September 1, 2010

I was thinking about the courage it takes to stand on a stage – whether it’s at Carnegie Hall or your local arts council. A famous survey showed that many people fear public speaking more than they fear death. As the audience shuffles into the auditorium actors often whisper to me, “I’m afraid.” How do we find the nerve to perform in the face of jittery stomachs, dry mouths and restless feet that want to run in the other direction?

I used to stand backstage before opening a new show and picture the hot fudge sundae I planned to have when the last applause had grown quiet and the audience had shuffled out again. Avoidance has its benefits, but there are even better ways. Here are some ideas I offer to my acting students in answer to their whispered fears.

1) Remember that anxiety is really excitement without breath. When we’re excited about going on stage (or taking a test, or meeting someone, or trying anything new or challenging) extra adrenaline pumps through our bodies. That’s what makes us shake or feel like we’ve got jumping beans in our stomachs. Taking slow, deep breaths is a big help in managing the extra adrenaline.

2) Warming-up physically for going on stage is very important to calming nerves. I have a three-part warm-up routine that I call “Relaxing, stretching, strengthening.” Or, as I tell actors, “Try pushing a wall.” It really helps to do exercises that make our bodies feel relaxed, strong and centered.

3) Mental preparation is as important as physical preparation. My friend and fellow teacher, Mr. Danny, guides young performers through an exercise where they imagine themselves on stage going through their show exactly as they hope to do it. I tell actors, picture where your character is when the play begins, now picture what happens next …

4) It also helps mentally to picture all the people you love and who love you sitting in the audience. Know that everyone is with you, hoping you will do your best and appreciating everything you achieve.

Finally, I tell the story of the day I said goodbye to stage fright once and for all. I started acting when I was 12 years old, but it wasn’t until I was 26 that I learned this secret. I was waiting to go onstage for a one-woman show; the seats in the auditorium were filled with strangers, my stomach was queasy and, despite having done all my physical and mental warm-ups, I was still dizzy with anticipation.

All right, I thought, why am I doing this if it scares me so much? That turned out to be the best question I could have asked myself. Because the answer was immediate and clear. “I do it because I love doing it.”

I love acting. I love sharing feelings and characters and stories with an audience as if we are creating the play together. I love getting to use my mind, body, imagination and voice to the fullest. And if I love it, how can I fear it too? So I promised myself then and there that if ever I really didn’t want to go on stage, I didn’t have to. I decided the only reason to perform was for love and that solved the problem.

I hope all this is helpful – and really, the only way to learn in the long run is by doing. You’ll find your own ways to cope with stage fright, and then pass them along.

Warmly, Jenny

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