Living with the Toothpaste – Coming to Terms with Stage Fright

I have a confession.

I have stage fright.

There. That wasn’t so hard, was it?

Actually, it really was. I’m not congratulating myself, mind you, but as anyone who suffers from anxiety can tell you, one of the things we all have in common is that we’re really good at hiding it. I will guarantee that there’s at least one or two people in your social circle who suffers from anxiety or panic disorder, and you don’t know about it.

That’s because it’s a source of shame for most of us. And, sadly, that’s what gives it its power.

It wasn’t always like this for me. I had panic problems growing up, but it never impacted my performing. I did community theater and high school drama, and it was never a problem; on the contrary, the stage was one of those rare environments in my life where I felt like I was in control. I used to look forward to those times in a production where something would go wrong, because I loved the fact that I could think on my feet and figure out a way to improvise my way through it.

That all changed one night.

I was seventeen. Someone I knew asked me if I wanted to perform in a talent show in my home town. I agreed and said I would sing a solo. The song was “Those Magic Changes” from the musical “Grease,” a choice that would turn out to be an ironic. And prophetic. Ironic because it’s such an unmemorable song, and prophetic because of what happened next.

I arrived backstage maybe fifteen minutes before my performance, mostly because I wasn’t sweating it. I was used to getting up in front of hundreds, even, on occasion, more than a thousand people, and just doing my thing. I didn’t even bother to warm up my voice. I remember seeing other kids practicing and warming up backstage. Amateurs, I thought.

I was announced, I walked out on stage in front of what was 500 people, the music started, the spotlight hit me, and I started in.

The first two verses went fine. I could feel the crowd was with me. They’re impressed, I remember thinking. This kid can really sing.

Then I went to hit the first high note of the chorus. And my voice broke.

Did I mention I was 17? I was late to puberty. My voice was really high up until that point.

I shrugged it off and kept going. I figured it wouldn’t happen again. I went into the chorus. And it happened again. I was out of control.

My heart started to pound. My vision swam. I went into a full panic attack. My voice broke again. And again. I think it happened probably six times. I remember hearing a voice in the audience: “You can do it!” I think it was my grandmother.

The song ended. Finally. I made it off the stage, and went directly for the exit. I had a loop in my head: This is bad. Everything will be different from now on. This changes everything.

And it did. The toothpaste was out of the tube.

I tried to fit it back in. I continued to perform on stage, mostly because it’s what I did. I was still planning on the one thing I’d always wanted to do since I was a kid, which was to be on Broadway. I figured I’d keep going and it’d get better. It’d get easier.

It didn’t; In fact, it got harder.

I thought, Okay, I can do solos, but no high notes. And then, I can sing, but no solos. Then, straight plays, but no musicals, and certainly no solos. Then it was it was, I can do plays, but no monologues. And then it was, no plays at all. And then no acting.

My world got smaller and smaller.

Years later, I got into voiceover, mostly because that was all that was left for me. As it turns out, it was a great fit. I worked in radio some during college, and I loved recording commercials and promos for the stations I worked at. It was fun being able to channel all of my acting into my voice, especially with no audience watching.

But stage fright is always a progressive thing, and eventually, it started to eat away at the kinds of voiceover I could do. I could do spots, ideally promos, as long as they had a break in the middle. I certainly couldn’t do 60-second spots. And on and on it went. It even started to bleed over into my regular life. I was having anxiety just talking to people. Even my wife.

Until one day I had this realization. I realized that if I kept letting this go on, I’d get to the point where it could box me in completely. That I would likely get to the point where I’d be afraid to speak at all.

I knew I couldn’t stop the fear. I’d done enough therapy to know that it was never going to go away completely. The toothpaste was out of the tube. I couldn’t ever go back to the point when I was a kid and I was able to simply perform in front of people without fear. That wasn’t going to happen.

But what I could do was recognize that the fear was just a physical sensation. It was just happening inside my body. It didn’t have to control me. In fact, it didn’t need to have any impact on me at all other than making me feel physically uncomfortable. It could only keep me from doing things—like performing, like monologues, like solos with high notes, like 60 second spots—if I let it.

And so I made a choice. I decided to live with the toothpaste. I knew I had a contribution to make, and I didn’t want fear getting in the way of that. But more than that, I decided I didn’t want anything limiting my life.

That was about five years ago. Since then, I’ve made my peace with it, as much as I’m ever going to. I actually try to tell people about it as much as I can, mostly because that diminishes its power. And I’ve been surprised by how, not only are people okay with it, but a number of them have told me about their own stage fright issues. About their own experiences with the toothpaste.

So there it is. Next time you hear me on TV or radio, know that I probably was dealing with some form of anxiety when I recorded whatever you’re listening to.

Because I have stage fright.

There. I said it again.

But I did it anyway.