Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Rookie Files: Stage Fright

Zoo show programs are exciting and wonderful to perform.

Zoo Shows combine education and showmanship into a form that people can appreciate and enjoy.  Zoo shows, though, do require you to perform on a stage in front of hundreds of people, and this can sometimes lead to stage fright.
Getting ready to go on-stage
All of us who participate in zoo show education programs have had stage fright, and usually it’s worst at the beginnings of our careers.  For some stage fright is brought on by crowds numbering close to a thousand and being alone on stage for the first time in months.  For others stage fright can be induced by as few as three people.  Sometimes it is more comforting to give a show to a large group, since this causes faces and background chatter to blend into the crowd. 

Regardless of the cause, we all have pre-show rituals to help deal with it.  I center myself right before I go onstage and obsessively check the battery pack of my microphone to make sure it is on and I am not going to run out of battery power.  Other speakers will shake out or stretch out their nervous energy before the show starts.  Some will sit quietly and meditate on their script.  There are also occasions of pre-show group singing and warm-up cheers.

However we manage to calm our nerves and jitters, once we do we are prepared for every situation--ad-libbing while a bird sits in a tree, dealing with an overenthusiastic volunteer we’ve called out of the audience, speaking in front of a group that is standing room only, and on one memorable occasion performing a ten minute monologue while trying to get a bird to return to the theater.
Detour plotting a detour
Humans are not the only ones who get stage fright during zoo show programs.  Birds--especially rookies--are sometimes overwhelmed by the sheer number of people in the audience. This usually results in the bird not doing its behavior at all or deciding to seek safety in a nearby tree. This is more common with the smaller birds, ones that are considered prey in the wild.

Detour, our American kestrel would often detour from his flight path if it took him too close to the audience. Instead he would perch on the roof and observe until he deemed it safe enough to come back down. As the smallest falcon species found in North America, I can understand his trepidation. 

Sam, our young Augur Buzzard was thrown for quite the loop the first time he popped up onto his entrance perch and found the formerly empty theater full of people--or, in his opinion, full of frightening, unfamiliar creatures. He immediately sought the safety of a tree and we went back to square one.  You see, when practicing for the first real show, our theater is almost always empty of people, so those birds that have never flown over people in theater bleachers can get stage fright the first time they experience people in the bleachers.
Sam needed to be re-started to condition him to a large audience
Just like with beginning speakers, we re-started Sam out small with audiences of 15-20 and worked our way back up to audiences in the hundreds. We also reworked his flight pattern, since from his point of view he was flying into potential danger. It also helped to walk him around the theater for several shows, allowing him time to get used to the audience and realize that they were not going to harm him.  After about a month of this Sam was flying, care free, over hundreds of people.

Stage fright is a problem that everyone has dealt with at one point or another. It can manifest through nervous energy, upset stomach or inability to speak. The key is to break it down, start out small, and work your way through the problem. Once you do you’ll find that there is nothing you cannot accomplish and no situation that you cannot handle. Birds have to be helped through this process in getting used to large groups of humans, but we do have a big advantage over them. We never think the audience is about to eat us!

Submitted by Leah Tyndall, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist/Trainer

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