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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

THOUGHTS AND TIPS ON KICKING STAGE FRIGHT IN THE BUTT

Me with my blanket from Lakewood Theater's production of "The Producers".  Who gets stage fright when they have a security blanket?

Greetings ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to theater is a sport, my little place on the internet to talk about theater for whoever wants to hear it.

Just last summer, I was in a production of a play called "The Fall of the House of Usher," based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe.  I was the lead in the play, narrating a good deal of the play, while also being involved in the action.  My character in the "present" was being interrogated by a police officer, and I was supposed to be nervous, upset, in shock, and a bit traumatized.  These are all fun things for an actor play, until, well, it starts to become too real.

One night of the performance, it was dreadfully hot. I was drinking plenty of water backstage of course.  However, the play called for me to begin the play in my suit, a heavy overcoat, scarf and hat. I was onstage, and all was going well.  I had my first scene with the police officer, and it was fine, and then moved into the flashback scene.  I sat down on the couch, still bundled up, talking to my scene partner.  And then, at the moment I stood up to move closer to her, my head went light, and I stumbled over the line.  I kept going of, course, like the little trooper I believe myself to be, and, really, it was just one small moment of one single performance.  Once the coat was off, I was more comfortable, and, in my moments backstage, I kept drinking plenty of water. Everything was fine.

But then the real problem began.

I was in my head.  Oh my God, I kept thinking, what if I miss the next line?  What if I do pass out? What if I ruin this entire performance?  Will anyone ever cast me again?

There were two performances left of the run after that night.  For each of them, I was terrified.  Although the heat had broken, I still felt hot, dreadfully so, when I stepped on stage.  I didn't trust myself.  My palms were icky, so that I felt embarrassed about the few moments when I joined hands with other cast members.  I would go backstage and be convinced that I couldn't return when  I was supposed to.  I would take deep breaths and tell myself "You're okay, you're okay, you're okay."  But I didn't feel okay.  I felt like my costume was choking me, and getting tighter by the minute.  I would look at my fellow actors, and, instead of being in the moment, I would be thinking, "Just make it through this scene, please God, just let me make it through this scene."

For the first time in my life, I had a SERIOUS case of stage fright.

Don't get me wrong--- I've been doing plays now for 27 years, since I was 10 years old.  I've certainly had nerves in the past, but this feeling was different.  It was a feeling of dread.  There were moments in my mind I imagined myself stopping the scene, turning to the audience and saying, "I'm sorry", and shrinking away backstage, most likely in tears of shame, and just not finishing.  Never before had I ever imagined such a scenario.  It left me with a huge crisis of purpose--- I've always wanted to be an actor, always been an actor.  Being in plays is what I do, it's what I live for?  Would I have to go and study accounting?  Should I just stick to writing and learn to live with the gaping hole that giving up acting would leave in me?  Was I just losing any gift I might have had for it?

Yikes.  Just writing about it now makes me feel awful.  I guess this is why most actors don't even want to talk about it.

You see, many, many actors and other performers have felt this anxiety.  Ian Holm, a favorite actor of mine, even walked out of a production of "The Iceman Cometh" in 1976 because of stage fright, and didn't return to the theater for 8 years. Daryl Hannah, when starring in "The Seven Year Itch" on the West End underwent hypnotherapy for her stage fright.  I've heard stories of actors who literally vomit before every performance, not that you'd know it the second they stepped out on stage.

I believe that stage fright for an actor is even worse than writer's block for a writer, though they're in the same ballpark, and most likely come from similar places.  The difference, of course, is the public scrutiny, and perhaps, embarrassment that comes from an actor who is now afraid to act.  Isn't that like a surgeon who gets sick at the sight of blood?

Stage fright (or more technical terms like "performance anxiety", or topophobia) is easily one of the top five fears I have experienced in my life.  But the good news is, I made it through the other end, did a whole lot of reading on the subject, and am now here to offer some tips and thoughts about how to conquer it.

First off, it is normal to be nervous before a performance.  In fact, very few people are not nervous before a performance.  Why?  Well, you're putting yourself out there.  As Mr. Ferlinghetti would say, you are constantly risking absurdity.  So, yeah, there's a little bit of pressure involved in that.  But remember:

1.  Being Nervous Gives You Energy:  energy is a very important thing to have on stage.  It carries you through a performance, helps you connect with your fellow actors and the audience, so long as it is channeled to the job at hand.  If you're backstage telling yourself how nervous you are, try instead to say, "Wow, I've got a ton of energy right now.  This is great."  You keep telling yourself how nervous you are, even if it's true, well, it's going to become a lot more true and a whole lot worse.  Tell yourself you have energy, and energy is needed for a great show, well... how 'bout that?  It's a nice positive spin on your natural feeling, and you may just make that great show come true.

Part of what I was feeling during my (Thank God) short-lived bout with stage fright was a feeling of worthlessness.  Though I don't make my living through acting, I studied acting in college, and have always prided myself on being a good actor.  Not a great one, but a good one.  I've been in a lot of plays, and, by and large, from the feedback I receive, people tend to enjoy my performances.  I work hard on them.  I care about them, more so than any other paying job I've ever had.  So the idea of losing all of that, losing any reputation I might have of being an actor that directors can depend on, or that audience members like to see, was devastating to me.  But here's the thing:

2.  Having Stage Fright Does Not Make You a Bad Actor:  people told me the last few shows of "The Fall of the House of Usher" were good.  Nobody in the audience once said, "You looked scared up there."  In fact, I won an award for the show.  Stage Fright isn't about your work as an actor.  It's about you and your insecurities.  It's about talking yourself out of something you know to be the truth:  that you can do this.  It's about those voices in your head that tell you you're not good enough or strong enough,  It's about not trusting yourself.  It has nothing to do with your art, your creativity, or your worth as a human being or performer.  Stage Fright is backstage business.  It has no place in the spotlight.  You do.

3.  You Can't Have Stage Fright Unless You're In Your Head:  believe it or not, people tend to mess up the most on stage when they are constantly thinking while on stage.  As I mentioned earlier, I was in my head like crazy.  My mind wouldn't stop.  And why?  Because I thought it would be my mind that pulled me through those performances.  WRONG.  Letting yourself be in the moment, focusing on your scene partners, hitting your marks and opening your mouth to speak is what gets you through performances.  So how do you let go of your mind during a performance.  Sometimes it helps to bargain with it.  "You can tell me all the things that went wrong after the show, brain, but shut the hell up while I'm on stage.  Deal?"

One major problem I had, as I mentioned, was the notion of letting people down.  My director, my fellow actors, and, not least of all, the audience.  But here's the truth...

4.  Lives Are Not At Stake:  It's true.  Every actor has performances they are not proud of.  But their lives didn't end.  Nor were any audience members' lives put in jeopardy.  Now, I'm not trying to be glib, and, yes, I do think plays are very important, and that people should approach them with sense of stakes, and a desire to give the best show possible.  It's serious business, yes.  But, if you're feeling strong anxiety, it's important to remember that you and everyone involved will survive.  You're not removing tumors, or administering powerful drugs... you are creating something.  And creating something is always a bit of an experiment, and not everyone is going to like it anyway.  If you're hung up on the idea of anything having to be perfect, you're in trouble, because theater is an imperfect medium.  That's what makes it special on a night to night basis.  No one wants to fail, per se, but it's better than not doing anything at all.  It really is.  Stage Fright can't hurt you if you hold on to the spirit of exploration and creation, and let go of the notion of perfection.  You are far more likely to reach "perfect" (or the closest thing to it), if you forget about the concept entirely.

5. AUDIENCES ARE FORGIVING:  Okay, I know some of you will be thinking, "Not all of them!"  And, okay, that's true.  In this society, there are plenty of hate-watchers out there.  But so what?  You're not doing it for those people.  And I do believe, by and large, particularly in the amateur markets (who I mostly write for anyhow), audiences want to see you succeed.  They want to have a good time.  They've had a long week, want to relax, watch a show, and get lost.  They're not there to point out your flaws (I know, I know... some are... but, again, do you really care what people like that think?).  I'm sure you've all heard the old remedy for stage fright:  "Picture the audience in their underwear" or "picture the audience naked".... I've never done this.  I think it could cause it's own problems of unexpected laughter or arousal.  But, I understand the point.  Instead of picturing the audience naked or in their underwear, instead, picture them stripped of any power invalidate your belief in yourself.  See them stripped of the mythical "audience" label and just see them as human beings who want to have a good night, just like you want to have a good night.  They play a part in the play, too, after all.  We're all sharing this moment of time together, so don't think of them as some external force, but rather, invite them in.

I'm not a therapist or anything like that, but I just know that these are some thoughts that helped me through my little crisis last summer.  I hope you find them useful, and please feel free to share any tips and thoughts you might have in the comments below.

Thanks for reading my blog, and remember--- keep up the energy, make a deal with your brain, and put yourself and not your insecurity in the spotlight.  You're gonna be great.  I promise.


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