at least for me. I have to constantly rein in my brain, bring it back to the moment.

And counterintuitively, being more aware of the moment doesn’t intensify the fear, it gives me a sense of control over it. I feel where my limbs are and I see the audience members’ actual faces, rather than imagining their mental states. I know that the words coming out of my mouth make sense, because I feel myself saying them and am forming them as thoughts and words. If this seems corny, I don’t know another way to say it. Maybe it is corny, but I swear it’s different from what I do if I don’t make a conscious effort.

Without that effort, I go on autopilot, and have no sense of control, no sense of the moment. The satisfaction of success is dampened. If I failed, I have less understanding of why, because I was busy being afraid, not minding the performance.

So when you see me onstage, especially in the opening minutes, you’re likely to see me with both feet planted or my hands out flat for at least a moment or two. I’m digging in. I’m acknowledging stage fright, tipping my hat to it, and then turning my attention to something more important.