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Posted 25.03.11 in Features

Stage Fright: the Fight Back

Does performing live make you tremble, stammer and give you an urge to be anywhere but the stage you’re on? Don’t worry – this is perfectly normal and you can control it, explains Joelle Taylor

There is a myth surrounding those who choose to perform, which is that we do not get stage fright. It’s not true. If something is important to you, you WILL get stage fright. In fact, after years of performing, I have become deeply suspicious of those who claim not to suffer from it. What a performance poet should be able to do, however, is learn to manage it. Stage Fright is typified by:

– A reluctance to go on stage. When I was starting out, I would be so afraid that, rather than publicising a gig, I would tell people it had been cancelled…

– A dry mouth that makes you seem even more nervous on the microphone. Words stick to the roof of your mouth.

– Intense trembling as your body finally catches up with the idea that you will be laying out our deepest feelings and thoughts before a group of strangers, or worse – your friends!

– You may feel an urge to rush to the toilet persistently

– Blushing

– Stuttering or stammering, or a general inability for your mouth to recognise words any more.

Simply put, your body is going into Flight or Fight Response mode – readying itself for battle or a hasty retreat. It is perfectly normal. And you can use it to your advantage.

There are various techniques I have used over the years to deal with the feeling of impending doom that a gig can induce: deep breathing, warm up exercises and Rescue Remedy to name but a few. There are, however, two things that have always stuck with me and that have improved my performance and ability to copy with the terrors:

1. Rehearsal

As I have said many times here, KNOW your work. Rehearse it at home alone and in front of other people. Your friends will be able to point out the small unconscious movements you make that scream NERVES, and you will be able to see how your voice changes; even the most confident of people stutter and slip up on word when someone is suddenly watching and listening to them. Tripping over your tongue live ion stage – while a minor mishap to the audience – can feel like the end of the world to the poet every one is watching so diligently and as such your whole performance can be adversely affected. Before you go on stage, make sure you warm your mouth up (I chew enormous wads of fictional gum, or beatbox badly to myself). Make sure you also have water near you to help oil those sticky sentences.

2. The support of other poets

This has been as essential to me as full rehearsals. Talk to the other poets on the bill with you. Listen to their work, get them to listen to yours. There is a wonderful community backstage at gigs where we each are genuinely supportive of each other. It’s always a big part of SLAMbassadors, the Poetry Society’s championship for young performance poets. I get the young poets to sit together at the front of the stage to watch and shriek support of each other. They clap until their hands burn, thump their feet like war drums and shout until court orders are issued. Not only does this bolster the poet on stage, it helps the others who are waiting to go on getrid of nervous tension – the excess energy that can run away with your performance.

Joelle Taylor was UK Performance Poetry Slam Champion in 2000, and hosts Mother Foucault Spoken Word Burlesque. She is also the co-ordinator of the Poetry Society’s SLAMbassadors UK Championships (http://slam.poetrysociety.org.uk), and regularly judges national slam championships for the BBC, Apples and Snakes and Farrago Poetry.



Comments (6)

6 Responses to “Stage Fright: the Fight Back”

  1. Wiggy says:

    Eeep! :) Support is a really big thing, I just realised that! Feels less alienated and inferior when you have other poets like you who are facing the same nervousness as you. I guess being intent of getting absorbed into your work also helps; so you concentrate on the passion of your poem, rather than possible reading shortcomings you might have. It’s like, when you are really enjoying a burger, you don’t even stop to think about how many calories there are in it.

  2. Joelle Taylor says:

    Hi Wiggy,
    Yes absolute immersion in the performance and the poem is essential, and will definitely help you defeat the evils of stage fright. When we are writing the poems, we are not frightened of them – so why allow ourselves to be scared when we are sharing them? Believe in yourselves, believe in your words.

  3. Wiggy says:

    “Believe in your words” <3 :) That's a beautiful line. I must keep that in mind :)

  4. charlene says:

    I’m looking for poets to perform at ITV Black History Month Event wondering who’s the best person to get in contact with

  5. Katie Beviss says:

    I performed my poetry recently at the Wheatsheaf in London, there was only about thirty people. I was so nervous though but rehearsing really helped me, I knew my poems almost by heart so I just concentrated on delivering the words. These tips really helped me, thanks! :)