The last time I got on stage in front of a substantial audience it was because I was writing a gonzo journalism piece on amateur nights at “gentleman’s clubs” in small towns across the province. I won’t get into it, but I assure you it’s not at all what you think.
Before that, though, it was 2010 and it was the musical production Godspell. At the time, I was struggling with overcoming my stage-anxiety symptom du-jour, my twitchy smile. I had long overcome the shaky knees and vibrating vocal chords, but there was something in my smile that just did not want to stay still. Of all the performance problems to have, it was small. I knew I was lucky compared to some. The performance was going to be a breeze.
That was, until the third night of our run, when — out of the blue — I forgot all the words to my opening solo. I don’t recall exactly what came out of my mouth for those 8 bars of music, but to this date I can only liken it to speaking in tongues. What caused my Pentecostal memory lapse I don’t know. I obviously lost my focus for a moment and it had grand repercussions. What I do know, however, is that I survived — I even had a great show. I made it through the rest of the run without any similar mishaps and was so proud of myself that, when given the opportunity to audition for a role in this years HUC production of Fiddler on the Roof, I took it. So proud of myself that, when offered a lead role as Hodel, I took it. So proud that up until a month ago I had forgotten all about my experience of blanking on stage.
Then it happened — the fear began to cloud my experience.
What if I do it again? I have a bigger part this time and a really emotionally powerful solo. If I forget the words, I am going to screw up the entire show.
I know, I know — I shouldn’t think so highly of myself.
But I had caught it — the fear that is — and it was bringing me down fast.
Sure enough, during our first dress rehearsal the words flew from my mind. There was no getting them back — the lights were on me and in a slight stage-panic I decided to just sing the words “da” . . . as in “da, da, da, da, da” . . . until they came back to me. Which, thank the Lord, they did. But my confidence was gone. This was my biggest fear, realized, only two nights away from the opening show. I knew it was possible for me to blank in a performance — it had happened before — what was I to do?
My voice of reason kept telling me to over-prepare and stop thinking so much about it (an oxymoron, no?) but that’s easier said than done. How can you stop thinking about something that is your biggest fear (at the moment?) — especially when it’s entirely immanent?
The fact still remained, however: I was going to have to do it, one way or another.
Thankfully, the Universe stepped in. My gorgeous cousin, Katie — a business conference & speaking coach — asked me if I had been setting intentions each time I went on stage.
“Speak to your angels!” she said — to which I was like oh, shut up, but also like . . . oh, right, those.
I pray before I do any sort of speaking engagement — whether it’s a performance, a presentation, or preaching — but I don’t set intentions. At least not in any seriousness.
I ask for things, sure — clarity, strength, courage — but I don’t spend any amount of time telling myself these things are already in my possession.
“If you want a clear memory,” she said, “set that intention. Before you go on stage, every time, say, I have a clear memory.”
So, there I stood on opening night, backstage in the darkness telling myself:
I am calm. I have clear focus and a precise memory.
Then I did what I had to do. And to my own surprise, I didn’t screw it up.
Each and every night I stood in the dark behind the backdrop of the wooden house in fictional Russia saying to myself “I am calm. I have clear focus and a precise memory,” and every night I came off that same stage, moments later, feeling like I had done myself justice.
I don’t know if it was the intentions (affirmations? Whatever), but what I do know is that my talent didn’t change. My gifts did not become any more impressive, my voice any more clear, or my nerves any less existent. I simply took all the energy I had in those moments before the proverbial curtain went up and put them to good use.
Thoughts become things.
You are what you think.
Positive thinking brings positive results.
So why spend all your time and mind-power psyching yourself out?
Channel Queen B. Psych yourself UP.
And if after all that cheering yourself on you fall flat on your face, or forget the words, or your voice cracks, or your lips stick to your teeth, or you accidentally split your pants on the way down . . . just watch the opening scene of Pitch Perfect and remember: it can happen to anyone and it doesn’t make you any less a-ca-awesome.