Performance Anxiety

Samantha Ellis


It seems a bit unfair. I’m SO not a performer but I’ve had stage fright all my life.

I love watching other people perform. The best thing about being a playwright is giving the play to a director to give to actors to give to the audience, beautifully, night after night, leaving me to sit in the back, pretzeled up with anxiety, because even having my stories on stage is scary. I hate being looked at, or being the centre of attention, and if you get a camera out, I’ll go into fight or flight. I think Lawrence Olivier was right when he said that stage fright was “what it must be like to give birth.” I haven’t given birth, but nor did Olivier, and anyway, medics say stage fright is as stressful as a small car crash and I believe them. Until last year I just knew if I had to go on stage, ever, I would run straight off like Barbra Streisand did (in the middle of a song!—and she needed 2700 hours of psychotherapy to get back on!), or I’d vanish to Belgium like Stephen Fry.

Then I wrote a book, which was unwise, because if you a write a book you can’t get actors to perform it. You have to do readings, and you have to do them yourself. In the months before my book came out, the idea of doing readings was waking me up in the middle of the night, clammy and nauseous with terror. So when I found myself, late one night, in a cocktail bar, perched on a stool, clutching a microphone in one hand and my book in the other, worrying I had overdone the glitter around my eyes and that no one would hear me, or that everyone would hear me and they’d hate it, it was all my nightmares come true.

I’ve always been fascinated by the moment before an actor goes on stage, by the moment of transformation, when you see them become the role they are playing. A few years ago, in India, I went to a theyyam ceremony, a Hindu dance ritual where the dancer becomes, for one night only, a god. The dancers are not professionals; they have normal jobs, until their night comes round, once a year, and then they put on their masks. It happens slowly, and it happens in public. I watched a man put on his make up, his costume, his headpiece, taking many hours, in a tent in the dark, until dawn came and it was light enough to blow out the candle and he began to dance. And I don’t believe, and I was exhausted, and it was cold, but still, as he started moving, I was startled by how it happened. He became a god.

Back in the cocktail bar, the glitter, I now realised, was my costume. Maybe it was ill-advised. Certainly there was too much of it. But it made me feel strong and it made me feel brave, and so I banished thoughts of Belgium, took a deep breath and went for it.


Afterwards my actor friend said, “Do you know what you’ve done? You’ve written a dramatic monologue.” Maybe I had. Maybe I’d been itching to perform all along. Because it was liberating to front my own work. To take responsibility. To connect to people directly. To have nowhere to hide.

Really nowhere to hide, because the book isn’t fiction. And while I’ve written autobiographically before, and some of my plays are quite close to the bone, when it’s fiction, you can be coy and refuse to say which bits are true. But this book is all true. I was using live ammunition. So I wasn’t just performing my writing; I was performing my life.

We’re all doing that now, of course. We’re all updating our statuses or tweeting or instagramming. We are all performing our own true stories in too much glitter in front of too many people. And mostly I love it. I love being honest, and the generosity of being open with everyone, not just close friends. I love that candour encourages other people to be candid. It starts conversations. It makes connections. It increases understanding. It can even make friends.

A lot’s been written about how threatening it was when Mark Zuckerberg said, “You have one identity”. But I found it quite reassuring. Zuckerberg went on to say, “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end…Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” It reminds me of how I used to have a school identity and a home identity. We had different languages at home, different foods and different ways of doing things, but it wasn’t just that. As we got nearer our homes, all my friends and I put on a show. We rolled our skirts back down so they were the length they were supposed to be, we stopped swearing, we threw away our chewing gum, we prepared to be the girls we were at home.

The sociologist Erving Goffman thought we did this all the time. He thought Shakespeare was right; all the world is a stage, and we are always trying to make a good impression and putting on different masks depending who we are talking to. Goffman would have been unsurprised about how we curate our online identities now, making out we exist on a diet of avocadoes, chia seeds and photogenic cocktails, adding filters to sunsets, using apps to give our selfies a glow, or to remove our sunburn or our spots. I don’t like this one bit. I’ve got shoeboxes of pictures from my teens and twenties where I look dreadful. Dreadful but happy. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am very glad I went through university without worrying what I looked like, or if pictures of me after one glass of wine too many would appear on the internet the next day, and then just sit there, for years, to haunt me later on. (Yes, even if I deleted it. Because nothing ever really disappears from the internet.)

The older I get, the more I feel like what I want is one identity—and an honest one. I want to be the same with my family as with my friends. And on social media, I want to be the same with acquaintances and strangers too. I try not to overshare, but I’m also pretty honest online and on the page—my agent once told me that I didn’t have to write about everything, but if I did write about something, I should be scrupulously honest about it, and I try to be. This doesn’t mean my Twitter timeline is completely joyless. I take a lot of pictures of books (when the cover design is beautiful, why not?). I posted a picture of my grandma’s birthday cake, mainly because I was so pleased to have found a hot pink plastic candelabra, but also because I was happy that night. Scrolling back through my pictures, I am unsurprised to find Kate Bush shows up a lot, as does marmalade. And when I found myself at Top Withens (the real Wuthering Heights!) at sunset, I took a selfie. I thought I had the balance right, not feeling pressured to post beautiful pictures of artificial perfection, but being able to share the good stuff (and sometimes the bad, too), and to be myself.

But a few weeks ago, my boyfriend proposed, in a field, at a music festival, while Björk was playing, and everyone was dressed up as pirates and mermaids and jellyfish, and I said yes. And I didn’t want to tell anyone. I didn’t post a shot of my ring online, not least because the ring was a temporary one, a keyring in fact, which was both funny and brilliantly unscary; I wasn’t ready for an actual ring. Not yet. I felt like I was backstage and I wasn’t ready yet to make my entrance. Goffman we go backstage to let our guard down, to get ready for our next role, and that’s exactly how I felt. I was crossing a threshold. Something enormous was going to happen. And it was magical and thrilling and all the better for being a bit private. We rang our parents and our brothers and, for the moment, left it at that. We hugged our secret to ourselves.


And then my ninety-year-old great uncle put it on Facebook. At first, I felt like I’d been shoved on stage and I had no idea what to do there. I wanted to pull a Streisand or a Fry. I wanted to hide. I scrambled to tell my best friend before she found out from someone else. I wondered frantically who else I should tell in person. I panicked. And then I bit the bullet. I put up a picture of the two of us from that afternoon. We had just been swimming in a very murky lake, and looked muddy and sunstruck and really just quite dazed. I wasn’t in my favourite outfit. I had no make up on. My hair was all frizz. But the sun was shining and we were happy, and it suddenly felt right to tell people about it. And I remembered how lovely it can be to be known, to be seen. I remembered, too, that performance is playful. It isn’t about being perfect, or careful, or in control. Performance is about improvising and being fleet and mischievous and messy. It’s definitely not about dithering in the wings; when the lights go up, you just have to get out there. And after all, everyone says the best cure for stage fright is to get back on stage.

Samantha Ellis’s plays include Cling To Me Like Ivy (Nick Hern Books) and Operation Magic Carpet (Polka Theatre). Her reading memoir, How to be a Heroine, is published by Vintage.

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