Insight Helps Draw the Curtain on Stage Fright

What would more than four out of 10 people rather do than speak in front of a group?

For starters, die.

They would also, according to a survey conducted by the London Sunday Times, rather be plagued by bugs or insects, suffer financial crises, risk drowning in deep water or be felled by illness. The survey asked 3,000 Americans what they feared most, and speaking before a group was No. 1 on the list.

Which would, according to this survey, qualify stage fright--among the most acutely afflicted, at least--as the most severe, debilitating, stomach-churning, adrenalin-pumping fear in the entire human experience.


Call it butterflies, the jitters, cotton mouth, flopsweat--it all adds up to grief for anyone performing before an audience.

“The whole autonomic nervous system goes bananas,” said Mary Ommanney, an Anaheim psychologist who has treated many patients suffering from stage fright. “People go into a major anxiety reaction. They can’t speak. They just can’t function at all.”

The technical name, Ommanney said, is “exhibitionism anxiety,” and it’s born of a need, simply, to please others. The speaker before a group, the executive giving a presentation in a meeting, the musician performing a difficult piece, the comedian working the house--all are trying to please their audience and look good in the process.

It’s when they try too hard or attach too much importance to the audience’s reaction that people suffer from stage fright, Ommanney said.


“The root cause,” she said, “is when a person goes from being internalized to being externalized. They should try to slow down and compete with their own best performance rather than try to satisfy the expectations of an impersonal audience.

“I think every good actor or lecturer has some stage fright or they’re not worth their salt. It’s when it goes from low-level anxiety to an incapacitating level that it becomes a problem.”

Ommanney and her husband, Pierce, also a psychologist, said they have seen several debilitating cases of stage fright come through their clinic. Mary tells of several students who dropped out of school rather than make oral presentations before a class.

Pierce recalled “a fantastic case” in which a former patient of his “went out to sing a song and play guitar on stage in front of his high school friends, and he had such a severe attack of stage fright that he literally crawled off stage. But once he got off, he told himself that if he stayed there he’d likely never play the guitar or sing again. So he came back out again and did it and got a tremendous ovation. Today he’s a professional singer.”


The Ommanneys said they have had good luck treating severe cases of stage fright with group therapy.

“There are things in life that make these people feel inferior, like a colleague telling them how incapable they are,” said Pierce. “They then torture themselves and put themselves down. Freud called it the superego, which criticizes itself. In group therapy, these people are in a comfortable environment and get moral support. If I ask them to stand up before the group and talk, they’ll experience their symptoms, but over time they’re more comfortable.”

Stage fright, said Jerry Kasdorf, a clinical psychologist, is a phobia in the same category of mental disorders as fear of heights or fear of crowds. Kasdorf is the director of three Phobiacare Treatment Centers (in Santa Ana, Huntington Beach and Fullerton) where phobias are treated with individual and group therapy.

One particular group therapy session at the centers involves mostly business people who must, as part of their jobs, speak before groups, but find themselves paralyzed by stage fright.


“The first thing we try to do,” said Kasdorf, “is make sense out of the fright. Most people think that stage fright or performance anxiety is something that is unique to them. Actually, it’s by far the most common phobia that exists. Everybody, virtually, has some of that kind of feeling.”

The uncomfortable rush of adrenalin that speakers feel when they experience stage fright is an ancient human reaction--the so-called “fight or flight” response, Kasdorf said.

“The adrenalin,” he said, “prepares you to fight or to flee, and in the case of speaking, what you want to do is flee. Your body is being prepared for intense action, but when you’re speaking, you’re immobilized. People become afraid that they’re going to lose control.”

Kasdorf’s groups meet once a week, over 15 weeks, for slightly more than an hour per session. Kasdorf said each session costs $35 and that, as far as he knows, no insurance company has yet picked up the tab for a group member.


In his sessions with the would-be public speakers, Kasdorf advises executives to concentrate on the speech itself rather than on how the audience is reacting. He also emphasizes advance preparation, even over-preparation--particularly of one’s opening lines.

“You must do it over and over and over again in order to get better,” he said.

Glenn Koppel probably has more reasons to suffer from stage fright than most professionals.

Koppel, 38, an attorney and a professor of law at Western State University College of Law in Fullerton, also is a professional singer and has appeared in musical comedies and nightclubs in Southern California. Stage fright in the classroom, he said, is a close relative of performance jitters.


“A lot of our students, especially the new ones, are nervous about speaking out in a classroom situation. If you call on them, they’re very quiet-voiced. Legal studies are something completely new to them. What I try to do is get them used to speaking out, to create a conversation between me or between other students and try to get them to forget about sounding stupid.

“It’s particularly important in law studies to get over that because some of these people are going to be speaking before judges and juries. That’s what a lawyer does, after all--speak up a storm in public. If you can’t get over it, you’re not going to be a lawyer for long.”

As a novice professional singer, Koppel said, he was “scared to death to audition. I wouldn’t go to auditions at all for the longest time, but I plowed in because I really wanted to be a singer. When I got more familiar with the situation, I could kind of walk through the fear. I could say, ‘OK, I’m nervous and I’m scared,’ and I could still sing.

“I don’t think you ever lose (the fear) if you’re a good singer or a good lawyer. It can provide you with the energy you need to perform well. The trick is to channel it, like a well of energy. I think it would be a mistake to become too calm because it might deaden everything. You wouldn’t be as sharp. I just say, ‘Boy! I’m nervous!’ and then I charge right in.”


Pierce Ommanney makes referrals to Toastmasters International when dealing with clients who want to do public speaking but suffer from stage fright. The organization, founded and headquartered in Santa Ana, is dedicated to teaching refined public speaking techniques to its members.

But, said Terry McCann, executive director of Toastmasters, even the most experienced speakers and performers can succumb.

“With inexperienced people, you can see how nervous they are,” McCann said. “There’s stammering, furtive eye movements, body movements are jerky, their gestures are out of time with their material, their feet shuffle, they don’t know what to do with their hands. In serious cases, you can see them perspire.

“And you never lose it. You just control it.”


The techniques recommended by Toastmasters are based on the doctrine that public speaking is a learned skill, McCann said.

“We teach things like deep breathing before you go up to the lectern,” he said. “You’re trying to force all the anxiety out of your body. And you should try to make friends with the audience. Smile. Build a relationship.

“The most important thing, though, is to know and practice your material. That means live practice before a mirror or a tape recorder or a videotape camera if you have one. That’s the key: to hear and understand yourself.”

McCann said he first felt the cold claw of stage fright shortly after he won a gold medal in wrestling at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. As a star athlete, he was quickly asked to speak at luncheons, club meetings and other gatherings.


“That was really the first time I had done any speaking,” McCann said, “and I made such a total fool out of myself. I was so embarrassed. I’ve wrestled before 100,000 people and never heard a sound (in the crowd). But it was different when I was speaking.”

However, he later found that a mental technique used by athletes to improve their performances could be applied to public speaking; it’s called imaging.

Where athletes form mental pictures of striding or jumping properly, or throwing smoothly or executing a certain maneuver, the public speaker can visualize in advance each aspect of his or her performance, from gestures to a positive audience reaction.

“Imaging is really the answer today for any activity that’s anxiety-producing,” McCann said.


One such activity--for many it is no doubt the most anxiety-producing activity--is stand-up comedy. Failure to make an audience laugh has produced such legendary trauma among comedians that a particular compound word was coined long ago to describe the acute fear under the spotlight when the boffo joke gets nothing but uneasy shuffling: flopsweat.

Pat Hannafin, a comedian from Costa Mesa who performs regularly at the Laff Stop, a comedy club in Newport Beach, is past his flopsweat days. But, he said, at the beginning of his career his nerves would jangle as he took the stage.

“When you’re scared up there I think it’s that you’re going up in front of a strange group of people and you may not be confident in what you’re doing,” he said. “When I first started, I didn’t like to eat before I performed. But when you do things that you’ve done many times before and had success with them, you start to relax. I could almost be asleep before I go on now. It’s just like getting up and brushing your teeth.”

Professional comedians, said Al Korn, general manager of the Laff Stop, seldom get uncontrollable jitters. Still, he added, “whenever they go on stage they have butterflies. They’re not really scared, but there is that rush of adrenalin. Some guys will pace and go over their act before they go on, but those are often the younger acts. One gentleman I remember was so totally nervous that before his act he went outside and threw up.


“A comic knows that his future is riding on every joke he tells, so the more stage time he can get, the better. He needs to get that crowd reaction to get confidence in himself.”

However, even stand-up comedy does not hold the alarming potential for instant and irretrievable failure that the musician’s profession does. A musician cannot recover a wrong note or a missed entrance. Consequently, many musicians suffer agonizing stage fright, sometimes to the point of near-paralysis.

“Anyone who tells you he doesn’t get nervous is dead,” said Keith Clark, conductor of the Pacific Symphony Orchestra of Orange County. “I’ve seen people who are absolute physical wrecks before concerts. With some soloists, you’re never sure until the last minute whether they’re going to get out on the stage.”

There are famous professionals, such as the pianist Rudolf Serkin, who agonize backstage before a performance. And the cellist Pablo Casals, who, suffering from a siege of nerves just before beginning a performance, absently twirled his bow in an attempt to loosen up his hand, and flipped the bow into the orchestra.


However, Clark said, jitters among such seasoned veterans usually disappear with the first note of the performance.

“The instinctual music-making takes over,” he said. ‘Often,” he said, “the performance is a real release of tension. Once the music starts, the fun starts.”

In a sense, said another conductor, musical performance is a gamble, and stage fright is a penalty to be paid by the unprepared.

“When you’re performing, you’re putting part of your soul on the line,” said John Alexander, conductor of the Pacific Chorale, an Orange County choir of 110 singers. “And if you aren’t sure of the outcome, if you haven’t built your own ego to the point where you feel confident, you experience stage fright. But it disappears when you build up enough confidence to know that you’re not going to make a fool of yourself.”


Alexander, a professor of music and director of choral activities at California State University, Northridge, said his first bout with severe stage fright came when he played his first jury solo in college (a jury is a kind of final performance exam for music students, during which they play or sing for a panel of faculty members who then grade their performance). “I was so scared I almost fell off the (organ) bench,” he said. “Now I sit on juries, and I see students still getting scared to death. Today, probably the worst experience in conducting is when you’re conducting in front of your colleagues. You know you’re being judged by them. It’s sort of like taking a jury.”

Any stage fright Alexander may feel after years as a professional conductor are negated, he said, by “trying to think about the music and forgetting about your own insecurities. It’s almost like a hypnotic trance. When I conduct, that’s where I am. I’m visually seeing the music not in lines or notes, but in different forms. If you can get into that state and not let anything on the outside bother you, if you can forget about your own fears of being exposed, you can conquer it.

“If you can’t conquer it, though, you can’t perform. Personal insecurity takes over, and the artistic form doesn’t have a chance to happen.”

In the most wracking cases, however, beating stage fright can mean attacking physical as well as mental goblins. Before going in front of an audience, many people now take a type of blood-pressure medication known as beta blockers.


The medication, said Dr. Martin Brenner, a Newport Beach psychiatrist who specializes in stress management, works directly on the heart, slowing the pulse and “blocking the rise in the heart rate and the sense of fright and panic the person associates with it. A rapid pulse lends to the feeling of being out of control, and beta blockers give the person a subjective feeling of being in control.”

Also, he said, the drugs reduce involuntary tremors, such as shaking hands. And “any medication can have a placebo effect, too.”

Brenner said that beta blockers, if abused or taken in improper dosages, can cause some of the same harmful side effects, such as impotence and depression, associated with other, stronger, blood-pressure medications.

Beta blockers are a prescription drug, but, said Brenner, if they are taken as prescribed, “in the small or moderate amounts that would be used for stage fright, I don’t think you’re going to get into trouble with them.”


Still, said Brenner, the primary treatment for severe stage fright “probably would be behavioral. A lot of people who are entertainers fall into the trap of depending on a chemical. They’re saying, ‘I don’t have it in me to conquer this myself,’ so they start to look outside themselves for help.”

One Southern California professional musician, a trumpet player who asked not to be identified, said he has suffered from severe stage fright since he began his career in Southern California in 1950. Since the early ‘70s, however, the most harmful effects have been blunted by beta blockers he takes before he begins a difficult performance.

“I’d be really embarrassed before,” he said. “I’d try to go through it, but I’d get shaky and couldn’t do my best. Now I just pop one, and I don’t get the shakes. And they don’t interfere with my performance. I don’t need to take them all the time, just when I’m doing something where I’m exposed, like a trumpet solo. I’m very thankful for them.”

Still, say therapists, the best and most lasting results come from actual behavior modification--working the fear out of one’s mind. And perhaps, said attorney Glenn Koppel, the best advice is some of the oldest: Know yourself.


“I could go into a piano bar, for instance, and say, ‘I can’t do this. I’m not Luciano Pavarotti,”’ he said. “But it’s nice when I remember that nobody in a piano bar is expecting me to be Pavarotti.”