(Nothing is terrible except fear itself.)
Francis Bacon, 1623

In the minutes before my show I could feel it creeping up: snakebite, poison in my veins. Stomach churning, palms sweating, heart racing, hands trembling —

Stage fright.

Virtually every performer who has ever faced an audience has experienced stage fright. Strangely, given its universality, the subject rarely appears in the literature of magic. The father of modern conjuring, Robert-Houdin, doesn’t mention it at all. Nor does Henning Nelms in Magic and Showmanship. J. N. Maskelyne broaches the subject only briefly in Our Magic. His comments imply that only a fool steps onto the stage without some degree of anxiety. Perhaps he’s right. But this is hardly of any help.

While Maskelyne focuses mainly on the dangers of over-rehearsal, S. H. Sharpe, in his book Neo Magic, claims that stage fright can be attributed entirely to a lack of rehearsal. Proper rehearsal is indeed crucial to developing fluidity of speech and action onstage, and to performing sleights and secret moves with confidence and conviction. Nevertheless, I doubt that any amount of rehearsal can fully prepare me to confront a sea of strangers gazing at me expectantly. Performing in front of a live audience is very different from rehearsing in an empty room or practicing in front of a mirror. The fact that accomplished actors such as Orson Welles and Lawrence Olivier experienced stage fright late in their careers seems to indicate that something else is involved, something deeper.

Dariel Fitzkee attempts to define stage fright in Showmanship for Magicians (pp. 76/77):

Stage-fright is not a species of fright. There is nothing frightening about a thorough knowledge and familiarity with your material. Stage-fright is more of an anticipatory nervous stimulation which evidences itself in the form of increased pulse, more rapid breathing, and an exhilaration.

Stage-fright can do no harm. It is the same type of lift an athlete gets just before the whistle blows to start a game or race. It is simply excitement.

The state of excitement Fitzkee describes is somewhat akin to “fight or flight response,” a condition brought about by an increase of adrenaline in the bloodstream during times of stress. As such it is not only natural, as Fitzkee points out, but necessary. It gives the performer, whether an actor or an athlete, a burst of energy that can make for a good performance.

(Note: In what was probably a bold move for the early 1940s, Fitzkee cautions against using drugs or alcohol to calm the nerves: “Many a performer has regretted conditioning himself to a point where he has to have the liquor or he can’t perform.” Sage advice.)

In my opinion, Fitzkee is mistaken when he calls the condition of nervous energy that precedes a performance “stage-fright.” Anyone who has experienced near-paralyzing fear before walking out onstage knows that it’s different from mere pre-show excitement. I think stage fright is a compound phenomenon: it is a natural state of nervous anticipation combined with a culturally conditioned fear of failure and embarrassment.

Orson Welles once said that “stage fright is a malady that comes with experience.” When I was seven years old and began doing magic shows for anyone who would take the time to watch, I don’t recall ever worrying that things might go wrong. I just ran through the items in my little box of magic tricks. If I made a mistake, I moved on to something else. By the time I was in my teens, however, I was familiar with the concept of humiliation. Prior to the show, my mind raced with worst-case scenarios. I worried that mechanical gimmicks would fail at crucial moments. I worried that I would make mistakes, forget things, accidentally expose methods. I wondered if anyone would notice that my hands were shaking.

The good news is that if the condition of stage fright comes with experience, the cure for this condition comes with experience as well. Over time, through many performances, I’ve learned that almost any mistake can be covered if I don’t panic and alert the audience to my predicament. The odds are tilted in my favor. I’ve had time to rehearse, to plan, to anticipate what can go wrong. The audience has never read my script. They have no idea what is coming next, and they are (hopefully) unfamiliar with my methods. These factors give me enough slack to wiggle my way out of a tight situation.

But what if the audience is composed of magicians? Mistakes are hard to cover when the audience is “in the know.” And the emotional stakes are high. No one wants to appear incompetent in front of one’s colleagues — or heroes.

For me there was a time when facing an audience of magicians brought back all the familiar symptoms: heart racing, mind racing, hands trembling. Now, as an author and lecturer, I perform magic for magicians quite frequently. The secret is simple: I do my show exactly as I’ve rehearsed and performed it for the public. Magicians are just people, right? And I’ve performed my material for people hundreds of times! (I should also point out that while magicians tend to concentrate on technique, we are probably more forgiving of mistakes than the public. They expect us to be infallible. We know better.)

Although I can’t offer a magical spell that will banish stage fright instantly and forever, I can share a few things that I’ve learned over the years:

  • Rehearse. This is the first step to worry-free performance. There is no substitute for it. I need to know my show from top to bottom: the props, the words, the actions — everything.
  • Plan. I carefully examine my show with an eye toward eliminating moments when things can go wrong. I try not to rely on mechanical devices. Why take unnecessary chances? If I can’t eliminate a risk, I create a backup plan in case something does go wrong. Knowing that I have a safety net provides me with peace of mind.
  • Perform. Experience is the Great Teacher, and magic is a performing art. The only way to learn is to do — to get up there in front of an audience whenever I have the opportunity. If I allow my fear to prevent me from performing, that fear will grow and become more powerful. Francis Bacon was right: nothing is more terrible than the fear itself. If I face it, it eventually goes away.
  • Do the easy stuff first. When I was a teenager my hands would shake for the first five minutes of my performance. I came up with a simple way to cope with the problem: I always opened my show with an effect that was very easy for me to perform. Something sure-fire. This gave me time to calm down before moving on to more demanding material. Trembling hands are no longer a problem for me, but to this day the most familiar and reliable effects in my repertoire are the ones I perform first. When I introduce a new piece into my program, it is deliberately positioned in the middle of the show, surrounded by tried-and-true material.
  • Make a list. One of the tricks I use to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything important before I step onstage is a pre-show list. I compose this list during rehearsal; it indicates the set position of every prop in my show, including ones that the audience never sees.Gaffed deck: left inner coat pocket. Regular deck: left outer coat pocket. Thumb tip: right pants pocket. Match-pull: right lapel. Wine glass: center table. Prior to the show, I check off each item on the list. This not only subdues anxiety about forgetting things, it keeps my mind occupied with something other than fear and negative thoughts.

Stage fright is not an insurmountable problem. With time and experience comes confidence. Knowing that I can deal with practically any onstage gaffe allows me to relax. Knowing that my props are in place lets me concentrate on the task at hand.

It’s nearly show time. My script is memorized and rehearsed, my actions practiced until they are smooth and certain. Free from thoughts of failure and disaster, I can direct my energy into performing a good show.

©2000 David Parr. All rights reserved.
This article also appeared in Behind the Smoke and Mirrors

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