Below is an article that first appeared in the Jul/Aug 2006 issue of JUGGLE magazine.
Juggling is a performing art. While many hobby jugglers derive immense personal satisfaction from attempting and mastering ever-more challenging patterns in private, a strong case can be made that every juggler should be able to put on some form of a demonstration or show. Jugglers who never perform miss out on at least one component of this great art form.
Please don’t get me wrong. It is fine with me if jugglers stay out of the limelight because of a personal preference. Someone who chooses to not perform always has the option of reconsidering. However, I am concerned with jugglers who don’t perform because they are troubled by stage fright. This seems to me to be wasted opportunities both for the reluctant performers and audiences who will never know what they are missing.
I also recall conversations with some of my students at the circus school who were committed to becoming professional performers, and concerned about the stage fright they felt. At the time I was unable to provide them with much useful advice.
In an effort to educate myself about stage fright I read several books on the subject, and discussed the topic with Dr. Tom Ehmann, a psychologist whose practice involves clients suffering from anxiety. The books I found useful were:
No More Butterflies by Peter Desberg, Ph.D.
New Harbinger Publications, Oakland, CA
Never Be Nervous Again by Dorothy Sarnoff with Gaylen Moore
Crown Publishers, Inc. New York 1987
Talk-Power: How to Speak without Fear by Natalie H. Rogers
Dodd, Mead & Company, New York 1982
Stage fright is related to the fight or flight syndrome. When a human is confronted with a threatening situation the sympathetic mode of the autonomic nervous system releases adrenalin into the blood stream. The adrenaline acts to produce most of the symptoms that people associate with stage fright: shallow, quick breathing, increased heart rate, trembling, and jittery nerves. While these responses may be appropriate for an organism that is facing a valid threat to survival, none of these effects help with the concentration jugglers need to perform at optimal levels.
Unfortunately, the autonomic nervous system does not distinguish between real threats and perceived threats. If the mind perceives the threat as large enough, even though a rational analysis would say otherwise, the sympathetic system starts pumping the adrenalin.
It takes thirty minutes or more for the adrenalin to dissipate, so the adrenaline, and the symptoms associated with adrenaline, persist in the body long after they are needed for the fight or flight. One result is the jittery nerves of stage fright.
Frequently the performer who is prone to stage fright misinterprets these symptoms to bolster the belief that the cause for the stage fright is genuine. “There must be a reason I’m so scared. Look at how I’m shaking.” These symptoms then translate into more adrenalin released into the blood, and a self-reinforcing, positive feedback loop of stage fright escalates.
Given the close mind-body relationship regarding anxiety, try this experiment. Start breathing quickly and shallowly. Shake your body as if you were trembling.
Did you become anxious, as if you were experience stage fright? While it’s not foolproof for everyone, many people report that they self-induce the feeling of anxiety.
In the broadest sense people who have stage fright are suffering from a type of anxiety. According to Dr. Ehmann, anxiety is the result of a belief that there exists some sort of threat. The person may believe there is a physical threat, an emotional threat, or both. It is important to note that the perceived threat can be, and does not necessarily need to be real. The mere belief that there is a threat can be enough to trigger anxiety.
More specifically, psychologists consider stage fright to be a form of performance anxiety. Performance anxiety occurs when someone is worried about his or her ability to perform well in a given situation. Performance anxiety does not have to involve performing in front of an audience. Someone who becomes nervous at the thought of taking a written test may suffer from performance anxiety, even though he may be in alone in a room, or sitting inconspicuously amongst others taking the same test. Another example might be a student pilot who may suffer from performance anxiety when she imagines what it will be like to fly her first solo flight.
Stage fright occurs when someone feels threatened by concerns of performing poorly in front of an audience, and receiving negative feedback and consequences from the audience.
Two factors must be present in the mind of someone who has stage fright: 1) a concern that she or he will not be able to perform well in front of that particular audience, and 2) a belief that the performance will be received in a negative fashion, which will be seen as some sort of threat to the performer. If either or both of these factors is not present, there can be no stage fright.
There are three possible reasons why the first condition, that the performance will not go as well as it should, will occur. One possibility is that some outside person or event will act to ruin the show, such as the sound system or lights failing. Another reason might be that the performer is worried she or he will perform at a level below the usual standard. Ironically, in this instance the symptoms of stage fright may actually increase the chances of a poor performance. A third possibility is that the performer suspects he is just not good enough.
The second element, the feeling of somehow being threatened by a negative reaction from the audience, could be a concern about losing social status amongst peers, a blow to one’s self-esteem, or the fear of losing out on future professional contracts.
Here are three examples to illustrate possible frames of mind, and if they are likely to elicit stage fright, or not. In the first two examples there should not be any stage fright, as both of the two elements are not present. The third example shows one possible case in which stage fight could appear.
Example One: Assume you are about to go onstage. You have practiced, know your routine well, and are comfortable that you will be able to perform to your expectations. It is a tough crowd, but you know you will win them over. In this case you will not be a victim of stage fright, as the first condition is not met: You do not have a concern that you will perform poorly.
Example Two: You haven’t practiced adequately, know you are ill prepared, and do not have any confidence that you will be able to perform as well as you should. This mindset could easily lead to nerves and stage fright, as the first condition is present. However, let’s also assume that you know your audience is going to be non-judgmental. In this case the second condition would not be met, and there would be no reason to feel stage fright.
At first glance it may be hard to imagine a situation where the you know audience is non-judgmental. This situation occurred frequently when I was teaching juggling at circus schools in Europe. As part of the training I would ask students to attempt various patterns and routines that we knew were beyond their capabilities. The students, knowing this requested as a part of a learning exercise, would happily fail in their attempts to comply. The lack of judgment on the failed performance precluded any instance of stage fright.
This suspension of evaluation from the audience also occurs frequently on the floor of any juggling festival. One of the reasons jugglers attend festivals is to improve. A great way to improve is to try moves that are beyond one’s capabilities. Attempting awesome moves at the limits of one’s ability on the juggling floor is done in a spirit of support and encouragement amongst one’s peers. There is no reason to feel stage fright when among friends and the mood is a shared feeling of “Try it and see if it works.”
Example Three: Let’s change the situation in example two a bit. Take the same juggler trying a wild trick on the gym floor of a juggling festival, and put her in front of a panel of judges and peers in a staged juggling competition. Now the perception to the performer that the audience is judgmental rises dramatically. Adding the perceived threat of negative assessment to the uncertainty that the juggler will be unable to perform the task adequately is a ripe condition to breed stage fright.
The relationship between the expectation of the quality of the performance and the threat of negative consequences relating, and how they relate to stage fright can be shown by the following diagram.
Points farther out on the horizontal X represent increased perceived threats. Points higher up on the vertical Y axis represent increased concerns about performing poorly. If either of these axes are low, there is little or no stage fright. The magnitude of stage fright increases when the amount on both axes increases. Higher levels of stage fright proceed with a positive slope of the diagonal zone.
In many instances these two elements of performance outcome and potential consequences can be assessed realistically and minimized in such a way that the performer is able to overcome stage fright, and get on stage. In other cases one or more cognitive distortions may magnify the performer’s perceptions, and not allow the performer to get a realistic assessment of the risks and rewards of getting in front of the audience. These cognitive distortions can effectively paralyze the person from sharing her or his talents with others.
A common cognitive distortion is the human mind’s capacity to catastrophize. As humans we tend to exaggerate. Not only do we think something bad might happen, the mind can easily create a seemingly logical path that intensifies the negative results beyond all reason. Worrying about a performance, the mind easily thinks up worst-case scenarios, and then dwells on the dire consequences of these horrible, potential occurrences. Performance anxiety may develop when the mind’s ability to catastrophize overwhelms the mind’s ability to look at the situation with clarity.
Here is an example of a mind with a healthy perspective:
I may drop on stage.
The audience will think less of me than if I didn’t drop.
That’s OK. People will still like me.
An example of a mind that catastrophizes is:
I may drop on stage.
The audience will think less of me.
No one will want to talk to me after the performance.
Friends will desert me.
Friendless, my spouse will leave me.
I will lose my job.
Without a job, I will lose my home, and won’t be able to buy groceries.
Without groceries I will starve, and die. (And someone will kick my dog when I’m dead.)
Locked into this descent of internal, spiraling doom, without the ability to break the links of the catastraphizing cycle, anyone would be a fool to perform in front of an audience that has a life and death stranglehold over that person’s future.
A second cognitive distortion that can increase anxiety is to overestimate the odds of a negative event occurring. Not only does the mind tend to exaggerate the significance of negative consequences, it also tends to exaggerate the probability of negative situations occurring. A mild concern that something may go wrong with the sound or lights builds into an unreasonable certainty that a catastrophe will ensue. The popularity of Murphy’s Law is an excellent example of this tendency to expect, all things being equal, the worst-case scenario to manifest.
In some cases a performer may, justifiably, feel that a small amount of stage fright helps the show. The thought is that a certain amount of stimulus or arousal is needed to become emotionally charged and deliver a great performance that night. Without such an arousal the performance may come off as flat. One way to receive this stimulus is to experience stage fright.
However, this choice of succumbing to stage fright to elevate one’s act has potentially dangerous consequences. In the early part of the nineteenth century researchers discovered that while some arousal can be beneficial to one’s performance, too much proves detrimental. In other words, while a little bit can help, too much becomes disastrous.
An analogy is to imagine a set of guitar strings. If the strings are too loose even the best guitarist cannot produce any music. The strings must be tightened to the proper pitch to let the proper tones of the guitar come through. The arousal derived from a small case of nerves could be likened to tuning the guitar strings. Continue tightening the strings beyond their proper pitch and the guitar once again becomes unusable.
The Yerkes Dodson Curve shows how various levels of arousal can first increase performance, with continuing increases in arousal causing a decrease in performance. Notice that the curve slopes upward during the low to medium states of arousal. Continuing to increase the arousal level results in a downward slope to the curve, representing a deterioration of the performance.
There are two approaches to dealing with stage fright. One approach is to come up with a cure, so that the symptoms never appear. The second approach is to ignore the causes of stage fright, and treat the symptoms.
It stands to reason that if two conditions, a concern that the performance will not be good enough and a perceived threat stemming from a negative evaluation, must be present to have stage fright then, eliminating one or both of the conditions will cure the stage fright.
An effective approach for some people is through a form of cognitive behavioral therapy referred to as cognitive restructuring. In cognitive restructuring efforts are made to correct faulty internal logic patterns such as, “If I drop once in a routine I am not only not perfect, I am horrible.” In cognitive restructuring logical fallacies such as this are pointed out and resolved.
Another approach to dealing with anxiety is to introduce a very mild form of the anxiety, acclimate to that level, and then increase the level of anxiety to a new, manageable level. Repeat as necessary.
Let’s assume a person has a fear of needles. The anxiety is so bad the person seeks the help of a psychologist. The following steps might be used.
Talk with the psychologist about needles. For people with a severe anxiety, this may already be a hurdle to overcome.
Look at a photograph of a needle.
Be in the same room with a needle in plain view.
Touch an actual needle.
Handle the needle.
Allow a shot to be given.
A performer may choose to incorporate a similar strategy of systematic desensitization in the following manner.
Perform before a small group of children. The thought here is that: 1) Children are not as judgmental as adults, so the threat of a negative evaluation is lessened., and 2) Children don’t have as much influence in the world, so a negative evaluation from children will not result in any significant negative consequences to the performer.
Perform before a larger group of children.
Perform before a small group of adults.
Perform before a larger group of adults.
It is important to remember to allow for drops, forgotten lines, and general screw ups when going through these steps. A central issue to overcome when dealing with stage fright is the fear of the unknown. Allow for unseen problems to happen with groups of small children and you will gain confidence in realizing you can handle unexpected changes when performing in front of other audiences.
This technique concentrates on the vertical axis in the stage fright diagram, the quality of the performance. The more you practice, the more confidence you will have in your ability to carry out the performance. While you may still have concerns about the audience reacting with negative evaluations, you become so sure of your ability that the audience will have no opportunity to think badly. By eliminating one of the two requirements for stage fright, you will have solved the problem.
It is possible to bypass the cognitive/emotional aspects of stage fright, and come up with a strategy to lesson the physical symptoms. This may not be as futile as it sounds. Control the symptoms well enough and the audience won’t know you have stage fright.
While there are many different techniques (and combinations of techniques), they all concentrate on one or more of these factors: controlling breathing, lessoning muscle tension, and relaxing.
This technique is from the book Never Be Nervous Again by Dorothy Sarnoff. Ms. Sarnoff recounts a time she was suffering from a case of nerves while backstage, about to perform in “The King and I” with Yul Brynner.
She noticed that Yul Brynner was aggressively pushing on a wall, as if he wanted to knock it down. When asked why he was doing that, Mr. Brynner replied that it helped calm his nerves.
It turns out that this behavior isn’t as strange as it sounds. Pushing on a wall creates lots of tension in lots of muscles. When you stop pushing, the release from all this tension can be quite relaxing. The sudden sense of relaxation of the body can be perceived by the mind as the reduction of anxiety and stage fright.
The Sarnoff Squeeze is a modification of what Ms. Sarnoff learned by pushing on walls.
Sit down in a straight-backed chair. Hold your rib cage high, without locking into a ramrod-straight military position. Incline slightly forward. Put your hands together out in front of you, elbows akimbo, with your fingertips pointing upward. Push your palms together so that you feel an isometric, opposing force in the heels of your palms and under your arms.
Softly hiss like a snake. As you exhale the sss, contract the rectus abdominis muscles, the muscles that lie below the ribs where they begin to splay, as though you were rowing a boat. If it feels like someone is tightening a corset on you, you’ve got it. Relax the muscles as you finish exhaling, then inhale slightly.
At its core, square breathing focuses exclusively on breathing. Practitioners may choose to add soothing imagery, if they wish.
Square breathing breaks down the respiratory cycle into four parts: inhale, hold, exhale, hold. Each part is performed so it lasts for a full four seconds, for total of sixteen seconds for a complete cycle. Most people use their inner voice to count each section.
Inhale through the nose, two, three, four.
Hold it, two, three, four.
Exhale through the mouth, two, three, four.
Strive to make each beat last for at least a full second. Having your counts of four last longer than four seconds is even better.
A common way to cope with stage fright is to take a depressant. It is almost a cliché to think of musicians, stand-up comedians, and other performers having a drink or two of alcohol “to calm the nerves” before going on stage. However, the short and long term effects of alcohol make it a poor choice as a way to deal with stage fright.
Beta-blockers are drugs used by heart patients to regulate the heartbeat and help prevent heart attacks. Beta-blockers block some nerve receptors that respond to adrenalin. Doctors have prescribed beta-blockers for people with extreme cases of stage fright.
A caution, though, while researching this article I spoke with one professional juggler who tried using a beta-blocker to control stage fright. The results were less than stellar. It seems that along with controlling the heart rate the medication also affected the juggler’s reaction time. Slowing down the reaction time is not good when trying to catch lots of objects.
A classic technique to overcome stage fright is to imagine the audience naked. This visualization allows for two things to happen: 1) The novelty of imagining a roomful of naked people distracts you from being nervous, and 2) Thinking of the audience as naked puts them in a lower social station. Even if they thought poorly of your performance, their opinions would not matter. They don’t even have it together enough to wear clothes.
When I asked Robert Nelson if had ever experienced stage fright, he surprised me by mentioning that his stage name, The Butterfly Man, wasn’t given to him because of the tattoos on his head. One of the coolest performers in the IJA, Robert admitted to having bouts of stage fright.
His strategy is to use the stage fright to his advantage. To make sure he doesn’t get overwhelmed with stage fright he mentally picks one person in the audience, and chooses to love that person. The Butterfly Man then channels that love through his act to his designated receiver, and to the lucky audiences that are also present.
Feel free to try any or all of these techniques for dealing with the symptoms of stage fright. Also feel free to mix and match various components from the techniques to come up with a personalized system that works for you.
A common benefit that all of these techniques have is that concentrating on the techniques will help in distracting you from stage fright. Even if the specific technique is less than helpful, the distraction, alone, has value.
If you have stage fright you aren’t alone. Many performers do. I hope the ideas in this article prove helpful in letting you get past the anxiety. Look forward to seeing your show.
copyright 2006 by Todd Strong