The Theatre 101 Series is a set of introductory articles meant to explain theatrical concepts and situations to young actors as well as adult theatrical newcomers. View the whole series here.
Do you get anxious thinking about being the center of attention? Does public speaking make you squirm? Is giving an oral presentation to your class or office one of your biggest fears? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you experience “stage fright.” Don’t worry– you’re in good company. Science suggests that around 73% of the population experience this phenomenon as well.
Almost everyone contends with some fear of public speaking or social anxiety. Many would-be actors cite stage fright as the reason they chicken out of performing. Yet, stage fright is a fact of life. Even most seasoned performers also experience stage fright! Though practice and experience lessens preformance-related anxieties, many agree that stage fright never completely goes away. So how to veteran actors deal with it?
Although the fight against stage fright will seemingly never truly be won, performers employ a variety of methods to help conquer their nerves and perform successfully. Here are just a few.
1. Respect Your Anxiety Instead of Trying to Eliminate It
As I said, everyone deals with nervousness! It’s only natural. You’re about to do something new and difficult in front of a large group of spectators. Who wouldn’t get nervous about that?
Remember that experiencing stage fright doesn’t make you any less of a performer. Even your favorite celebrities probably get nervous about some aspects of performing! Not only do celebrities get stage fright– they often say it helps them. The nerves set your adrenaline pumping and get you into “go mode.” Anxiety helps us focus on the task at hand and motivates us to get the job done.
Instead of trying to ignore your anxiety, welcome it. Live with it. You’ll find that it naturally lessens over time, and that stressing about having stress usually only leads to more stress. Let it be!
2. Analyze the Roots of and Reasons for Your Anxiety
Anxiety is a useful tool for preparation. What aspect of performing really makes you nervous? Are your pre-performance jitters purely about the audience, or are you more worried about messing up a song or dance you haven’t rehearsed enough? Try to isolate what things you can control and work on those. While you can’t control how your audience or castmates behave, you can control yourself and your level of preparation.
By viewing your anxiety through a mindful lens, you can make it something to celebrate rather than flee from.
3. Practice Anti-Anxiety Methods
Alright, I’ll admit it: Not all anxiety serves a purpose. Sometimes you just find yourself freaking out in totally counterproductive ways. It happens to the best of us, and it’s natural too.
When your anxiety gets out of control, try practicing your favorite anxiety control methods. You could try box breathing, which is shown to reduce stress. Even better, focus on a box breathing GIF. The visual stimulation can further ground you and encourage calmness.
Eliminating anxiety completely is neither desirable nor possible, but these methods can at least help you keep it in check.
4. Remember, You are Your Character, not Yourself
These last two tips require a bit of practice, but this thought often helps me.
Nervous about doing something embarrassing or simply “not you” in a scene? Feeling like the script encourages you to act outside of your comfort zone a lot?
Try to divorce yourself from all of your personal concerns as much as possible. After all, on stage, you aren’t yourself. Would the character you’re playing be embarrassed? Where is their comfort zone? Give yourself the freedom to be someone else for a few hours. You’re not doing that embarrassing thing, the character is, and they’ve got no shame whatsoever. That can be a freeing concept!
5. Immerse Yourself in Onstage Action and Embrace “Public Solitude”
Similar to the previous point, this one will require practice, and it also encourages you to remove your own personal real-world concerns from the equation and simply live in the world of the production.
Stanislavsky taught the concept of “public solitude,” or performing completely naturally as one would in their daily lives with no audience. The idea of public solitude frees up the actor from the worries of scrutiny from spectators and leads to a more natural, unstrained performance.
This seems like no small task for performers operating in front of hundreds of onlookers! However, with a bit of practice, you might find this comes easier than expected. When you understand your character and their circumstances well, it becomes easy to “live” as them for a few hours. Even better, when your castmates are fully engaged as well, collaborating in this way becomes easy and intoxicating.
Immerse yourself in what is happening with your friends on stage. Pay close attention to them so that your focus stays in the action of the show rather than the audience. Focus on what your character would be thinking and feeling, rather than what you yourself feel or think– and busy yourself by trying to “live” in the world you and your fellow actors create. Your performance will shine and your anxieties will be effectively put on hold.
Conquering stage fright takes courage and a lot of practice. In summary, try to use your anxiety to your benefit, and keep it in check when it seems counterproductive.
Questions for Discussion
If you want more ideas on how to conquer your pre-performance nerves, ask your performing peers some of the following questions and invite a discussion:
- Do you feel like you experience stage fright or other performance anxiety? What does it feel like?
- How do you think anxiety can be used to help us rather than harm us?
- What do you do when your anxiety feels out of control?
- What makes you the most nervous about performing?
- Do you think you’d be a better actor if you experienced no stage fright or anxiety at all?