For anyone who performs for a living, the buzz and adrenalin high that come from taking risks and being creative in front of an audience is part of the deep delight in the performance act. However, there is a fine line between an adrenalin buzz, and the crippling, adrenalin-fueled anxiety known as stage fright.
Stage fright affects your body and your voice. It also affects your emotions, memory and sensory awareness. It’s therefore crucial to learn to channel the mechanisms triggered by the stressful and challenging situation of a performance in the right way, whilst still harnessing the considerable energy released by adrenalin.
Whether you’re someone who already suffers from stage fright, or wish to know more about what to do should it ever strike, the following tips and information should give you some tools to work with.
The Physical Symptoms of Stage Fright
First, let’s have a look at what happens when the body ‘panics’ and goes into an extremely anxious and stressed state. Stage fright is basically a form of anxiety that triggers the stress ‘fight or flight’ response as the body releases adrenalin.
Physical symptoms of ‘fight or flight’ include muscular contractions, particularly in the neck muscles. The shoulders are pulled up and the head pulled down to protect the throat. The spine will also try to pull into a curve, like an unborn child, to protect the soft front of the body. The muscles will contract and become tense, ready to run or resist a blow, but there could also be shaking and trembling in the muscles if the actor is trying to resist this.
Along with all this muscular activity, which reduces and inhibits the actor’s physicality, the actor may also start to overheat, blush and sweat. This is because the body has raised its blood pressure in order to make oxygen more available to the muscles, to fuel running or battling. Breathing can become labored for the same reason. And then, worst of all, the digestive system can stop functioning, causing nausea or diarrhea, or the ‘butterflies in the stomach’ feeling we all associate with nerves. Again this withdrawal from the digestive organs is to focus the body’s energy on escape or conflict.
More intriguingly, vision and mental focus can change. The mind becomes intensely focused, but limited in imaginative range, as it focuses intensely on the event, and long-range vision is sharpened. Short-range vision, and other sensory feedback, can be massively reduced.
How does all of this affect an actor?
Sounds awful doesn’t it! Especially when you look at how all of this physical and mental panic specifically affects the actor’s art.
For stage and film acting, you need a connected, supported and strong voice. Good vocal technique relies on good breathing, no upper body tension, great head and neck alignment, and a free throat. All of these are directly inhibited by the muscular reactions of ‘fight or flight’. The raised shoulders and sunken head of the anxious state stack tension into the upper chest muscles. This means that the increased breathing rate does not go to the diaphragm, lower body, and back ribs (which will produce a rich and full voice), but is instead trapped by the extra tension in the upper chest. This increases anxiety (if you place a hand on your upper chest and breathe there, you may immediately start to feel anxious, so strong is the link between this kind of breathing and the adrenalised state). Anxiety reduces the breath support, whilst restricting the throat.
All this tension and lack of proper breath support mean one thing – the actor’s voice will become thinner, more strained and less emotionally connected. This could make the actor panic still further, until the voice feels disembodied and croaky and the quality of the performance dramatically degrades.
The muscular tensions of stage fright reduce physical characterisation, fluidity and the ability to react. Butterflies in the stomach, nausea and diarrhea are also distracting and off-putting. Nausea can have the affect of making us pull up and away from the stomach, or doubling over the belly. It affects concentration and therefore creativity, producing more problems for the actor.
The Mind, Emotions and Acting Technique
What happens to the eyesight and sensory feedback is particularly harmful to the quality of the performance. An actor is only as good as their reactions and their sensitivity to the situation around them. They need to respond with great flexibility and awareness to that situation whether it is imaginary (supported by sense memory), actual (the stage surroundings), verbal (the text that they will be speaking) or human (the other actors on the stage and the audience). The range and subtlety of response to all these stimuli are what keep an actor’s performance fresh, alive and truthful.
By reducing sensory awareness and altering the eyesight, adrenalin seriously affects this, resulting in rigidity of performance and lack of awareness and aliveness to the other actors on stage, to audience reaction and to the ‘moment’.
The mantra of ‘being in the moment’ is at the core of good acting – and what that overused phrase actually means is this ability to sense fully and then respond instinctively (whilst of course still managing the overall shape of the performance). So the affects of stage fright on your acting technique can be particularly damaging.
So what can an actor do to counter the above effects?
There are two main areas to focus on. One is to reduce the anxiety to a manageable level in the first place. The second is to counteract the negative physical attributes of ‘fight or flight’. This means that although you retain the increased energy release, blood pressure and oxygen levels of the adrenalized state, you don’t adopt the physical tensions that can inhibit your body and destroy your voice. You also can remain open to impulse and aware of all sensory input. See our next article for more details: