To reduce the anxiety, you need to change what your mind is telling itself about the performance, and become fully aware of all your feelings about it. Anxiety is basically caused by the mind telling itself that something bad may happen. You are effectively imagining an outcome that you don’t want, and then investing lots of belief it. So one of the first mental ways to overcome stage fright is to:
Mental tip 1:
Visualise in great detail, in advance, and with lots of colour and sensory information, what you actually want to happen.
That is, visualise yourself performing the role with great ease, talent, creativity and freedom. Do this a lot. It’s much better to be thinking of this, than focusing on what you don’t want to happen. Mohammed Ali used to use this visualisation technique in boxing to such an exceptional level that he could actually predict, most of the time, in what round and with what punch he would knock out his opponent. Athletes know about and use this technique – you also need to know about it. Rehearsals allow actors to flow through the motions of a role repeatedly, thus allowing this process of normalizing success to happen within the acting, but they rarely visualise the pre-performance moments, the time in the wings, or the successful transition from wings to stage, which is when stage fright can hit. Follow this tip and you should have already reduced your anxiety.
Mental tip 2:
Secondly, you can reduce stage fright in this way: be as thoroughly prepared as you could possibly be.
If you are worrying that you haven’t learnt your lines properly, even a tiny doubt that you didn’t put 100% into the process will eat away at you and allow anxiety to grow. Chris Hoy, the Olympic cyclist, stated recently that he hasn’t missed a training session in 5 years, so afraid is he that the fraction of a second in speed he might lose by skipping a session might be the difference between a gold medal or not. But think also of the immense mental strength this immaculate preparation gives him. Cover all the bases, using all your technique and skill to make sure you are completely at ease with your preparation. The calmness that comes from having prepared well does wonders for stage fright.
What happens when you can’t prepare well? Of course, there are always times with actors when you are asked to perform without the optimal preparation. So how do you cope with that? You could always try returning to TIP 1: – visualisation:
Mental Tip 2b:
Visualise, with total belief, that the preparation you have done is entirely perfect and will give you the perfect result. Visualise that perfect result – how you want things to be. Visualise yourself coping brilliantly with any loss of lines, or little error that may arise out of the improvised nature of the performance. Visualise yourself improvising in an exceptional, easy and creative way, fully confident in your ability to respond to anything on stage in a way that enhances your performance and the show.
Mental tip 3:
Lastly – there is a great deal to be said for taking the pressure out of a situation. So reduce the significance of the performance and the people you’re performing too. That is, reduce any crippling feelings you may have about the power/importance of the audience.
For example, remember the old advice about how to cope with a tricky boss giving you a hard time (a situation bound to produce some anxiety) is to visualize them on the toilet. What this is doing is reducing the power they have over you and lowering their status, thus reducing your anxiety.
You can put the performance into perspective in many ways, for example it’s very unlikely to be a life or death situation, and you can learn from any level of success or mistake. But a great way of working, is just to become fully aware of the ‘scripts’ inside your head that may be leading you to project onto the audience the power to judge you and decide whether you believe in yourself as an artist. Therefore TIP 4 is to check in with yourself and your feelings/thoughts about yourself, your fellow actors and the audience to make sure that you are fully aware of all that is going on. Awareness is everything when you are dealing with anxiety. To do this, try using the ‘Check’ as taught by a wonderful New York acting coach, Bob McAndrew (http://www.bobmcandrew.com/).
Mental tip 4: The Check
Spend 5-10 minutes breathing and listening to your First World. This is your self, your body, thoughts and feelings. Where are you tense? How do you feel? Tired? Frustrated? Happy? Sad? Do you want to have a cry, have a shout, shake yourself up and jig about? If so, do it. Do anything you need to do in order to feel available and in touch with your self. Allow what is going on inside your self, and if it is useful, incorporate it into your work. Some of these feelings may be very useful to your performance, adding depth and nuance and freshness to what you are about to do.
Now spend some time listening to your bodily reactions, thoughts and feelings about the other actors, the Second World. It is very important to acknowledge all of these. Are you particularly cross with one person? Do you fancy someone and feel turned on, or shy around them? Do you feel a bit sad and rejected by someone? These personal feeling are of course ‘not professional’ but you’re human so they’re happening anyway! The important thing is to bring awareness to them, and again, if they are useful, you can incorporate them on stage to add a different layer of truth and freshness to your relationships.
Lastly, check in with your feelings about the Third World, that is the audience (or the audition panel, or the camera, or the critics, or the director…). This is incredibly important to reduce stage fright. Do you feel they have total power over you? Do you feel a desire to show off to them? Do you feel a desire to hide and not be seen? Do you resent them? Do you over-love them and long for their approval? Bringing awareness and clarity to your relationship with the Third World can be the difference between a tense, pushed performance, full of anxiety, and a free, nuanced, flowing performance when you’re in the ‘zone’. Accept everything. Shout, jump, express – whatever you need to do to allow everything that is happening in this area to flow, exist and move on, rather than be stuck and repressed.
With the Check done well, you can feel thoroughly in touch with your self as an artist before you head for the wings.
All of the above will help reduce anxiety and put you in the best mental state for performance. However, some level of nerves and adrenalin is still likely – so we can also address stage fright through technical/physical means. See Overcoming Stage Fright Part Two here…