That’s the title of the movie that the wonderful Mel Brooks produced, directed and acted the lead in many years ago. It could also describe a lot of my performance life. While living in New Zealand, I had something of a career change. It wasn’t an overnight thing – although, on closer inspection, you could say that it was. I’d been working as an actor for several years: on stage, radio and a bit of telly. I’d found that the more technology that was involved, the more my performance anxiety kicked in. For that reason, I eventually gave up television work. (Or did it give up me?)
The last television straw was my brief appearance in an episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. I was on screen for 28 seconds! (I counted.) In an outdoor scene, my character was inadvertently shot by Cupid’s arrow.
In keeping with the legend, I fell in love with the first person I saw… who happened to be a guy. In the script, I said to him “I love you man!” Because it was an USA production, I had to speak with an American accent. That was no problem, but the director threw me an incredible curve ball. He said that the scene was based on a well-known ad, and that he’d wanted me to do it in that style. The conversation continued something like this:
“Great. Have you got a video of it?”
“No.” The director wasn’t an actor, meaning I couldn’t even get him to impersonate the original guy, so that I could impersonate his impersonation. He tried to describe the actions and intonations of the guy in the ad. I’d give it a go, and he’d say something like “No, it’s not like that, it’s a bit slower there, and maybe a bit louder.” And I’d try to follow his instructions. I have a very good ear, in fact they’re both quite decent. But how on Earth could I impersonate someone I’d neither seen nor heard? The director grew more and more frustrated, and I became increasingly tense. After 15 takes, he grudgingly said “That’ll do.”
I just wanted to run away and hide, but I had to sign off with the unit manager. He’d clearly seen how I’d suffered. Looking me in the eye, he quietly said “Every one of those takes was perfect!” I managed to hold back my tears. Here was someone with empathy, who realised the ridiculousness of the situation. I’ve never forgotten that metaphorical arm around my shoulder, but I decided there and then (and have never changed my resolve) that I’d given that part of acting a good shot, and there’d be no more TV drama.
Performance anxiety would often affect the voiceover sessions I did for radio and television commercials. Eventually, I came up with what seemed to be the brilliant idea of doing some occasional presenting in music radio. Because it was live and not recorded like the voiceover work, it would make doing the voiceovers seem like a walk in the park – or so I thought. That certainly wasn’t the case for me. In live radio you only get one shot at it. That presents its own challenges, but you don’t end up having to record multiple retakes as could happen with voiceovers. The pressures are different, and my idea didn’t work out.
But the sporadic weekend radio presenting did lead to that career change. ‘Sporadic’ suggests that the change of direction was definitely not overnight… but my first fulltime radio-presenting job was the overnight shift, five times a week! They don’t call it the graveyard shift for nothing! For months, I tried to fit a normal daytime, with a wife and two young children, around my antisocial radio hours. Recordings of me on the air in the middle of the night sounded like I was the living dead.
After six months, one of the daytime presenters moved on, and I was asked to fill in for them, with the carrot dangled that if I did well enough, I could take over permanently. For someone with a high level of performance anxiety, that wasn’t helpful. It would have been better if I’d been told that I’d just be filling in for a few days, and then I’d be reinterred into the overnights.
What I find intriguing is the lack of guidance, and hardly any encouragement, from management. It was a form of radio silence.
Thank goodness for the big-hearted, gentle, kind man who used to do the airborne traffic reports in the breakfast and drivetime shows. Bill Mudgway was known as the ‘eye in the sky’. He was also known for having a good word for everybody. So, when he came into the radio station early each afternoon before going out to the aerodrome, saying nice things about how I was doing on air, I’d take his words with a pinch of salt… well, a whole packet at first. But white haired and smiling, he’d tell me about all the complimentary comments the pilots were making, and the other staff. I have no idea how true all this might have been, but eventually, Bill wore me down, and I began to believe him. My confidence rose, and the job became mine as permanently as anything ever is in radio.
A lot of us thrive with an arm around a shoulder. Sometimes a rocket up the backside can be appropriate, but I prefer the gentle approach – for myself and how I am to people I work with. Building someone up is much more likely to be successful than threatening them and pulling them to pieces. I had that latter experience later in my radio career. By that stage, I was experienced, but it still took me a long time to recover from what was, in truth, bullying – a real hatchet job! I know that if a gentler, constructive approach had been used, it, and I, would have been a lot more successful.
Kindness is one of the greatest attributes a person can have. Sometimes it can be thought of as a sign of weakness, but to me, it’s a perfect antidote to anxiety, which is rife in our world. And that gentle, white-haired man was kindness personified.
What could I have done to help myself in anxiety-causing situations? There’s a whole catalogue of mental, emotional and physical techniques which can work. It’s a matter of finding one(s) that work for oneself. But all successful techniques lead to the same thing: calm breathing, which goes hand in hand with a relaxed parasympathetic nervous system. So, why not go directly to your breath? The old advice of taking deep breaths is partly correct, but it’s not complete. When someone is panicking, or even when they’re becoming tense, their breathing becomes rushed, shallow, and centred in the upper chest. They’ll very likely be gulping air in through their mouth. The advice should include breathing more and more slowly – from the diaphragm, and ideally through the nose. That’s a mental and physical remedy which can work well. Adding an emotional ingredient can enhance the process. Try this: When you’re feeling anxious or tense, use the technique I’ve just described, and on each inbreath, think of something which warms the cockles of your heart. It could be a person, a pet, or a fond memory – whatever!
Doing this can speed up the relaxation. (It’s well worth you checking out the scientifically validated work of the HeartMath Institute, which in part is concerned with managing stress. HeartMath Institute)
“If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.” ― Amit Ray
Whatever anxiety-reducing technique you use, being prepared is obviously an advantage. For example, if you’re about to have a difficult conversation, try and be as relaxed as possible before you start. Practising your techniques when you’re not stressed is important, so that whatever method you use becomes second nature. This is particularly helpful for when something challenging happens unexpectedly. You probably will be able to practise briefly and unobtrusively several times a day.
“Feelings come and go like clouds. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” — Thich Nhat Hanh