TBA Online: News & Features: June 2015

Overcoming Stage Fright

Thursday, June 25, 2015   (0 Comments)
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By Lily Janiak

Christina Augello, performer and artistic director of the Exit Theatre, has always had it, and for years it got so bad that she gave up performing altogether.

When she was a kid, performer Melanie Case loved—even felt relief—to be performing, but then when she was a teenager, it struck when she had to learn a lot of lines for the first time. 

For Theatre Bay Area director of field services Dale Albright, a TBA Award-winning actor, it’s limited in scale, appearing like clockwork for just two minutes before every performance in the form of avoidance fantasies—“How can I get out of this? If I twisted my ankle, would that be a good excuse?”—that disappear the moment he walks onstage.

For actor, audition coach and College of Marin drama professor W. Allen Taylor, it’s kept at bay only with an extremely disciplined and holistic approach to his process, culminating in an hour-by-hour itinerary for the day of opening night that’s as codified as orthodox religious ritual.

Stage fright’s symptoms are well known to almost everyone in show biz: a pounding heartbeat, shaking hands, a tightening chest, difficulty breathing and indigestion. But in the popular imagination, this performance anxiety, this adrenaline surge that hits right before performance—or at the very thought of performing—mostly strikes amateurs. Professional actors aren’t supposed to have it, or at least keep quiet about it if they do.

Christina Augello in the solo show A Most Notorious
Woman at DivaFest 2011. Photo: Laurie Gallant

In fact stage fright is extremely common among industry professionals of every skill level—whether they are born susceptible to it or develop it later in life. Allen, who’s worked on Broadway, calls it “part of the bargain of being in the business. It’s our job to deal with it. I’ve met very few actors who say they don’t have fear.” Janet Esposito, LCSW and author of In the SpotLight: Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking and Performing and Getting Over Stage Fright: A New Approach to Resolving Your Fear of Public Speaking and Performing, says that stage fright often strikes very capable, driven professionals. “A lot of the people who have this fear are very high-achieving people,” she says over the phone from Connecticut, where her therapy practice is based. “They expect and demand a lot of themselves—and they think other people expect and demand a lot of them.” Esposito treats both stage fright sufferers and other kinds of clients, and she even says that stage fright sufferers tend to be more talented and capable than nonsufferers. Impact Theatre artistic director Melissa Hillman concurs. Stage fright, she says, “has absolutely nothing to do with talent, skill or experience. I don’t see less stage fright in experienced actors; I just see better coping mechanisms.”

Esposito has noticed that stage fright often first attacks “when that person has had some stressors over the last three to six months that have made her a bit more vulnerable”—from losing sleep to troubles at home. On the other hand, it can also arise at a moment of positive transition—when, for instance, you enter a higher-stakes phase of your career. “All the sudden, people have a moment when they’re speaking or doing something public, and, out of the blue, they feel a surge of anxiety,” Esposito says. “The unpredictable nature of it”—particularly the sense of the body betraying the mind—“feels really scary. They feel a loss of control. An incident like that locks into the brain a fear that it’s going to happen again.”

Common as stage fright is, as an industry we’re reluctant to talk about it. “It’s the opposite of what actors are supposed to be: confident, comfortable, good at being in character and just capable,” says Case, who’s now primarily a comedian in Los Angeles but who has worked with TheatreWorks, Killing My Lobster and Impact Theatre, where Hillman described her as one of the most talented comic performers the company has ever worked with.

Yet few fears could be more understandable than stage fright. Hillman, who is quick to point out she’s no medical professional, sees it as “a kind of social anxiety. We’re social animals, and we’re very concerned about how others perceive us. When you’re onstage, people are literally judging you. There’s no escaping it. That makes everyone nervous. But for some people, it triggers this much larger anxiety.” Victor Carrion, a child psychologist at Stanford who also happens to be a cofounder of SF Theater Pub and Theatre in the Woods, cautions that we should not pathologize stage fright. “It is not a disorder,” he says. “It is part of the normal experience of human development. We all have the capacity to experience anywhere from no stage fright at all to extreme stage fright. It’s a spectrum.”

Stage fright isn’t always a problem; it can even be beneficial (more on that later). Esposito, who developed her stage fright therapy method after once suffering from severe performance anxiety herself, asks her clients how much distress the fear creates and whether it’s affected clients’ choices and behavior. One question is, “Do you feel a lot of inner turmoil or have you missed opportunities because of this fear?” Carrion’s assessment method is similar; in his view, an actor need worry about his stage fright only when it “causes functional impairment”—i.e., you can’t do your work, you have problems in relationships or you feel deep distress.

When I was beginning this article, one thing I didn’t understand was that there seemed to be a very easy cure for stage fright: just don’t go on stage. Obviously, a passionate theatre artist who has stage fright must do a cost-benefit analysis, weighing the other things she loves about acting against the pitfalls of stage fright. But if you really are that afraid, I thought, couldn’t you just not be an actor?

Carrion cautions that, if you have stage fright, avoiding performing will actually make the problem worse. “You’re sending messages to yourself that [your stage fright] is so powerful and so big that it controls your behavior. You don’t have control over it; it has control over you.” In other words, you’re reinforcing the idea that the only thing that keeps you safe is to listen to your stage fright, so you start to listen to it even more.

Case has never let her stage fright prevent her from going onstage, but in the past she has indulged her fear in other detrimental ways. Like many actors, she locates her stage fright in a fear of forgetting her lines; at first, to combat that, she ran her lines constantly. “I would run my lines in my head right up until the moment when I went onstage,” she says, “to the point where I wouldn’t be in the scene—I would still be running my lines.” Frustrating as that was, Case persisted. “If I’m going to let fear be a barrier, then I’m not going to be the best actor, writer and stand-up I could be. I would not be living up to my full potential. It would be this sad acknowledgment.”

W. Allen Taylor. Photo: Bryan Hendon

Many actors find a variety of mechanisms helpful for taming the physical symptoms of stage fright. Almost all my interviewees mentioned breathing exercises, but actors have found success with methods as varied as yoga and meditation, hypnotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. Two interviewees independently praised “power posing”—a method taught by social psychologist Amy Cuddy in a 2012 TED talk. Simply assuming a powerful-looking physical pose—for example, what Cuddy calls “the Wonder Woman pose” (stance broad, chest out, arms akimbo)—for two minutes can make you feel more powerful, confident and optimistic. (Her experiments showed that power poses raise your levels of testosterone, the dominance hormone, and lower your levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.)

Many performers take beta blockers, a relatively affordable class of prescription drug, to help calm the physical symptoms of the fear. These drugs block the effect of adrenaline, lowering the heart rate. But Carrion cautions that beta blockers do nothing to address the underlying issues associated with stage fright and that, like any drug, they have side effects: everything from diarrhea to dizziness to insomnia and beyond! Carrion advises that beta blockers might not always be the best choice for actors, especially with certain types of roles, as the drugs can slow you down and dull your emotion. Drugs are a particularly unreliable crutch, he says, if you don’t know when you’re going to go on—i.e., if you’re an understudy or you get an audition call out of the blue. Perhaps most damningly of all, beta blockers might inadvertently compound the fear in the same way that avoiding performing can. “There is a subtle message there: ‘The reason I can perform is that I use beta blockers,’” Carrion says. In other words, you’re still conditioning your brain to believe that you’re not in charge; your fear is.

Carrion suggests using other strategies first and then taking medication only if those methods don’t work on their own. To combat stage fright, or really any fear, Carrion recommends what he calls behavioral desensitization by means of exposure. “The way we combat fear is by approaching it,” he says. “For someone that has stage fright, you’re not going to put them in the middle of Carnegie Hall tomorrow. Behavioral desensitization means we approach that fearful situation little by little.” For someone with stage fright, he says, that might mean first asking to use the stage when no one else is there, and then, once that’s comfortable, bringing three friends to sit in the audience. You could then even ask those friends to laugh or mumble during your performance, he says, so you can see that when that happens it’s not the end of the world. 

“You only have to expose yourself if it’s something you really want,” Carrion says. “It takes a very motivated person to do these exposures. Sometimes you have to have a coach or a therapist, but exposure really works.”

Case has used that method and seen her fear become more manageable over time. “My thought was that if I keep doing this over and over, it’ll get easier,” she says. She eased herself into performing stand-up by first performing at friends’ shows and other small shows and only later performing in front of audiences that hadn’t seen her before. “I don’t think I’ll ever not have stage fright,” Case says. “It’s how I manage it to the point where it’s more tolerable.”

And speaking of coaches, private audition coach Meryl Shaw recommends a similar strategy for desensitizing your fear of auditions: auditioning at theatres that might not be at the top of your list. When she worked as casting director at American Conservatory Theater, Shaw came up with another great trick for some favorite actors who struggled with nerves. “I had them serve as readers at auditions when there weren’t any roles that were right for them. It was a no-risk situation where they could be in the room and desensitize themselves. It’s been so helpful to demystify the experience for them. They really have an inside take at what happens at an audition and how little judgment actually goes on. When they hear what the conversation is like in the room, it reassures them that people aren’t waiting around to say negative things about them; [casting directors] really want the actor to come in and do a great job so they can get the show cast.” 

Actors can also mitigate stage fright just as a part of their regular rehearsal process and ongoing craft development. First, Shaw recommends, pick material—whether it’s an audition monologue or a full project—that “you love to do, so that you relish the opportunity to share it with others.” That’s part of what inspired Augello to act again after taking a 10-year break. At the SF Fringe Festival, she saw a show where the actors were having so much fun that she thought, “I want to do that again! I want to play!” Eventually, she says, “that became a motivator to do my first solo show.”

It’s also helpful, says W. Allen Taylor, to simply do your basic homework as an actor so that you can tell yourself, “I know this show,” and really mean it. “Taking care of the Acting 101 stuff—building the character internally, writing the character bio, working on my score, being as conscious of the character’s circumstances and inner life as possible” allows Taylor to immerse himself in the things he loves about acting so that he doesn’t have to think about nerves. Augello does something similar with listening to her scene partners. “If you’re listening to the other actor rather than anticipating your next move, you’re absorbed, and it takes [the pressure] off your back. You’re investing in who you are and get lost in the world and leave your actor ego offstage." 

Taylor also recommends taking a long view of the rehearsal process. “I think it’s very important to stay conscious of the journey. Firsts in rehearsals”—the first time you go off-book, the first time you hold a prop or wear a costume—“are always going to be jarring, and some actors can lose confidence in that,” he says. The loss of control there can feed into a fear that a similar loss of control will happen in performance. Taylor thus approaches those “firsts” actively and as soon as possible in the process, asserting early on that he, not the obstacles, is in control. “I’m psychologically prepared for them so that I don’t allow them to give me a setback,” he says. 

Other actors have found it useful to take an improv class, just to have resources to still excel creatively when the unexpected happens. With improv, says Shaw, “if things go awry in your performance or your audience, you feel like you have the tools to go with the flow in the moment—that ‘say yes’ tool.”

Also key to combating stage fright is the attitude you cultivate—starting with how you perceive the value of the performance. Case says, “I think one of the keys is to not make any one performance a pivotal event, this thing that makes or breaks your career.” Rather, she says, “think of your career as a continuum, as a collection of performances.”

It also helps to reframe your goal in performing from something as broad (and unattainable) as giving a perfect performance to something more specific—to redefine the terms of your success to perhaps nailing one moment in a monologue that has been a struggle in the past. Many interviewees suggested approaching the task of performance in a spirit of generosity, instead of a spirit of fear. “It’s taking the onus off of ‘It’s all about me. How am I going to look?’ and giving yourself over to how you’re going to contribute to telling this story,” says Shaw. Simpler attitudinal shifts can also be useful, such as taking a step back from your feelings so you can simply observe them rather than let them rule, which allows you to see that you and your performance are simply not the center of others’ universe; that can also allow you to see the humor in your situation. And when those negative thoughts come, Esposito says, it’s important to talk to yourself with the tenderness you would use in talking to a hurting loved one instead of the scolding voice of your inner critic.

Even if you try one strategy and it doesn’t work, it’s important to not feel defeated. If you’re just starting out, Shaw recommends you keep a journal so that you can see over time what combination of tactics works for you. “It’s about giving yourself every opportunity to succeed,” she says, “decreasing the number of stress factors in that moment to the extent that you have control over them.” That can mean everything from arriving early to finding a soothing piece of music to scoping out a venue in advance and finding a place to warm up. 

Actors should also remember not just that stage fright will never completely disappear, but also that, to some degree, it’s helpful. Taylor even takes nerves as a good sign. “If I’m not nervous for some reason, I get nervous about not being nervous,” he says. “It foreshadows a flat performance.”

“Live performance is the tightrope,” says Augello. “We’re very vulnerable creatures, performers, I believe. That vulnerability allows you to find those characters. The stage fright motivates you. If it went away, I might feel less comfortable.”

Actors, she says, “have to duel with the devil.”

Lily Janiak is development manager at New Conservatory Theatre Center.