One Pasty At a Time: Strip, Strip Hooray

In less than a month, I will be stepping onto a freshly minted stage, (complete with a past that would give any historian an intellectual hard-on) and in front of friends, family, and strangers, to effectively take it off. [Editor’s note: Some stuff behind the cut not appropriate for all audiences, like your boss.]

Conquer those fears. Camilla Cupcake and Joe The CabDriver. Image courtesy of Super Happy Fun Time Burlesque

The prospect of this has filled me with deer-in-the-headlights-type scenarios, though not with the obvious. It’s not the idea of being casually nude in front of a crowd of what seems like everyone under the sun. Oh no, that’s the easy part. Hell, if the world were perhaps a radically different and accepting place, I’d prance around in some half-naked, mish-mash combo of Morticia Addams, Sophia Loren, and Latrice Royale, via Hoover Dam-like bursting cleavage, eyelashes longer than god, and of course, scantily placed clothing. This might prove difficult come winter time, but since we are playing this game, I’d like to think that the weather would not offend me with that “cold” thing, instead providing a temperature suited for such getups.

So if that’s not the issue, what’s the deal, navel gazer? Well, call it some good old-fashioned anxiety. Performance anxiety. Yeah, I don’t mind showing my ass in front of plenty, oh no. It’s the other stuff: the making sure that I do it well, that it’s memorable, and, as my fairy godmother has come to so famously say, that I don’t fuck it up. Stage fright. I believe that’s the layman’s term.

I’d never really thought about how much goes into performing until I had heard actual performers talk about having to make do even in the toughest crowds. It wasn’t something that I thought didn’t require any work, no, it was more the behind the curtain inklings of understanding how much goes into performance. Sure, there are ways in which burlesque gets a bit of an easier pass in the ways of this great art than say, stand up comedians, opera singers, or Madonna. But it still is work  because at the end of it all, you feasibly aren’t there to just shake your ass and look all sorts of amazing (though that’s a huge part). No, you are there to entertain, and you owe it to whoever is in your audience to entertain the shit out of them.

So, what of that bitter little gem anxiety and its pissy-ass cousin, stage fright? Well… I’m not certain. Sure, some performers have no issue with it, those who have the apparent divinity of being born to be on stage. That’s all fine and dandy, but then, what of the rest of us?

Well, first there is dropping the assumption that it’s just you dealing with your stage fright. As sympathetic as a cause it may be, you (and when I say you, I mean me) aren’t the first to experience that stomach churning feeling, and you most certainly won’t be the last. Dissected, stage fright is just about not wanting to fail and not wanting to disappoint. To think that even seasoned pros don’t experience what’s basically a general human experience is, well… not fair. It denies people their experiences and feelings, and instead turns them into deities, gods who can do no wrong. If anything is to be learned, it’s that falling from an unattainable pedestal is extra unpleasant.

This is what happiness looks like. The amazing Vagina Jenkins. image (c) Brandi Pettijohn, 2010

I fall into this mind frame quite a bit, mostly because it is easy to get caught up in the internal muck and forget about what ultimate strength makes one human: vulnerability.  A few weeks ago, I was stage kittening one of my first gigs, an experience that, while forcing me to do the thing I want to (how about that conundrum), sent me over the edge with anxiety. Like, oh sweet Jesus is a biscuit, Imma throw up in my mouth anxiety. Sure, the experience was fun, but can I just say things are way less enjoyable when all you can do think about how you may be doing something wrong or worrying that you may fall, bore, or disappoint your audience, or worse, disappoint your peers?

It was only afterward when a performer who I look up to, the one who gave me the gig, asked me what I thought about the experience. I gave off my usual monologue about anxiety and afterwards she looked at me and said, ” Oh yeah, I hate anxiety. I have it too and it drives me nuts.” The tables became flipped. Here I was bitching about my neurosis as if I was the first and last, meanwhile reality was also happening. Anxiety: it’s ridiculous.

But the experience has gotten me curious about people’s coping mechanisms. By dropping the mentality of “Oh, you’re doing this on the regular, you must feel awesome all the time,” it’s giving an actual space to hear about people’s experiences, regardless of what happens on stage. One performer, whose innumerable talents I’ve credited for helping me through some tough times, has a pre-stage mantra that involves saying the names of three famous women, whose own talents, flaws, and brass balls were enough of a reminder of why she was there performing. Another remembers that it’s “now,” and whatever comes afterwards, will be dealt with then. Another has a pre-game music engulfment, where she listens to classical music to soother her nerves. Another carries a lucky charm in her shoe. Sure, it might seem silly to some, but with anxiety, it isn’t about reason, otherwise, you might be hip to the idea that not everything will absolutely fall apart.

Yolanda "Tongolele" Montes. Image courtesy of vintagegal.tumblr

Either way, the newbie in me still a nail-biting, hair pulling, semi-hot mess. However, I’ve begun to notice something recently that I’ve yet to really name. There’s a tiny, tiny, tiny (tiny) voice inside me that is telling me it’s going to be all right. That I will not only be good, I will be great. That this is what I’m supposed to be doing and all I have to do is trust myself. I won’t wax too poetic, but as someone who has been for so long unable to trust even the most astute instinct and feelings for fear of “being wrong,” it’s something I’m grabbing tight to, though not so much so that I strangle it. Perhaps it’s from beginning to be a part of a community that has dealt with many similar things, or maybe the fact that most of us are in similar boats, even despite the many different experiences we have. I’m not altogether sure. I just know that the voice that’s slowly peeping up, the one that I can barely hear above all the anxiety that yells in my brain, addling me with the shitty sprinkles on top of what can be a depression-soaked Sunday, that I feel calmer, more willing to trust myself.  I don’t think it means that things won’t happen or I will never feel anxiety again, but that I am beginning to trust that I can rise above that. That I owe it to myself to do so. It is a wondrous feeling, one that I’m okay with letting remain nameless. I think I prefer it to be my own mantra, my own lucky charm, or special pre-game tradition.

So while the anxiety and depression, the negative and the self-hatred are busy screaming at the top of their lungs, filling my brain with the “can’t,” I’m holding the tiny voice close to my chest, hoping to keep it going. It may not be the loudest or the best voice. But it is there, and that is certainly more than I ever hoped for.

4 replies on “One Pasty At a Time: Strip, Strip Hooray”

I also learned this lesson last week. I have a few friends who have been selling at art fairs for years, and they were both super nervous about one this weekend. It’s comforting to know that everyone is a bit of a mess before a big show. And I totally agree with your tiny voice, you will be fantabulous.

I’m currently reading a book on the science of creativity. In it, the author talks about his discussions with Yoyo Ma on performance. I’m paraphrasing, but he basically said that everyone makes a mistake on stage, and once that first mistake happens, you’re free and that’s when the magic begins. You can have all the technical aspects down, but unless you get out of your head and just exist in the moment, you’re basically a robot.

You are going to be fantastic!

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