What’s the Big Idea?
Just about anyone who has ever addressed a crowd knows the feeling. Clammy hands. Butterflies in the stomach. The strange sensation that your brain is hovering a few feet above your body, unable to control it properly. Stage fright isn’t only for entertainers – it can strike at a business meeting, in a job interview, or during a wedding toast. The physical symptoms can be distracting enough, but what’s potentially debilitating is the fear of failure – of having to slink offstage in total ignominy.
And it doesn’t only strike amateurs, either. Four decades into his career and widely recognized as the greatest actor in the world, Laurence Olivier was struck with chronic stage fright so severe that he could only perform in elaborate disguises and character roles (during this difficult period – it’s interesting to note – Olivier did some of the best work of his career.)
We asked actor Jonathan Pryce – world famous for his leading roles in the stage musical Miss Saigon and the films Evita and Brazil – what advice he’d give to the stage-fright-afflicted. “The cruel way to tell somebody,” he said, “is try being less selfish.” Pryce recalls his early days acting in a class at art school – one he took almost randomly because drama classes “required the least amount of work.” He recalls some initial terror, but
I was fortunate in that people, when they saw me, they weren’t aware of what was going on inside, and they were saying “It’s good. What you’re doing is good.” I began to just get confidence from people, the support of people saying that what they saw externally, whether I was dying inside or not, was something positive.
Throughout his extraordinary career, Pryce has turned his attention outward rather than inward – onto his fellow actors, the audience, the needs of the story. This, he reflects, is the secret to overcoming stage fright: remembering that it isn’t all about you.
[VIDEO] Actor Jonathan Pryce on stage fright as selfishness
What’s the Significance?
Dissertation proposal for aspiring psychologists: a cross-cultural study of stage fright in China and the United States. Hypothesis: that America’s cultural focus on individual identity makes stage fright – a fear of individual performance failure – far more common in this country than in China’s more collectivist society.
Meryl Streep, famous for her uncanny ability to embody characters very different from her in age, culture, or circumstance, says that an early visit to the United Nations planted the seed of her entire career. She was struck by the
…idea of peace and reconciliation among strangers who distrusted each other. And I think I’ve never really given that up or gone beyond that idea of being a translator, of explaining people to each other, of being a conduit of mutual emotional understanding.
In theater, in families, and in business, it is empathy that makes collective action possible. And while some people are more naturally narcissistic or empathetic than others, for most of us it requires conscious intention to focus on something greater than our individual selves. It requires an act of remembering – when the butterflies begin – that you’re not alone, and that you, your colleagues, and the paying customer must sink or swim together.
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