“One hundred years ago, I did a film with Cary Grant. He was absolutely gorgeous and wonderful to me. If he had more than four lines you could see he’d get nervous. He’d say to me, ‘Why don’t you say that line?’”
‘No, I’m not going to say that Cary, that’s your line.’ “And then he’d relax and rehearse and then rehearse some more, and out would come the great Cary Grant.”
This was recounted to me by John Standing, one of the most beloved actors of British film and theatre. We were talking about stage fright. Ever the raconteur, over the course of the next couple of hours Standing regaled me with tales of stage and screen.
I’m a psychotherapist and fear is my business. I embarked at the beginning of the pandemic on writing a book about Stage & Other Frights and interviewed actors, politicians, business leaders and others who have to put themselves on the line. My passion is understanding the interplay between brain and body; how everything psychological emanates from parallel systems in the brain that govern our physical well-being, as well as mood, thoughts, behaviors and feelings.
It is a fact that the brain chemicals that give you energy, that drive performance, are the very same brain chemicals that can stop you in your tracks. Fear is basic to our existence. It is the fuel to magnetic, mesmerizing performances. But, paradoxically, an overabundance of fear can tie you up in knots and block your ability to function. Yet fear is essential for our survival — without it we would perish.
Fear — along with love, joy, surprise, anger, disgust, shame and sorrow — is the most ancient of the eight basic emotions hard-wired into the architecture of the brains of humans and all mammals. Working in concert, the emotions create the dynamic interpersonal energy upon which our entire social system — in fact, our whole existence as humans — relies. Emotions are real, physiological events and they exist whether we consciously recognize them or not.
Emotions comprise an actor’s toolkit. On the best of days, a performance filled with emotion stirs the audience. On the worst of days, fear takes center stage, overwhelming actors, leaving them unable to function.
So, what is stage fright? Why are some actors crippled by stage fright while others are not? Where does it come from and what does an actor do when it happens?
Marshall Brickman, who wrote the Broadway musical Jersey Boys, gets anxious on opening nights; “You’re waiting for the audience to confirm all the worst things you feel about yourself.”
Michael Caine talked about stage fright, too. “When I was young,” Caine told me, “the first time I went on stage, the assistant director said to me, ‘If you’re going to be sick, there’s a bucket there.’ “I mean this is glamorous theatre, and just before you go up on stage, there’s a bucket there, sometimes with sick already in it if someone had nerves.”
For Robert Allan Ackerman, theatre and film director, it’s about the fear of being judged. He told me: “I have really, really severe terror. On the way to the theatre I’ll almost wish that I would get killed. If there’s been a technical difficulty and they can’t start for another three hours, and everybody is terribly upset, I’m thrilled. I’m relieved by anything that will delay the actual event from happening. It just terrifies me.”
The dreadful thing about stage fright is once experienced, it comes back to haunt you. And the fear of stage fright becomes a vicious cycle which is difficult, and sometimes impossible, to break.
Maureen Lipman, star of British stage, film, and TV, shared, “I’ve always found first nights a bit agonizing. As I’ve grown older, the fear has got more, once something has happened to take your front away because, as performers, we’re all front. Basically, we’re shy and pretending to be gregarious. Once that front has gone, then you are on your own.”
Lesley Ann Warren, who started ballet when she was six, told me that she has experienced stage fright for as long as she can remember. “I had an incredibly strict and stern ballet teacher … I was very, very talented for my age. And yet, when I couldn’t get something right away, I was in fury at myself.”
I asked how she was able to continue to perform. “My desire to express what was inside of me was greater than allowing my fear to stop me. I remember in L.A., I was in my 20s and doing a musical version of Threepenny Opera, and I was pale and nauseous before I went on. And then I went on to get phenomenal reviews, [so, stage fright] didn’t have anything to do with my ultimate capacity to perform. But it was hell to live with … it felt disempowering for me to talk about it … if I said it out loud then it would somehow make it more powerful than it already was.”
Lesley Ann Warren thinks all the emotional work an actor has to do as preparation, dredging up negative memories, overloads the nervous system and leaves the actor “extraordinarily vulnerable.”
Actors can go for years without a problem and then suddenly something triggers the fear. When that happens it’s shocking and ugly.
“That’s funny, I think I’ve got stage fright.” It’s 1971, and Laurence Olivier has been absent from the stage for quite some time following two serious illnesses. He is 64 years old and is starring in the stage production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. It’s a huge part, with many lines to learn and quite a task. But Olivier was determined to do it. The stage fright he experienced was a first for Olivier.
Michael Blakemore, Olivier’s director, wrote: “On opening night, half way into the 3 ½ hour play, Olivier’s concentration is broken and he is frozen; the great actor had forgotten a line.” He was rescued by another actor on stage and the evening was saved. But for the rest of his career, Olivier worried it might happen again. His way of coping was to never feel alone on the stage — during soliloquies he would make sure an actor was always in sight in the wings.
Recently, over a long lunch at Sette Mezzo, David Patrick Columbia and I reminisced about our summer acting together at the Lake Placid Playhouse in 1967. He told me about his anxieties when speaking in public.
“The feeling of having to ‘go’ overtakes me to the point where I’m afraid that if I don’t, I’ll be up on the stage and bad things will happen. So people would be looking for me. ‘Where is he? We’re ready. Where is he?’ And Jeff would say, ‘He’s probably in the bathroom.’”
“One night I was being awarded for being a Living Landmark of New York. And they told me I had to give a two-minute speech, which of course sent me immediately to the bathroom before I had to go on. I started giving this speech and talking about the Chrysler Building and that led on to a story about Mr. Chrysler. He had, besides a wife and a family, a mistress named Peggy Hopkins Joyce. And in 1927, in one week he spent $1 million on Peggy Hopkins Joyce. The audience cracked up. And once they were laughing, I was fine. And actually that completely relaxed me and I finished my speech. And I learned from that, if I could find something to amuse the audience to get rid of my tension that would do it.”
While symptoms are similar to panic attacks, stage fright and performance anxiety are specific to performing in public.
When working psychotherapeutically with an actor struggling with stage fright, or a business leader or politician with performance anxiety, I will explore what underlying issues are going on that are triggering the fear. Is there an event that’s happened in the present that’s tapping into fear from a frightening experience from the past? Fear can quietly sit in neural systems for decades — a forgotten fearful experience very early in life can play havoc later on. It’s much like the chickenpox virus that lies dormant for years and can be triggered later in life.
I connect the experience of fear to biologically based brain systems and brain chemicals that result in the feelings of terror. The most important aspect of overcoming stage fright or performance anxiety is understanding that you are not going mad, you are not losing the plot. Negative thoughts, like blaming yourself, act like fuel to a fire — feeding into fear systems and making things worse. Understanding that the brain is just going about its business of keeping you safe, however illogical that sounds, is the most important step in overcoming performance anxieties.
Everyone I’ve interviewed has found their own personal ways of coping with the inevitable anxieties of live performance. For Michael Caine, it’s about being totally secure in learning his lines. For Robert Allan Ackerman, it’s about getting himself in one piece to the theatre. For Lesley Ann Warren, it’s about meditating and staying entirely focused on the work. For David Patrick Columbia, it’s about finding the emotional connection to what he is writing or talking about. For John Standing, it’s about feeling connected to the writing.