The next set of tips are focused on physically countering the actions of adrenalin on your system.
Physical Tip 1: counter the muscular affects:
The traditional warm-up for actors is full of exercises to help you counteract adrenalin. It is two-part. Firstly you need vigorous and possibly playful activity, to loosen everything up and get the muscles moving. This allows you to fully engage with the increased energy/oxygen levels in the body. Secondly you need stretches, massage and relaxing exercises to release muscular tension and reduce your stress level, so you feel centred.
In particular you should look at reducing upper body stress, softening the shoulders and neck muscles, releasing the pectoral muscles and stretching through the rib cage to unlock the breathing.
Adrenalin can make you tense upwards (like the tense shoulders), so exercises to ground your energy are crucial. Swings are a great exercise if done with attention. For the most wonderful description of swings for actor training and preparation, see this book by Litz Pisk, an exceptional movement teacher who died in 1997. Her book The Actor And His Body (Methuen Drama) is a classic, her trademark swings being a particularly great way to loosen the muscles and joints before performance, reducing tension, grounding the body and releasing physical energy.
Rolling a tennis or golf ball under the feet to massage them can also be a great help. If your feet relax, this relaxation can communicate onto your legs, hips and torso. When you’re standing, give yourself the internal instruction to ‘Let the Floor Hold You Up’ – and let the floor do just that, letting go of your legs. Notice how braced you can get in the legs and hips when anxious. And what a strong and free feeling you get when you feel the floor actively pushing up through your open, relaxed feet and dropped legs, offering you support. If you let your jaw relax at the same time, you will get a deep feeling of release throughout the whole body.
Physical Tip 2: release the breath
The breath may be drawn into the upper chest as discussed above. Good vocal technique is a great help here (see the Vocal Mastery article from the previous issue – or further free advice about breathing here:
You need to get the breath to return to the lower belly and the low, back ribs. One of the quickest ways of doing this is by opening your mouth wide (as if yawning) and breathing in and out through the open mouth, with a hand on your belly. Ensure that the breath is entirely silent to you, both in and out. There must not be even the whisper of a noise. Any noise that you hear in the breath is a restriction in the vocal tract and/or upper chest. As the breath becomes silent, notice how it drops deeper and deeper into the torso. If you place the palm of your hand in front of your mouth you will feel a sensation of ‘hot and damp’ on your skin – but without a whisper of air flowing. The heat develops as the air comes from deeper and deeper in the lungs.
Further breathing exercises to ensure that the breath support muscles are working are crucial to make sure that you don’t end up with a thin, tense sound. If the voice is rooted and strong, you will feel in command of yourself and your performance and the anxiety will subside. So breath work is very important.
Physical Tip 3: Sensory Awareness and Imagination
We also need to awaken the senses and the imagination.
Notice the sensations in the above breath exercises, and then notice other sensations – feelings, scents, sounds etc. Wherever you are, touch different objects in the room and really receive the tactile impressions. Focusing on sensations stops your mind blinkering down in the adrenalin ‘fight or flight’ response. Take a piece of text (from the play or something else) and say this out loud, one word at a time, whilst receiving the sensory information from a different object each time. This can help you recover a fresh relationship with language and the world, again counteracting the limiting action of stress.
If you have props in the wings, touch them and feel their physical qualities. If you have an audition, think of taking a prop that will act both to keep your sensory awareness, and to better reveal the character’s thought processes. This can’t be a random object, but should be skillfully chosen to give depth to your reading.
Sensory awareness and response will do a huge amount to keep your imagination open and your mind free. It’s worth the extra few minutes.
Physical Tip 4: get your mouth moving!
It’s not just the big muscles in the body that get tense, but also the little ones that make up the speech organs. So an articulation workout – see here for some free advice and exercises: http://www.speak-easily.com/resources-elocution-exercises.htm is crucial to make sure the tongue, jaw and lips are all moving optimally for speech. Skipping this preparation can definitely add to your onstage anxiety, as you feel dryness in the mouth, lack of flexibility in your speech, and even a stumbling over words.
So – there is a lot that can be done to turn adrenalin to your favour, and produce a fine, nuanced, physically and vocally free performance that is full of creativity and energy.
Above all – enjoy yourself. Fun is a great antidote to anxiety!