In an interview, cabaret artist Christoph Sonntag describes how he creates stage shows. He also tells how an intensive brainstorming session once triggered his blackout on ARD. He also gives tips on how to deal professionally with stage fright.
FOCUS Online: How does such a stage show come about with you? Do you have any fixed rituals?
Christoph Sonntag: I’m constantly working on it! New texts are constantly being created for radio and television stations. After I have written and presented such texts, they always fall into a large, imaginary box of notes. Then they are in there. Then they are touched again and partially extended. Or shortened. Under certain circumstances, they also come into the live shows. So I can see what people like.
And then it’s time for program development! I’m currently working on a new program. This can best be described like this: Imagine that Sunday has a meadow. This is first cleared, then fertilizer is applied. Then everything I have will be sown. A process of growth and adaptation begins. Things that don’t grow nicely or don’t quite fit are then cut away. Things that grow amazingly beautifully are tended and watered… and then suddenly there’s a beautiful flower meadow.
Also: Have faith in heavenly creativity! Because I’ve actually experienced it often enough how it just always works out in the end. But of course it always takes a lot of time and patience.
Are you sometimes surprised at which parts the audience laughs?
Christoph Sonntag: Yes, sometimes I’m surprised by the intensity of the laughter because it can’t be controlled. Even as I was writing it, I knew that certain jokes work. The only question is whether that will be the roar of the evening during the stage performance – or rather just a “grin”.
Do you struggle with stage fright at larger performances?
Christoph Sonntag: Before the performance, it’s always a nervous situation. I assume: That’s the case with every artist! I’m probably in the lower third of the basic excitement. There are colleagues who are big stars on television who go really crazy before the assignment. They then need their rituals – and then, for example, the caretaker is not allowed to come in an hour before the performance.
Do you also have such quirks?
Christoph Sonntag: No, from that point of view I’m still relatively relaxed – including the basic tension. But it is also really necessary in order to be able to give everything on stage. I’m alone up there If I notice on stage that my trousers are open, I don’t have a chance to close them in such a way that no one notices. Accordingly, one must make a virtue out of mistakes. Everything you do is visible on stage, you are live! And full of adrenaline! I even suffered a metatarsal stress fracture while performing! I didn’t feel it on the stage itself and just went through my show as normal. It wasn’t until I was backstage at the end that I couldn’t walk properly anymore.
What advice do you have for stage fright?
Christoph Sonntag: The best thing to do is tell yourself that you have a monkey in your head trying to make you believe that you should be afraid of the audience. The opposite is the case, the audience is looking forward to you!
Was there a situation where that didn’t help?
Christoph Sonntag: I once had to deal with an audience of millions on the ARD live show “Immer wieder Sundays”. I had prepared a text from the current program for my performance. We had a long drive on the way to the show, during which I discussed the completely new program with my director.
When we arrived there was a sound check and a light check…all right! Then the planning continued with my director and we exchanged different thoughts on the completely new program concept. At some point in the middle of the conversation, someone came up to us and said: “Christoph, it’s your turn now.”
I went out on stage and then suddenly I had a total blackout in the middle of ARD! My prepared text for this performance was completely gone. My head was flooded with new ideas, so I just couldn’t find the switch to the old text. That was amateurish, that only happens once! But that was a huge catastrophe
What happened then?
Christoph Sonntag: Of course it was a laugh in the industry. The next time I came to “Immer wieder Sundays” there was actually nobody who didn’t ask me: “And, what about your text today? can you him Should I hold it out to you or would you rather sing today?”
I’m a cheeky sock, so I have to be able to take some punishment. But that drove me so crazy at the time that I had a trembling attack just before this follow-up performance, just like Angela Merkel.
Then you have to use a trick. During short television appearances – which Alfred Biolek always described as: “… out, bow, somersault backwards, exit!” – I’ve always had the entire text in my trouser pocket ever since. Reduced to keywords! Even in the event of a blackout, I can use these keywords to reconstruct the text for myself.
Should everyone do this?
Christoph Sonntag: I can only recommend that. Those who struggle with stage fright should practice their presentation in front of friends or in front of a mirror. As often as possible until everything is in place. Then you make your own reduced list as a kind of emergency backup. With the help of the keywords on this piece of paper you can then derive the entire lecture again! Then you can be sure that nothing bad can happen. This way the stage fright goes away. After all, you have the “cheat sheet” for the worst case in your pocket. But in the end everyone has to find their own way. This is a very sensitive subject!
Everyone probably has to present something from time to time or even give a lecture in front of an audience. What is your most valuable piece of advice when it comes to rhetoric?
Christoph Sonntag: I think it’s all about the inner attitude. There are people who just don’t want to stand in front of other people. This is our primal reflex. In prehistoric times, if we stood alone and without our relatives in a strange cave, then that was a highly dangerous situation: lots of strangers who possibly belong together and are therefore stronger overall than you are alone…
This primal fear is in us, similar to the goalkeeper’s fear of a penalty. By the way, a nice story by Peter Handke. But the title opens the picture: The ball is coming and we actually want to run away. Instead, the goalkeeper must learn to avoid the reflex and catch the ball. The same principle applies to all of us when giving lectures: Nobody wants to be alone in front of many people. After all, you are extremely vulnerable. Then on stage we turn the situation around because we are suddenly strong and have the microphone in our hands. This means: whoever is in front of the stage controls the situation!
Even if you don’t like doing it, you can still learn it and use certain rhetorical tricks. But in the end it’s all about convincing people, and that can only be achieved with an inner attitude! Attitude is free of methods. In my opinion, attitude and charisma are therefore much more important than the question of whether and how “polished” you present things. People who are rhetorically perfect are mostly in marketing… and these marketing guys haven’t impressed me for a long time. This is not only the case for me, but also for many others around me. It’s about authenticity and honesty. People who simply tell their story and also stand by weaknesses or even fractures. That impresses me! People who stage themselves perfectly and seem to be able to do everything better or know better move the audience less!
What would you recommend?
Christoph Sonntag: In this respect, my rhetoric advice is: See for yourself what kind of person you are. If you’re the type of person who feels like talking, has a message and wants to spread the word… go ahead and do it! And if you find that none of this is really your thing, then better leave it alone.
Anyone who then wants to go on stage after this test should think clearly about their message. You must then communicate this message exactly as you would in a conversation with your wife or children. Only then will everything arrive!