Holly Stoppit, 16 January 2017

Full session title: “I’m making a show about stage fright (my own) and would like to

hear about some of your experiences with stage fright.”

I’m Holly Stoppit, a dramatherapist, university lecturer, clown teacher, workshop

facilitator and Artistic Director of Beyond The Ridiculous. I stopped performing 7 years

ago, after a 20 year battle with stage fright. I’m about to get back on the stage for the

first time, presenting three work in progress shows at The Wardrobe Theatre in Bristol.

The first one (at least) is about stage fright.

I decided to hold a focus group at D&D to hear about other people’s experiences with

stage fright. I had about 10 people in attendance including notetaker Amy Rose, who

is also my facilitator for the first work in progress show. I have kept the individuals

stories anonymous to protect their identities.

When I sat down to write up the session, I couldn’t stop writing for 4 hours, so the

following is a write up of the session, interspersed with bits of theory I’ve been working

on. I hope it’s useful to someone.

We started with names and a quick check-in as I wanted to offer an opportunity to

connect before asking for people’s potentially fragile stories about stage fright. I gave

a bit of context for the session (see above) and asked the following questions; “Who’s

got a story about stage fright? What does it feel like to you? How has stage fright

impacted your performances? How has stage fright impacted your life?”

“It’s irrational!” explained participant A. Stage fright doesn’t seem to follow a logical

pattern. For this person, stage fright seems to strike at random times and is getting

worse, the older they get. They explained that even though you know you are not in

any physical danger, the surge in adrenaline kicks in and kicks off all the danger

signals; leading to “desert mouth” and “lack of breath control,” which create a living

nightmare scenario for this particular vocal artist.

“What helps you get through it?” I asked. Participant A has a team of “backstage

people’’ who are aware of their propensity towards stage fright and will offer the

grounding gift of physical contact before the show. The artist seems to internalise the

physical touch and brings it onto stage to protect them and keep them grounded

throughout the performance.

I asked the question: “Are you able to ask for this directly from your team?” It seems

the artist has not reached a point where they feel comfortable to express their fears

and needs to every person they work with, but has been fortunate to have had enough

friendly people in their backstage teams to be able to negotiate getting this need for

physical contact met. There is a sense of shame which seems to cling to stage fright,

making it impossible to ask for what we need- because first we’d have to admit we’ve

got a problem. I love how this artist has recognised their needs (physical contact /

connection with a human being) and has worked out how to meet them (by stealthily

grabbing a cuddle before they go on stage).

I wholeheartedly believe making theatre a place where we can be authentic in our

communication and clear about our needs will help to alleviate the suffering

associated around shame (which in turn could help with stage fright). Having done a

lot of research into the relationship between vulnerability and shame in performance,

I’m now thinking about how shame could be the main catalyst for stage fright. In the

reading I’ve encountered about stage fright, I often pick up a sense of superstition

around talking about it. There’s a sense of “If I talk about it, I’ll be jinxed and it will stay

with me forever.” These ingrained superstitions often have their roots in shame. So

why is it shameful to have stage fright? Is it because as performing artists we are

doing the thing that we love and it’s not really OK to be frightened of doing the thing

you most love? Is it because the performing arts are often seen as frivolous and

performing artists are portrayed as lovvies? Therefore why should anyone give a shit

about a lovvie doing a pointless thing? Or is it more about the shame of neediness?

Perhaps all these combined create a pressure cooker of emotion, heightening the

feelings of shame which ultimately lead to disconnect.

Participant B, this one an actor, spoke of how their fear of forgetting lines has created

a limit in the work they are now prepared to do. Once a Shakespearian actor, this

person’s “fear of being unprepared” has led them to the same conclusion as Jacoby ,

who apparently said “I just can’t do this any more” and decided to no longer perform

full length theatre plays. Instead participant B has adapted their career towards

becoming a director and performing interactive work for children.

I wondered about this transformation. How is it that participant B does not display the

symptoms of stage fright in these two other contexts, 1.) interactive children’s theatre

and 2.) directing, when they are absolutely knobbled by it in a full length play? I

wondered whether this was something about how the performer casts their audience?

Had this actor deemed 1.) children and 2.) the actors he was directing; “safe”

audiences and thereby making himself safe to “perform” for them? (There’s another

essay here about the director as performer, or using performance skills in directing…)

I’ve been reading about the history of stage fright and one theory, from Stage Fright,

Animals, and Other Theatrical Problems by Nicholas Ridout, associates it with

theatre’s switch to electricity in 1879. Back in the olden days, theatre was performed in

the daytime, where the performer could see the audience. Theatre was performed as

a conversation with a rowdy crowd. The focus was shared between the performers

and the audience. But with the advent of electric lights, the focus was shifted onto the

performers, leaving the audience in the dark, which re-cast the audience as spectator

(rather than participant). Perhaps this absence of reciprocity opened up more space

for ambiguity? Ridout cited Stanivlaski's description of the newly faceless audience as

a “black hole,” which I believe enabled the performers to project all their demons onto

the invisible crowd.

This coincided with Stanislavski introducing his method of using your own personal

material during the creative process of finding a character and bringing it to life. So

now, when the crowd responded to the performance, the performer was more

personally involved with their material and could take any reaction from the crowd as a

direct comment on themselves.

So it’s dark out there and we’re exposing ourselves. The audience of our imagination

is full of whoever we put there. Do we fill the auditorium with kind, friendly people who

want us to do well, or do we fill the theatre with critics, haters, judges and devils? In

my experience, when I came inside after years of performing on the streets, I found

the lighting massively affected my stage fright. I had a chip on my shoulder about not

belonging inside, having been passionately involved in the anarchic art door arts

scene for years, so I think I subconsciously slapped judgmental masks onto my

unseen audiences faces to help me maintain the storyline of “I don't belong here.”

Participant B went on to tell a story of getting stage fright in real life. Mingling with a

crowd, post-performance after an immersive murder mystery show and feeling the

expectations of the “audience” to keep playing a part they no longer wished to play.

They described their symptoms as “quickening heartbeat and sweaty palms” and the

fear relating to “being seen as I am.”

This links into another discussion I had this weekend, during a session on “What is

performance?” We boiled down the definition of ‘performance’ to; “an act that has an

intention to provoke a response in another person.” Participant B no longer wished to

impact other people in the way they’d been doing all night, yet the audience wanted

them to continue.

I probed a little as to how this actor might have been casting their audience (in this

case, the people in the bar, after the show). Did they think the expectation to continue

performing lay with the audience or with them? Could this have been their projection?

The actor was certain that it had been the audience that were demanding more of the


Thinking back to my own experiences of the after-show parties, I remember those

conversations, and how I would turn every well intentioned “It was an interesting

show,” to mean “It should have been so much better!” and every avoided glance to

mean “You are shit and you should probably die right now.” I would cast my audience

as my harshest critic and use them to punish myself for not being good enough (which

was my deep down belief at the time). When we feel shit about ourselves, it’s easy to

find the evidence to support whatever negative argument we’ve constructed about

ourselves. Theatre is generally performed to silent onlookers who sit in the dark. It’s

easy to see how we could mistake their murky presence for judgement if we are

already carrying stories about our low self-worth.

Our next sharing came from participant C, someone who reported a total lack of stage

fright on the stage. Their “chronic” stage fright (their description) emerges during the

process of tour booking. Their stage fright appears as a saboteur and stops them from

ringing venues. Once they are on the stage, they are fine, they just “walk towards the

edge and fall in.”

This took us to the importance of the role of producer. I recognise the difficulty in

selling your own work, especially if you feel vulnerable about it. I once proposed that

we should all make a circle and support the person to the left of us and be supported

by the person to the right, as it’s so much easier to sell someone else’s work than your

own. I asked whether participant C had considered either hiring a producer or creating

an internal producer who could take on this work?

The internal producer; the part of you that is boundaried and clear and logical and

practical. The part that can talk turkey with no embarrassment. The one that’s fighting

your corner and looking after your needs. What would yours look like? How would they

hold themselves?

I linked back to participant A’s backstage team, and thought about whether, for my

show, I could have a producer character on stage with me (played by me), taking

practical care of my needs. How would that effect my stage fright? Participant A

suggested I could have a whole team on stage. Someone else reflected how it might

be interesting for an audience to see how a solo artist is supported to present their

solo work.

Our next sharer, participant D, was a university student, who talked about their stage

fright emanating from the fear of “doing it wrong.” Their stage fright was intensified by

the fear that they’ll “ruin it for everyone,” for the audience and for their fellow

performers. This fear brings a lot of pressure onto the stage. Mix this with the

vulnerability endemic in sharing something of yourself and you’ve got yourself a

potential shame storm right there.

Whenever we offer something of ourselves to an audience, whether it’s a painting, a

part in a play, a song or whatever, we are stepping into our vulnerability. Vulnerability

and shame researcher Brene Brown explains that we feel vulnerable when we 1.) take

a risk 2.) emotionally expose ourselves 3.) step into the unknown. Performance links

to all three definitions, to varying degrees, depending on the style of performance. So

to be vulnerable, to make an offer of ourselves with an open hand, when we can’t

control the audience’s experience of us… could be beautiful if we’ve cast the audience

as our friends. It could be the beginning of deeper connected living. It could inspire

audiences to step into their vulnerability and connect deeply with others. But. If you

are casting your audience as your enemy, then this act of offering yourself to an

audience could be the theatrical equivalent of feeding yourself to the lions (otherwise

known as the shame storm).

So my question is; what support do we need to enable ourselves to experience the

positive side of vulnerability through our performance? What safety mechanisms can

we put in place?

Our next sharer, participant E, spoke about their “withdrawal from performance,” after

realising the pay off was dwarfed by the struggle. I wonder how much of creativity is

about addiction to the struggle? Another D&D session I attended, titled “Theatre As

Addiction.” showed up some familiar concepts; the glorification of burn out, the

negative drives behind the desire to perform (adulation, approval, validation) and the

ever- unsustainable adage at the heart of our profession; “the show must go on!”

Struggle could be seen as the heartbeat of our industry, which seems ridiculous, when

we consider what it is we’re actually doing when making theatre; sharing something of

ourselves, creating spaces for shared experiences, inviting audiences to dream their

dreams with us…

Our next sharer, participant F, a singer, described the gut wrenching experience of

forgetting all the words to a song. After a lengthy introduction, explaining where the

song had come from, our singer signalled the band to start the introduction. As it got

closer to the start of the song, the singer reached around in their memory looking for

the opening words. Nothing, not the words, not the tune, not even a hint about how the

song began. They signalled to the band to go round the introduction again. Nothing.

Just the “hot burn, starting from the feet, moving up the legs and taking over the whole

body.” They sent the band round the intro again. Still nothing. With terror in their eyes,

our singer looked to their guitarist “help!” they mouthed. The guitarist, looking

flustered, began strumming the chorus, hoping this would help jog the singer’s

memory. Nothing. Eventually, our singer stopped the band and admitted to the

audience that they just couldn’t remember the words. Of course the audience roared

with laughter!

Now in the world of clown, we would call this a huge success. Our performer let the

audience into their struggle, owned it and allowed the audience to share the awful

truth. The audience, recognising this as a very human thing to have happened,

something they themselves have all experienced on some level, opened their hearts to

our performer, offering their laughter in recognition of how it is to be a human. Boom!

The room is connected, heart to heart.

But our singer is not a clown. They are not trying to make the audience laugh. They

are trying to share an English Ballad to the best of their ability. Cue shame.

How do we measure our success on stage? Is it to perfectly convey something

pre-rehearsed to an audience? Perfectionism; the enemy of relaxation and the conduit

to shame / stage fright. When we are aiming for perfection, we are putting ourselves

into a state of unnecessary tension that can hinder our connection with ourselves and

our audiences. When we are tense we become solid and this solidness becomes

impenetrable for audiences, no-one can get in and you can’t get out. So perfectionism

can lead to disconnect, isolation, fear and shame.

So what if we place our measurement of success on the quality of our connection with

audiences? These days, participant F rates their performances by “How much did I

feel I was in it?” To be both immersed in the performance and present to the audience

is their measurement of success.

Participant G spoke of the chemical / hormonal experience of fight / flight / freeze, how

the body is flooded with hormones to aid survival during trauma. They shared how

they’ve learned to manage their stage fright symptoms by “doing a lot of physical

exercise before getting on the stage.” They cited a recent study about disorders of the

sympathetic / parasympathetic system which concluded that different people need to

manage their trauma symptoms differently according to their unique chemical


Participant H spoke about how this trauma response effected their experience as an

events organiser, leading them through a chain of increasingly catastrophic thoughts

until they reached the inevitable “EVERYONE’S GOING TO DIE!”

I spoke about The Story as the problem here. From my own experiences with trauma,

I’ve found that when I’m in a state of trauma (real or imagined, it doesn’t matter), if I

just let the stories run and run, I’ll eventually get to a point where I need to die. Right.

Now. But over the years I’ve been receiving therapy and practicing meditation and

learning about the human mind, I’ve have learned to put a pause in between the

stimulus and the response. I can now feel the sensations of fight / flight / freeze,

recognise them and press pause while I slow down my breathing and find something

solid and real to touch. I use my breathing and the sensation of touch to anchor myself

while the stories fly about. I keep choosing to stay present to my experience of

breathing in and breathing out or stroking something furry, soft, shiny or cold and

eventually I calm myself down. Of course I don’t always get there in time! And

whenever I slip back into old patterns, I’ve learned to forgive myself and start again.

So this is all hunky dory, but… I haven’t put myself on the stage for 7 years. So I’m

curious to know whether I can access this precious pause that I’ve practicing so

diligently when I’m on stage in front of an audience…

Back to participant G, the one who brought up fight / flight / freeze. Apparently,

according to Clive Barker changing the shape of your spine (through movement)

enables the spine to reach the shape where the synapses fire effectively, hence the

importance of physical warm ups before performances. When we are frightened, our

spines become rigid and ready for battle, introducing movement into the spine may

help to alleviate fear by physically taking you out of a position of fear.

Participant I spoke of their current crippling experiences of stage fright, which have

started 3 months before going into rehearsals. They report an increase in crying, an

urge to be sick and a desperate desire to run away. This person’s stage fright is

related to the technical precision required of them in the show they have created, they

told us, “It has to be perfect in front of an audience.” As a trained clown, this performer

has no problems with playing the flop and connecting with audiences when things go

wrong (as described in the English Ballad story above). But in this particular show, the

performer has to move props around the stage as a support to the protagonist of the

play. During these sections, our performer is supposed to be ‘invisible’ and does not

have the clown clause of being able to connect with the audience when things go

wrong. This disconnect from the audience and the need for physical precision

combined, are the source of the biggest stage fright in this performer’s career.

After offering various techniques for remembering physical sequences, the group then

began discussing how different kinds of stage fright are perhaps endemic to different

forms of theatre. Many of the group had discussed a sense of freedom from the

symptoms through being able to improvise which helped us by either: 1.) allowing us

to be authentic / name it / connect with the audience that’s here in the room and

release the tension or 2.) not having to remember script or precise actions, freeing us

up to be more present. But what about theatrical forms that do not have these “safety”

mechanisms at their hearts?

I have a respect for forms that use precision in performance, but I am not interested in

performing in this way. I have always been an improviser, discovering this to be the

only way I could beat the stage fright. As soon as there’s something to be got wrong, I

am at the mercy of my “not god enough” demons. With improvisation, they don’t have

time to get a word in.

The group shared various stories of theatrical flops and their impacts on the artists and

audiences. Phillip Glass forgetting one of his most memorable pieces, causing

audiences to walk out in disgust (is this to do with audiences not wanting to see their

heroes vulnerable?); another singer who’s in-between-song disclosures began as

charming little interactions (“I need a wee!”) but escalated to uncomfortable trauma

dumpings (prompting a mini discussion around how much disclosure is too much);

Patti Smith’s recent stage fright during her performance of Bob Dylan’s Hard Rain on

national TV, where she stopped the band, saying, “I’m really sorry, I’m just so

nervous,” and the international coverage this act of authenticity provoked.

Our time was drawing to a close and I wanted to get a sense of what this group

wanted to see in my show about stage fright. Here’s what they requested:

precision- we want to see you do something really precise / something that could go



We want to see you do learned text

We want to see you play with a 4th wall

We want to see you be someone else- play a character who’s not like you

We want to see a split second representation of stage fright, moment by moment

We want to see you do it on beta blockers

We want to see your sick bucket on the stage

We want to find out with you whether performing is worth all the stage fright in the end

We want to see you play with costume- wear something you wouldn’t normally wear.

You can come and see one of my three work in progress showings (February 5, March

5, April 2) at 7.30 at The Wardrobe Theatre in Bristol. Pay what you decide.


You can follow the progress of my show by checking in with my blog:


I’m massively grateful to all the participants of my focus group and to Devoted and

Disgruntled for creating the conditions that allowed this to happen.


Stage Fright, dramatherapy, performance, vulnerability, shame, Performance, stage


Comments: 1

adrienne quartly, 17 January 2017

Thanks for writing this. Very interesting, particularly about the lighting, audience perception and the different forms of stage

fright in real life. Food for thought.