Exposure therapy for performance anxiety in musical theatre

In a previous blog post we discussed performance anxiety in musical theatre settings, otherwise known as stage fright, along with the symptoms of anxiety and a few initial steps to work toward reducing it. In order to grow past performance anxiety over the long run, you must expose yourself - you must perform, perform, perform, and this is known as exposure therapy. However, there is an art to exposing yourself to your fears and it should be done  in careful, small, planned doses. Where many people go wrong is exposing themselves into a high stakes performance with no build up, which usually results negatively and makes future performance anxiety even worse. Exposure will be most effective and fun for you in small steps that gradually lead up to a major milestone.

Exposure ladders

Exposure ladders are a technique drawn from a type of psychotherapy known as systematic desensitization, used widely by the psychiatric community to treat generalized anxiety, panic disorders and phobias. Exposure therapy aims to remove the fear response from a stimulus, and substitute a relaxation response by conditioning the stimulus gradually. A desensitization ladder is a list of activities that lead you gradually to a big goal (such as performing on your city's largest stage, for example), with activities ranked from least anxiety provoking to most anxiety provoking. The individual works up the steps of the ladder, only moving on to the next step after they have mastered exposure to the current step with little to no anxiety.

Creating your own ladder

You’ll need to create your own exposure adder, because ladders are extremely personal and specific only to your unique situation, but I have provided an example below and I am also available for private coaching to help you write yours. You’ll start with #1 and write down a tiny little step toward performing that you could handle right now, with little to no anxiety. Then you’ll go on and add #2, and so on, gradually making steps more anxiety provoking as you go, until you’ve reached a final step that is your ultimate performing goal. You can make your final step as big and outlandish or as small and practical as you want, just be honest with what your true performing goals are. If you have big dreams, there's no reason performance anxiety should stand in your way - it is a curable condition.

Be careful not to have too big of an anxiety jump between steps. You may repeat a step as many times as you want, in order to master that level with little to no anxiety. Depending on how often you are acting on these steps, it might take months or years until you feel you’ve mastered a step! In fact, you may find that over time and through experience, your goals change and you may have no desire to continue further on the ladder. In the example below, for instance, an individual might find that step #9 is completely fulfilling and the desire to push further isn’t needed.

*Note: it is unusual that an exposure ladder would require other people’s presence for almost every single step, but due to the nature of performing and needing an audience, this is a must. It is recommended that you are very careful about the people you select to be your audience, especially in the beginning stages when you have more control, that you surround yourself only with people that will be supportive, honest, positive, and will add to your self esteem. You may or may not want to ask for feedback, depending on the level of anxiety you experience during any one step. When you’re ready for more constructive feedback you’ll know it.

Example exposure ladder for musical theatre:

  1. Imagine yourself performing. Make it as real as possible in your mind, including rich visual imagery and detailed circumstances.
  2. Perform alone. This is like a practice session, but with intention that this is a performance for yourself. You are entertaining yourself.
  3. Video yourself performing a scene or song and watch it. If you want to take this a step further, upload this video to YouTube and make it public. Just the act of “putting yourself out there” will be empowering and may take some courage.
  4. Find a supportive partner or friend that has some sort of performing arts background, speaking or presentation ability, and arrange to exchange performances for each other.
  5. Perform with a duet or ensemble in front of family/friends at an informal gathering such as a family Christmas party.
  6. Perform solo in front of family/friends at an informal gathering such as a family Christmas party.
  7. Perform with a duet or ensemble at a venue that is higher caliber than a family gathering but not considered a formal or professional venue. Do not jump too far here. Possibilities might include a church choir, a show for your class at school or your child’s class, a community neighborhood barbeque, karaoke at a bar, etc.
  8. Perform solo within the same circumstances listed above.
  9. Perform with a semi-professional ensemble (generally not a paid opportunity), such as an audition-only community chorus, a community theatre where the environment is lax and supportive, a dance or acting troupe that meets strictly for fun, a toastmasters public speaking group, or something similar.
  10. Within the group/ensemble you’ve identified in #9, arrange an opportunity to perform solo for your peers or an audience.
  11. Enter into a competitive or professional performance situation, such as a musical solo competition for a panel of judges, an audition-only paid acting gig, or a dance performance for paying audience members.
  12. Continue finding opportunities similar to #11 that are gradually higher caliber venues, until you have reached a level of professionalism that satisfies your ultimate career goal for musical theatre. This might include seeking out venues where the audience size will grow larger and larger, the pay will increase over time, or travel will be involved.

More performance anxiety tools

Looking for more ways to reduce performance anxiety? Here are my recommendations:

  1. Check out my other post on performance anxiety in musical theatre settings, which will give you a good background on what anxiety is, the causes and symptoms.
  2. Pick up a copy of our eBook titled Overcoming Performance Anxiety in Musical Theatre Settings, which goes further into detail on the topic and includes several pages of activities and exercises.
  3. Read up on acting skills. The better actor you are, the more confidence you'll have and that reduces anxiety. Get MTU's Sensational Scenes and Songs, an eBook dedicated to fixing common acting problems in musical theatre.
  4. Read up on progressive muscle relaxation and meditation for musical theatre, two other crucial topics to help you relax and reduce anxiety before going onstage.

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