Riding the storm of performance anxiety
Australian rock musician and author Tim Rogers was 19 when he first experienced performance anxiety.
He had a memorable attack in Sydney’s Hills District when auditioning for a stage version of Harold and Maude – he wanted to impress a woman who admired the film.
“When I got up to audition I got the ‘dreadful affliction’,” he says.
“I didn’t get into the play but, a couple of years later, I got into a rock band – and it all started.”
Rogers says he worked for about 20 years with his band, You Am I, thinking he could “snort, bang, and drink” whatever he liked as long as he showed up on stage.
If he was performing in a play or doing other work that wasn’t music-based, he’d assume a modicum of responsibility and think, “At least, don’t show up half cut.”
When the anxiety bit back, Rogers was forced to take stock.
He realised his bad behaviour had been leading to bad shows – and, more importantly, to being a bad friend, partner and father.
“And I was a bad father,” he says, “and that’s the greatest shame of all. I’d fly back in [to home] and have the greatest responsibility of all, and I wouldn’t be able to perform.”
To “function as a human” again, Rogers knew he’d have to cut his consumption of certain substances. He’d also need to start being decent to people and to take responsibility for appearing on stage “in better form”.
These days he does everything possible to avoid performance anxiety because “it’s the worst feeling I’ve had”.
He says the steps he’s been taking to avoid it are making him a better person, friend, father and partner.
“So, that’s the ruling factor.
“If you know you have the capacity to go that way [with anxiety], you just do everything you can not to prod the bear.”
Rogers’ GP once prescribed beta blockers to calm the adrenalin storm of his anxiety. These days he quells it by being conscientious, which is easy if someone has put their trust in him and given him a job to do.
“What I know [when working for others] is that I can’t do what I want to do. I can’t wake up in the morning and think, ‘When can I start drinking?’”
‘Self-poisoning by adrenaline’
The New Yorker magazine once described stage fright as “self-poisoning by adrenaline” and award-winning Australian actor Claudia Karvan agrees it’s an apt description.
She’s seen performers battle the muscle tension, sweats, shakes, heart pounding, mouth dryness, breathing difficulties, nausea, dizziness, throat constriction and vocal changes the adrenalin produces when their anxieties are serious.
What she feels is a state of suspense – a tension that can last for weeks or months in the lead-up to a stage or film performance.
With Love My Way, the widely acclaimed television series she wrote, produced and starred in, the suspense galvanised her, pushing her into research.
When she and the other writers in the team decided that Lou, the lynchpin of the family, was going to die, Karvan went straight out to interview nurses who’d been present when mothers had lost their children. She hoped their answers would help her empathise with Lou’s plight.
Each day during filming she’d also read one tip from 101 Tips for a Grieving Parent – “a horrific book, no one would ever want to buy” – just before she went on stage.
She says that, in this case, the suspense she’d felt spurred her to nut out the problems. “So I didn’t just wing it on the day and have no kind of framework to hang onto.”
Rogers, who published his memoir Detours last year, also speaks of using a framework (“like Lego”) to help manage his anxiety. He says he puts his intentions out there and distracts himself by going through certain rituals, so he can do the job, and do it properly.
He breathes (“dull, but it works”). He also uses time backstage and occasionally onstage (in periods of inaction) to write songs.
Fear can sometimes be defeated by focus, he says. Ergo: Give your attention to writing a song for the next minute, and the minute after might be better – with less terror.
The adrenalin can become poison, or it can become an elixir, he adds. It all depends on how you use it.
“If you’re a sensitive person, or an alive person, or you’ve got a skin too few, you’re going to be feeling it [the anxiety] constantly … and you’ve just got to find better ways of using it.
“It’s a pain in the arse, but maybe you’ll get a song out of it.”
Tim Rogers and Claudia Karvan shared their insights about performance anxiety on November 13 as part Monday Conversations, a series the Belvoir St Theatre presents in partnership with the Wheeler Centre and Sydney Writers’ Festival.
Find help to manage anxiety at Beyond Blue.
Tim Rogers’ book, Detours, is available at Harper Collins