Sunday, March 04, 2012

Stage Fright ~ and How to DEAL!

~brace yourself...it's a long one~

"The most damaging influence on people in their initial exploration of acting scenes or delivering lines is trauma associated with stage fright."
-Gerald Lee Ratliff


A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a book called "Coping with Stage Fright" by Gerald Lee Ratliff which was published in 1985. It got my gears turning. How do people cope with stage fright today? How does stage fright affect people locally in London, Ontario? What symptoms do people show, feel or go through? What are the primary triggers? I was on a mission!

Between this book and a survey I conducted amongst members of London, Ontario's theatre communtiy, I have finally organized the information collected.

First, here are the points I gathered from reading "Coping with Stage Fright":
-key elements which are afftected by stage fright are voice, body & breathing
-psychologists' point of view "stage fright is a mental state of apprehension"
-teachers' & students' point of view "stage fright is a state of bodily anxiety"
-clinical researchers' point of view "stage fright is an emotional state of fear"
-dictionary description "Stage fright" a nervousness & anxiety that affects voice, body and emotions"
-CURE: EXPERIENCE!!! only through experience can one learn to deal with, combat & defeat stage fright!
-Stage fright IS NOT an indication of a personality defect. N'or is it a sign that one is inferior, inept or  incompetent.
-Even the most seasoned actors often experience stage fright to some degree before a performance.
-Stage fright MAY be related to one's upbringing, meaning a result of negative or unpleasant experiences during childhood, which would explain why stage fright affects everyone differently and in various capacities.
-Stage fright (believe it or not) CAN be positive! It can be used to your benefit if harnessed properly to give your performance animation and vitality.
-control feelings and fear with frequent practice, self-confidence and thorough preparation
-General Symptoms include: scratchy/cracking voice, lines being delivered quickly, weak knees, loss of breath, dry mouth/lips, increased heart-rate, fidgety hands/fingers/feet

Advice:
-practice speaking in public/to strangers
-audition OFTEN!
-read aloud
-research the script & role thoroughly
-find out what you do and the image you portray when you are nervous, feeling anxious or threatened (facial expressions, pacing, biting nails, wrapping your hands, tugging at your sleeves, etc.). Once you are aware of these, you can work on eliminating them during a performance so that VISUALLY, you appear cool, calm & collected :)
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When conducting my little survey, I had only 3 questions I was looking for answers to:
#1. If you experience butterflies/nerves before a show, what does it feel like for you? What symptoms specifically do you experience?
#2. Do you experience different forms of stage fright depending on the role/production/situation?
#3. What steps do you take to prevent and deal with stage fright?

Out of 45 people I contacted, 14 people responded to my questions. To "protect their identities" I have changed each of their names to something I found to be entertaining...because they said I could...and I can :)
This is what they had to say regarding stage fright:

Trolol: "...only recall getting real stage fright once, and that was during my grade 6 class speech...I was woefully unprepared, and kept forgetting what I was to say... the previous year to the city finals, so I was way too cavalier in my attitude...I got a nice lesson in humility as well as preparedness."

Candy: "...when I do get nerves it's usually in the last few rehersals...fight or flight feeling. Like I'm not ready to take it to the next level and I just want to run away. Once the costumes are on and the audience is filing in I generally feel pretty calm, excited but relaxed about it."

Headwound Harry: "In general, I don't nervous... I like to carry around a glass of water and drink while delivering my lines - I believe it shows everyone that I'm solid, not nervous at all as no trembling can be seen from the glass."

the Madame: "I'm most nervous when my husband is in the audience because he knows me best...
I think he's still unsure about all this theatre stuff"

the Painter: "mind freeze -- almost an out-of-body experience but not quite (pretty much the opposite of where your brain needs to be for acting!); trouble with gross motor coordination...I'm much more nervous when people whom I know well are in the audience. Also I'm less nervous when singing than acting, but if I can find my character it all fades away...nerves are always worse than usual when a director, stage manager, choreographer, etc., has been harsh or overly critical with the cast in general or me personally...In order of importance my steps are to stretch, ground myself with a meditation, rehearse whatever major blocking I have & check lines...the body part is super important for me, since I live in my head so much."

Emmylarou: "I haven't really got stage fright per say but I tend to get super excited just before the show starts... I guess for me just before a show I need to make sure I take a few deep breaths so I am calm and make sure I don't rush through my lines."

Sandy: "I usually only get stage fright before a musical performance. I start to doubt myself and feel like if I don't quickly run over all of my songs then I'll surely fail. So while pacing the green room, I quietly sing through all of my stuff!...more nervous when I know my family/friends are in the audience...
Once backstage, I do a quick prayer."


Jason: "...my heart rate would increase, there would be activity in the area of my solar plexis chakra, and I might take a whiz 4 times before the show...[someone he met mentioned "they're too nervous and can never sit down before a show"]anticipation of the show and the uncertainty of trying out new material (triggers)... Other comedians have said that without this nervous/anticipatory energy your show will probably be flat... I would recognize the sensations and say to myself, "This is not how I want to be." Then I would take a deep breath or two, I was quite confident that eventually it would go away...In the end, confidence in the material, a determination not to have uncomfortable feelings of nervousness, and the knowledge that it will be a pleasant experience for both myself and the audience keep my emotional state active but positive."

Captain: "My first show - butterflies were almost unbearable...nauseous before the show, and yelling the line out relieved the feeling...before a show I will feel sometimes slightly anxious especially if friends or family are in the audience, the feeling subsides almost immediately when I step on stage and turns into an adrenaline rush, that I feel improves my performance...butterflies and jitters, at different levels of intensity depending on the situation...knowing that friends and family are in the audience seems to  impact the level of intensity for me..I didn’t have any success with breathing exercises, or meditation...I actually relish it (pre-show jitters), much like I would a roller coaster ride.  It is part of the joy of acting for me, as a matter of fact if it ever went away entirely I am not sure I would do it anymore, as I feel it is a bi-product of passion for me."

Laughing Patty: "1. I feel self conscious. Just before performing I feel picky about my costume, concerned that I may have lipstick on my teeth, ect. The nervousness and anxiousness I feel weeks, or days before the show is harder to cope with than the day of the show or the moments before I go on... I'm even more nervous at that point, but it's like I've reached the point of no return and have nothing to lose. Sink or swim! Once the performance begins, flow kicks in, and I just become immersed in my character or speech.
2. It feels basically the same whether it's a speech, play, a meeting with my boss :o) Adrenaline... the dosage may just vary depending on the risk involved , and my estimation of my competence and experience.
3. Desensitization. Exposure to as many situations as possible that cause fear, discomfort and uncertainty. I don't swim with sharks, but I'll take any healthy opportunity to face a fear, feel the adrenaline and do it anyway. The more I get used to functioning under the influence of adrenaline, the more control I have over those feelings.. and in a wider range of situations. A few years ago I used to be extremely shy and it held me back... now I feel there's not much that can stop me."

Fat Poop (his personal choice for an alias.lol.): "I get really nervous before every show which involves pacing and major butterflies...My level of nervousness depends on what I am doing in the show. I worry mostly about lines (will they or won't they be there)...After 2 minutes of being out "there" everything is forgotten...I always think..."WWHED?" and then I imagine several verisons of his semi-transparent head floating in a circle around mine giving me advice all at the same time until I eventually go insane..."

the Man: "I've never had stage fright. Can't remember ever being nervous about walking out on stage."

the Boss: "I generally don't get nervous about performing in plays/musicals. I'm more nervous about new experiences...My big thing is checking to make sure I have pants on. Honestly. If I'm wearing pants, then all is well. But overall, I'm usually not nervous...I get more nervous about casting (as director) because I am hoping and praying I get a good turnout and that I find the right person for the roles...
once the show starts I really can't do anything if something goes wrong!"

One Tough Cookie: "I still harbour some unresolved fears of 'stating my case' and telling my truth...Up until now, I have many experiences of being closed down by family, teachers, bosses, and even former friends, to the point that it shows in my body language and closed throat, which is proof positive that their comments and beliefs hit me hard and I'm still in the process of 'finding my voice' so to speak...I'm choosing not to care what people think or say anymore, but I still feel my body go into 'fight or flight' response near a stage, and I stop breathing, my heart thumps, I think I'll pass out, my words catch in my throat, I swallow a lot rather than express myself, and therefore I freakout even with a small audience...Some of my best new strategies and focus for success: * to give myself PERMISSION to be HEARD!...*ALLOW MYSELF to TAKE UP SPACE!! ...* to learn is how to BREATHE fully and deeply!!...* to be truly aware of body language and voice projection - this means to speak AS IF YOU'RE ENTITLED TO!...* to write on a sheet of paper "What's working" on one side, and "What's Not Working" on the other side, and have the list of "what's working" be longer than the list of "what's not working!" That can work with anything I'm dealing with at any given moment, not just stage fright!..create a vision of those butterflies "flying in formation!"
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After reading both "Coping with Stage Fright" and the responses from my fellow theatre thespians, I have concluded that there are 5 main causes of stage fright and the best way to cope with them are:

#1. Uncertainty in Oneself
CAUSE: you can't remember all your lines, you feel unprepared, your voice becomes low, quiet, scratchy or hard to understand SO, you speed-up to try and get your lines out, over and done with as soon as possible.
FIX: Read the entire script over & over, not JUST your lines. Be familiar with the characters, the actors and the lines. Know what happens, what's coming next and keep track of things that have gone wrong during rehearsals and be prepared for anything. Warm-up your voice prior to a performance.

#2. Knowledge of Family/Friends in the Audience
CAUSE: you've asked your family and friends to come see you in a play...then they show-up and TELL you they're coming and which night OR you go onstage and recognize someone in the very front row SURPRISE people you know are watching you! You want to do the best you can do so you over-emphasize certain lines or maybe indulge in your character a bit more than usual. You try to be "funny" and thus your performance is artificial and over-done. Your eyes meet and then you conciously try to cover-up the fact that you just met someone's gaze in the audience - guess what - the entire audience just noticed you quickly look away from someone and now are wondering about the actor and not the character.
FIX: It can be very rewarding having friends and family in an audience to support you. If it makes you nervous to KNOW that they are there - ask them to come and not tell you when they're coming. Practice does make perfect in this case and the best way to learn to deal with this form of stage fright is to experience it over and over again until you get used to it.

#3. Your Imagination
CAUSE: you are about to go onstage and you start to think about your first line, how the scene is supposed to be played out, what you are supposed to do, where you are supposed to go, etc. Your imagination begins to play out a scenario of you missing a line or not being in the right place at the right time, forgetting a line, messing-up another actor, your heart-rate increases, your palms become sweaty, your throat dries out and SUDDENLY you hear your cue and go onstage to perform your scene. This is NOT the mindset you want to start your scene with.
FIX: Learn to control your mind. This is much easier said than done. The very first step is recognizing that you have an over-active imagination.  Meditation and breathing excerises where you focus entirely on your breath are great ways to get yourself "out of your head" and focusing on a simple task. 

#4. Thinking vs. Reacting
CAUSE: you're onstage in the middle of a scene, you're swaying, there are knots in your stomache, you're thinking and focusing on your next line and waiting anxiously for another actor to deliver your cue so you can say it. Waiting for your cue from an actor while thinking about your next line vs. listening to the other character speak is one of the most common causes of an actor freezing onstage.
FIX: Instead of imagining ahead of time what may or may not happen in a scene, try to focus on being present IN the scene. Be aware of your cues (verbal and non-verbal) and learn to go with the flow. If you stumble on a line, bump into furniture, cut another actor off, skip a line - USE IT! Stay in character and use it. A favourite saying of mine is "If the audience doesn't know you messed-up...you didn't."

#5. Thoughts of Being Judged
CAUSE: you're in the middle of a scene or you just delivered your first line and, wouldn't you know it, you stumbled, you lost your voice, your voice cracked, you messed-up a word, you stuttered, etc. Your mind immediately starts thinking about all the people who just watched you mess up and are laughing at you from inside their minds. You begin to sweat, lick your lips, rock on the spot, your heart races and your chest tightens up. What may have happend is that the audience, in fact, didn't realize you messed-up until you started to behave as though you had.
FIX: Stay in Character! Whatever happens (and believe me STUFF HAPPENS!) stay in character. React as your character would. If you stumble, react to your own stumble as your character would. If you bump into a piece of furniture, don't say "Oh sh*$#t" unless your character would do so ;)  People are not watching a group of actors playing on a stage, people are in the mindset of watching an alternate reality of REAL people playing out a REAL situation. Try to keep in mind that the audience is not watching YOU, they are watching your CHARACTER.
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I will end this post by saying "you are your worst enemy". Know yourself, prepare and get experience.
Feel confident in yourself and all the hard work you have put into a production.
If you don't feel prepared - you prob'ly aren't prepared enough.