What do a leading paediatric surgeon, a world champion snooker player, a West End star, stand-up comedian and a rabbi have in common? It may sound like the beginning of a joke, but all these people have to deal with nerves on a daily basis and it’s their ability to turn fear and pressure into something positive that sets them apart.
Much of my working life at the Royal Shakespeare Company was spent as a producer, backstage in dressing rooms with actors, waiting in the wings and watching their preparation in those moments immediately before they take their own stage cue.
The countdown to being on, to that key moment when you have to try to play your best game, is an odd time, one that seems out of kilter with real time. The 30 minutes before the curtain goes up is when performers really focus their minds.
But an operating theatre is where I’ve observed the pressure barometer at its highest, the jokes at their darkest, and the backstage noise at its loudest. It’s in this environment that Ross Fisher, a consultant paediatric surgeon at Sheffield Children’s Hospital, has to gather his thoughts, push apprehension and any distress aside and get into his zone. “I wouldn’t say that we’re disengaged, but in medicine we learn to be different. We learn to touch people, we learn to ask difficult questions, and as surgeons we learn to cut people. And that’s weird, there’s no two ways about it, but you learn that that’s what we do normally and so we do that, and you get yourself into a zone of not being upset by that... because if we were we couldn’t do what we do.”
His response might seem flippant, but it’s crucial for him to think that way when it’s sometimes a matter of life and death. He sees it as a dance that he’s learnt; there’s a rhythm to it, a set of steps, a physical and mental discipline each time, a total dependency on colleagues joining in the same dance at the same time. However, if a step is missed, small issues can become big issues. Expecting the unexpected is how he embraces the moments before surgery as he takes time out to be very, very quiet.
Miriam Berger, Senior Rabbi at Finchley Reform Synagogue in north London, approaches her moment of truth differently. She thinks of her audience first and foremost in preparation for all the services she conducts. “It’s not really confidence I’m looking for; it’s that moment of not making it about me again,” she says. Her greatest fear is not getting it right for the community, so she focuses on them and tries to forget herself. Before she meets her audience, she reads a prayer: “Here I stand, painfully aware of my flaws, quaking in my canvas shoes and in my heart, I’m here on behalf of this community.”
Award-winning Canadian comic Mae Martin is also acutely aware of her audience in the 30 minutes before her set begins. Rather than isolate herself in a dressing room, she’d rather jump right into the middle of the crowd that awaits her. “I try and turn nervousness into excitement, try to reframe it in my brain,” she says. She has to be prepared to throw her set list out of the window if the audience responds differently from how she expected.
While the rabbi and the comic think of their audiences, the only thing that snooker champion Steve Davis thinks about is the snooker table. Although he’s stepped out in front of millions of people during his time as the world’s top player, he tries to pretend they don’t exist. He only thinks about beating the table, not his opponent, and he never thinks about the audience.
He was anxious that there was never any way of predicting what the balls or table would do. So to combat his rising terror he practised in exactly the same way, at the same time, in a pattern every day, week after week, month after month. If he deviated from this pattern of practice he would feel rising stress and, in his own words, “a crescendo of nervousness”.
There’s comfort and calm, too, in routine for Craige Els, who plays villainous headmistress Agatha Trunchbull in the RSC’s Matilda the Musical in the West End.
Every night he has the same routine. “I finish warm-up, come upstairs, shave, eat a couple of boiled eggs and start to put the make-up on.” He then transforms himself into the hated head-teacher – warts and all.
In an operating theatre the pressure to perform may be at its most intense. But the surgeon, just like the comedian, the snooker player and the rabbi, thrives on it. Performers balance love and fear. In the words of sport psychologist Amanda Owens, they go on “and do it”, despite themselves.
The Half: a Countdown to Performance is on Monday 17 April at 11am on Radio 4