Many of you Alexandrites have asked me about stage fright and how to overcome it.  It’s a good question and you might be surprised how common pre-performance nerves actually are.

Nervousness or stage fright as it’s sometimes called can get the better of us if we allow it to, causing us to forget our patter, be distracted by other thoughts, or lose confidence.  We all know the signs: heart pounding, hands trembling, knees knocking, voice wavering.  I hate being nervous for a theatrical reason.  To me the audience is like a pack of animals, and like animals they have a heightened sense of awareness, a kind of mob instinct.  As science has shown us, if we are nervous we emanate a different smell.  I think an audience is aware of your fear.  Instinctively, they start to worry for you, and as such your entertainment level is lessened.

Actually I used to be quite nervous when I started.  When I was part of the junior magicians program at The Magic Castle we used to have a thing called workshops, where we would present our latest trick to the audience.  I was showing a new card trick to the group that I had practiced a few times, but not enough.  As I began shuffling the cards, to my horror, my hands began shaking so badly everyone noticed.  As the years passed and I worked my way through doing magic in restaurants, I noticed that whenever I slowed my breathing rate down, I gave a steady relaxed performance.  This isn’t to say that my performance wasn’t dynamic.  It was.  But I was in control.

Over the years I have arrived at what I believe to be the truth about this subject.  Here it is.  Nervousness about performing comes mostly from conceit.  To explain, perhaps unconsciously you believe that you are so wonderful that what you are about to do is of major importance in the grand scheme of things.  What dawned on me was that tomorrow, Trump will still be in office,  Putin will still be running the former Soviet Union, and the major forces that drive the world along will not be thrown into disarray if I drop a deck of cards!

Let’s face it, what we are doing in the entertainment profession is a mere frippery, a passing shadow, but for you and I especially, it should also be enjoyable.  In our society, nobody forces you to go on stage, you choose to perform, you want to perform.  You enjoy performing.

If it all does go wrong (and it will occasionally), in a couple night’s time you will be the only one that remembers it, so stop worrying about it.  Make sure you really know what you are doing every time you perform.  Never under rehearse, never under analyze and just get up there and have a good time.

I must share something that until now I’ve been reluctant to.  Six days ago I was performing my Levitation illusion with Elena at a Corporate Event in Las Vegas.  Without going into to much detail, when a person is levitated with the method I’m use, a backstage ‘operator’ is required.  Well this operator had never operated a levitation before.  We did rehearse him and when it came time to perform the show he did everything perfectly except one thing.  When Elena landed on the couch after floating, a switch must be turned from ‘down’ to ‘stop’.  Well this operator accidentally switched her from ‘down’ to ‘up’. So after a perfect landing, Elena sits up to step off the couch only to float up again and sit there in the air with all the audience staring and the music finished.  What can you do?  I gestured for the curtain to come down, jumped out in front of it and took my bows with Cheshire cat grin across my face as big as the sun.

Paul Daniels talks about Judy Garland doing something with her crew that he adopted.  After a long journey when he needs ‘picking up’ to go on stage, he starts to breathe very deep and fast.  He pumps his arms up and down, jumping up and down, faster and faster in the last few seconds as he is being introduced.  Just as his name is announced, he blows it all out with a huge relief and walks on to perform.  I think this is smart.  You will find by then that your body is ‘up for it’.  This high speed ‘pumping up’ energizes your whole performance, and the herd that is the audience can really feel the power that you emanate.  Here are some underlying causes of stage fright and solutions to overcoming them:

  • Not fully prepared – There is no substitute for preparations.  I live by the saying “Proper preparation prevents poor performance.”  This includes much more than being familiar with each effect.  It encompasses full rehearsals of the show many times over, technical rehearsals, contingency plans, exits and entrances and so on.  Leave no stone unturned as it were.  If you can’t do that, or don’t have the time to, it’s better not to do the show at that time.
  • Undue concern for the audience – Many performers get consumed with questions such as, “What will they think,” “How will they react,” and other such unnecessary paranoia.  If you put on the best performance you can, the audience will enjoy it.  Remember, they have likely paid to come and see you, so they are on your side.  They want you to succeed.  Don’t get wrapped up in needlessly worrying about the audience.  Concentrate on, and enjoy the show, and the rest will follow.  Just for you:  You really aren’t doing it for them are you? You’re doing it for you.
  • Fear of something going wrong – Get used to the fact that occasionally you will make a mistake; we are all imperfect.  When something does go wrong, have a system to get you back into the routine smoothly. Plan ahead to imagine what potentially could go wrong, and think about what you would do to overcome it in each case.  Usually it’s only the magician who knows he has messed something up, and by changing a sequence around, he can often get back on track again.  If something does go wrong, then focus on moving on quickly, and the audience will not be concerned.  Be human; don’t be afraid to show your feelings.
  • Warm up before the show – Just as athletes spend time preparing for an event by physical exercises, a magician should be no different.  Spend time before every show preparing your body for the event.  Try slow breathing exercises to calm your racing pulse, and just before you go on, try Judy Garland’s technique.  Other physical exercises such as stretching and wiggling your hands and fingers can help you to warm up and be less prone to fumbling with props.

Associated with this is technique to imagine that you have already finished the show. Visualize the audience laughing and clapping; yes imagine that you were a phenomenal success! Run this through your mind, and you will go on stage in a very positive manner.

The great motivational speaker Anthony Robbins is often seen talking to himself before a presentation, doing the same technique, and by the time he hits spotlights, he is enthusiastic, and oozes confidence. Ultimately there is no substitute for practice and rehearsal.  It’s the only real way to greatly reduce your chances of mistakes, and potential embarrassment.  So there you have it.  These are some specific techniques to overcome the destructive forces of stage fright.  Now, I want you to put these techniques and principles into practice and start formulating your show.

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