An inquisitive exploration of the theme of stage fright, in and off the spotlight, during these challenging times of uncertainty. Featuring an interview with musician, actor, and model Ian Mellencamp.
By Sabrina Wirth
The topic of Fear has been on a lot of people’s minds lately. What causes it exactly? On one hand, it can help to motivate or to protect, but on the other hand, fear can also be the barrier that keeps you from achieving your dreams. I’ve grappled with this subject for many years, and thus have had it on my mind often. I remember writing a poem about it in elementary school, concluding that it has to do with uncertainty. We are afraid of what we don’t know. And just like a child who is afraid of the dark loses that fear once the light is turned back on, we are comforted when we are able to clarify an unusual situation. Understanding what the origin of the uncertainty is, can be a useful way to break free from that psychological obstacle.
Our theme this month is “on stage”, so while there are many types of fear out there, this post will be focused on the kind that is connected with performance and vulnerability. When we expose a part of ourselves to the world, fear can often take over in a crippling way, casting doubt and self-consciousness over the performance. We forget that everyone else has the same obstacles to overcome in their daily lives. The key to overcoming this obstacle though is -as it is in many cases in which fear plays a key role- trust. Trust the motivation behind the performance, and trust in your talent. There’s a reason why you made it to that stage in the first place.
It comes as a surprise to many people, but celebrities often get performance anxiety as well. Adele would get it so bad that she would throw up before or after performances, and Barbra Streisand even gave up performing live for 3 decades after forgetting her lyrics at a concert in Central Park in 1967. Everyone feels it at some degree or another, because it all has to do with the “not knowing”- the uncertainty of the future. Will I hit that high note? Will something go unexpectedly, terribly wrong? Will I start sweating? What will they think of me? Will they love me? Will they hate me?
Personally, I’ve always loved the attention. Sometimes I wonder “why didn’t I go into acting?” It seems I love an audience. Or at least I used to when I was a kid. I remember listening to my uncle telling jokes, and his delivery was so good, that no matter whether the joke was funny or not, he would always get laughs. I tried to recreate his joke once, in front of a room full of other kids my age and thought that since he had been so successful telling that joke, then I would also be a hit. Well, the context was all wrong, and my delivery wasn’t as good, and by the time I got to the punch line, the part when I expected the room to erupt in laughter, all I heard instead was silence. It was mortifying. I never tried that again. If I could go back in time though, I would have advised myself against telling a Jesus/golfing joke in a room full of 11 year-olds.
Before I attempted this stand-up comedy, though, I had never experienced that kind of embarrassment. Unfortunately, that memory became engrained in my mind like a mini trauma, and for a long time afterward, I would get anxiety if I was ever placed in a similar situation again. If you ever notice how long it takes for a celebrity to make a comeback after failing publicly, it’s because of this same kind of experience, but at a much larger scale. However, a fast recovery also has to do with mental discipline and a strong belief in oneself.
When Snowboard prodigy, Shaun White, suffered from a horrific crash during a 2018 training run in New Zealand, he recalls being terrified. He said, “It’s just like this visual flashing in my head of what happened. I know I can do the trick, but I knew I could do the trick when I crashed.”
Despite being afraid that what had happened to him in New Zealand could happen again, his desire to stand up on that Olympic podium once more, and reach for another gold medal was stronger. He adjusted his focus from that of fear of crashing to that of attaining his goal. If there was any remnant of fear still there, it probably was transferred from “what if?” to “what if I don’t even try?” The fear of not trying proved to be stronger.
For singers, and people in the entertainment industry, recovery may be more difficult, as it was for Barbra Streisand, since performance can be deeply personal. Oftentimes, a singer is the only one on stage, and all eyes are on him or her. Nevertheless, whether one is competing in an Olympic arena, or performing on the stage before the games begin, the pressure of being watched and judged is there.
Eminem’s song “Lose Yourself” depicts the performer’s anxiety so well. What if you have only that one chance, that one opportunity, and you blow it? The thing is, if you start thinking that way before a performance, you will most likely manifest it. The last half of “Lose Yourself” emphasizes Eminem’s internal struggle with himself. He knows he’s talented, he knows that success is his only option, and he is hungry to not only improve himself, but prove himself as well. His motivation for taking the chance in front of an audience overcame his fear of failure, and look at him now. He ends his song with: “You can do anything you set your mind to, man”. Fear, anxiety, confidence, it’s all a mindset.
Ian Mellencamp, a musician, actor, and established model, is no stranger to the stage, and even grew up learning about stage life, just by being around his famous uncle, John Mellencamp. Despite being in the spotlight for so long, he says he still gets anxiety before any big performance. He recognizes though, the negative impact of giving in to that anxiety, and instead makes a conscious effort to let go and live in the moment:
“For me, the ultimate goal is not only to avoid focusing on the anxiety or the material but to live within the present moment during a performance. This is when execution is intended, accurate, authentic, as well as unique, where real improvisation can happen. Therefore, the best performances are achieved this way.”
For refocusing or getting over the “stage fright”, Ian recommends preparation: “I’ve learned that the best way for me to combat anxiety is by being prepared. Visualization, meditation, and breath work are also great tools for combating anxiety and enhancing the preparation/performance processes. These tools help funnel the focus on the material and not on the potential negatives. I feel that being prepared and well-rehearsed is the number one confidence booster and anxiety reducer. Combine preparation with the other tools (visualization, meditation, breath work), have patience and persistence, and you will be on your way towards another level of performance.”
Right now, the world is united in its uncertainty about the future. We can either let that be a reason to feel despair and fear, or we can use that time to focus on the present moment, as Ian recommended. Now is the time to prepare, and work on ourselves. How can we use this time productively? When we return to a certain level of normalcy, we will see how people have transformed throughout this period: there may be those who become accustomed to life within their cocoons, but then there will also be those who will surprise everyone, and emerge as butterflies. Your decision!
Sabrina Wirth is an artist, curator, writer, and storyteller. Her curiosity for people and different cultures has led her down various unusual, but fulfilling paths, such as exploring Iraqi Kurdistan, and working on a film about refugees in France. She believes in the power of creativity, and has learned that the best stories are the real-life, human ones.
For more info on Sabrina please visit: www.sabrinawirth.com