When the topic of nerves comes up, I’m sure we can all relate first hand to it. Many actors shiver at the thought, some see it as an occupational hazard, whilst others will simply offer a knowing and reassuring sigh. There are countless means used to wage war on this apparent nemesis, with varying degrees of success.
Some of us try attritional, gradual methods- yoga, hypnosis and dietary adjustments, whilst others favour a knockout blow at the eleventh hour- submerging ourselves in herbal teas and rescue remedies, staring at the waiting room wall and counting our breaths or even more drastic alternatives such as a nip of valium or, in some cases, a quick dash to the foyer bar before the half. But many of us still find ourselves in a one-sided conversation with an apparent ogre. This is the important word here, if you are a sufferer- not ogre, but conversation.
Nerves somehow retain the higher ground, no matter what the sufferer tries, it can catch us no matter where we choose to hide, using their superior vantage point like a trained sniper. Try hiding behind a hedge made of valerian root and you’re still picked off as you hear ‘action’ or the lights come up for Act One.
If unattended to, this can, of course, turn into a much more sinister nemesis. Stage fright.
Stage fright is an awful battle to endure for any actor. It can make fine performers feel completely ill-equipped to deal with a part they would otherwise be very good in. I should know. Last year, I had to leave a play I loved (with an extremely supportive team of colleagues willing me to battle on) because of it. For anyone who knows me, they’ll also know that the title of the play was somewhat ironic in my case. But I seem to have finally beaten it. Touch wood.
Sir Laurence Olivier referred to stage fright as “An animal, a monster which hides in its foul corner without revealing itself but you know that it is there and that it may come forward at any moment”.
Not exactly reassuring! ‘Even Olivier?! God help us!
But is there an answer to this riddle?
There certainly is.
The first thing you have to do, though, is make sure that you’re asking the right questions.
I mentioned nerves as being a one-sided conversation. Conversation is the important word because we need first to look at the quality of the conversation we are having with our nerves or self doubt. We need to make sure we’re using the right language or else our nerves will never understand us. And they actually want to understand us! Because, believe it or not, they originally came to us with the express purpose of offering help!
We may think of them as a sinister army, bent on stuffing up your screen test or blowing that opening night, when actually they are a benevolent force, given to us for the sake of self preservation and for positive action. But they’ve simply received the wrong orders from their Captain, which is us. Or more accurately, which is our mind. Captain Mind.
So let’s look at the orders you and Captain Mind are giving them:
Order 1- You don’t belong here! Go away! Retreat! Head for the hills!
Not true. They do belong here. Every actor knows that, when they’ve given a ‘dull performance’ that they felt lacked a certain something, it usually comes down to feeling uninspired or lacking the excitement they’re usually used to feeling. Nerves are an intrinsic part of this excitement. They actually ARE this excitement. They fuel an energy that is palpable in performance. It is more often the case that, when we feel the nerves we claim to dislike, we have attached the wrong MEANING to them. It is the manner in which we have perceived them, or more precisely our brain perceives them, that causes us problems. In telling our nerves to ‘go away’, we are convincing ourselves that we have something unwanted infesting us. We turn what could be a positive into a complete negative.
We transform a brilliant natural chemical stimulant into a blood disease. Nerves aren’t the problem, though- it’s our relationship with them. In trying to conquer them with our brain, we are using a problem solver (the brain) to try and make you feel as if there’s no problem! A problem solver (the brain) loves thinking there’s a problem. Tell it to perform something other than its favourite task and it gets confused. That’s like telling a dog not to fetch. They can’t help it!
Nerves are simply excitement, which can just as easily be mistaken or redefined as fear when the brain latches onto them in the wrong way. We then treat them as an insurmountable obstacle and so the nightmare begins.
Think of the times you’ve been excited about something that might also have been terrifying. From jumping out of a plane (with a parachute, please!) to meeting someone you admire, to that first date with someone you’re crazy about. These can all be great experiences, unless you decide, cognitively, that you are purely threatened by them. It is a mind game we play with ourselves and one that no amount of Valerian or St John’s Wort is going to change as long as the mind decides otherwise.
It is an act of willpower to adjust this thinking and it doesn’t actually take too much effort to recalibrate- you’ve just got to find the switch.
That switch is called MINDFULNESS.
When you make your nerves your friend, or better still a supporting actor in your story (Horatio perhaps), instead of dwelling on them as if they were the principal antagonist or some sort of blood disease, you can begin to act in spite of them by accepting them and using them, and, believe it or not, they’ll actually diminish.
Why? Because most emotions last approximately 20 minutes, if left alone. This is a proven fact. The important bit, though, is LEFT ALONE. If we try talking ourselves out of our nerves or telling ourselves off for being nervous, it’s not going to work. If, like me, you’ve spent years trying this plan of attack incessantly and, lo and behold, it doesn’t work, it’s time to get a new game plan.
It’s time to leave your nerves ALONE! What you resist will persist so, trust me, LEAVE THEM ALONE.
Does this line of thinking feel familiar at a casting?
‘Damn. I’m getting nervous. I was fine in the car, but now I’m starting to get the symptoms. I know this part, I could DO this part. Don’t be nervous. Stop being nervous. Shit…it’s not going away. It’s getting worse. You’re an idiot. This always happens. You’re going to blow it. You’re going to walk in there looking like a wreck and ‘insert casting agent’s name’ will be their usual lovely self and pretend they don’t notice, but you’re both going to know….etc’ If this pattern of behaviour is frequent, or even occasional, and you want to get rid of it, you can!
How? By practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is the skill of perceiving thoughts and emotions with non-judgement. Of letting them come and go without ‘hooking into them’. Without saying ‘I shouldn’t be feeling this way.’ When we tell ourselves an emotion or thought is wrong, we begin to dwell on it which, in turn, feeds it. We judge it, instead of letting a thought come and go as it is meant to. We attach to it and tell ourselves we ‘shouldn’t feel it’. This is absolute fuel for the fire.
If, as mentioned before, an emotion lasts twenty minutes, then the only way it can continue for much longer is if it is sustained. How is it sustained? It is nourished by thoughts! It feeds on your attention, like a school bully.
Were you ever bullied in school and told by someone to ignore that bully? This is almost the same idea, except that we don’t ignore the bully completely. Instead, we actually witness the bully come and go and we do so without judgement. If we try to ignore the bully, he/she will simply creep in through the back door. We acknowledge the bully, but we don’t get bothered by them.
You could also use the analogy of a spinning top when it comes to our nerves. It’s spun once and then left alone- and then comes to rest after a period of time. All it needs to keep spinning, though, is a helping hand. So don’t give it one! Practice the art of ‘Teflon mind’. A non-stick mind in which things can come and go. Your nerves will soon get bored from the lack of attention and head elsewhere.
Order 2- Damn nerves! Stop making me look stupid! Switch to Camouflage Mode!
I’ve noticed, when I speak to people about their nervousness or I myself have experienced it, that one of the most common fears is actually ‘looking nervous’. We feel we look silly to the naked eye and that these symptoms will kick us out of the running for a part we’re perfect for, or ruin an opening night and so on.
What are the symptoms, first of all? Clammy hands? Red face? Sweaty brow? Stuttering? Shortness of breath? An inability to concentrate? A general demeanour of weird fearfulness that must look f***ing ridiculous? Fight or flight in general.
Well, guess what? You’re a human being, so they’re ok! And guess what else? None of these symptoms are nearly as obvious as we think. Yes, they might be impacting on the work a little, but this cowering, trembling wreck you think you’ve just dragged into the casting room is not nearly as obvious to the casting agent as supposed. And given that casting agents are paid to be extremely perceptive, if they’re not aware of it as you imagine them to be, it’s unlikely an audience of the general public are thinking about it at all whilst you’re on stage.
Why are they less aware of it than we are? Firstly, because they can’t feel our nerves. They can only see its signs. And because we are actors, because we have more technique than we are giving ourselves credit for, we are in far more command of those signs than we may feel. We’ve taken great pains to work on our craft (hopefully) and so we have a lot more self-mastery than we might think. Therefore, your nerves may feel like a hurricane from inside, but to the naked eye, they are little more than the occasional light breeze. There is a huge difference between a thought and a behaviour – between a feeling and an action. You have the choice to feel a certain way and not to act on it. It’s a form of self-control that can be very liberating.
Put it like this-If I convince myself I have a giant carrot sticking out of the side of my head, and dwell on it, pretty soon I’ll be convinced everyone else can see it, though it’s not really there. And I will then behave accordingly if I choose to. I will act out the imagined ‘carrot’ if I choose to. Actors are particularly adept at this because they’ve nurtured their ability to imagine and then act on it. If you tell someone to imagine they look as nervous as all hell simply because they may feel that way inside, who’s going to buy it and believe it more than an actor- someone paid to imagine?
So let’s make sure we’re playing our real given circumstances accurately and not fall into the trap of that well known acronym for fear:
The carrot is not that obvious unless you dwell on and therefore ‘act the carrot’!
So let’s not dwell on looking nervous and remember that the host’s ‘fear of looking nervous’ is the favourite delicacy of nervousness. Don’t give it this food, and it’s likely to die of malnutrition.
Order 3- This is the most important gig of my career! Your timing is woeful, nerves. You’re going to sabotage our most important mission to date!
So firstly you’re saying you’re an oracle? How do you know it’s the most important gig? Yes, it might be a lovely job to get or, if you’re already doing it, to have, but is putting that kind of pressure on yourself helping anyone? We need to remember the line from the famous poem Desiderata by Max Ehrmann- ‘No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.’
If we don’t get it, fine. If opening night wasn’t the greatest run of the show of all time, you’ll live. It’s not ideal. But we’ll deal with it. We won’t DIE!
Firstly, name me two times when consistent worrying has helped you. I’ll give you 30 seconds.
Ok, no luck? How about just one time.
Ok, so we’ve established there has NEVER been a time when worrying alone has helped. Being concerned? Sure. Acting on that concern? Even better. But stewing in a sense of pending doom is as pleasant/useful as a fart in a spacesuit.
Secondly, what are we even worrying about?! Acting!!!
What we are paid to do is to act. We dress up and pretend we are someone else for the entertainment of strangers. Our job is brilliant and even a little ridiculous! Noble and wonderful and invaluable, but ridiculous enough that it surely can’t go that wrong! If we make a mistake the world will continue to turn and we will be forgiven. I’m not trying to be flippant about the importance of our craft or condone not working to our full potential. Quite the opposite. But make no mistake, setting up some mystical notion that the future of the world depends on your ability to be the perfect actor is a sure fire recipe for disaster.
If a brain surgeon makes a mistake, we may have a quadriplegic on our hands. An actor- two to three seconds of awkward silence at most. Capisce?!
So, be mindful- let the Teflon mind allow your thoughts and doubts to come and go. Some people use the analogy of ‘leaves on a floating river’. Put the thought that crosses your mind on one of those leaves and watch it float away. Then the next thought comes and you do the same. The mind is flowing then. You have room to act. And that’s what we came to do in the first place, right?!
And above all this, don’t rush. For anyone. Take a breath, let yourself be flawed and vulnerable and imperfect and human and then, not only will the nerves be easier to manage, but the actual work we are doing will be informed by this calmer more insightful state of mind.
Dealing with Stage Fright
Stage Fright is the evil uncle of nerves. It is the extreme end of performance anxiety.
Nerves are a natural byproduct of being an actor, but stage fright can be debilitating. The goal is to allay the extreme nerves and not let performance anxiety hinder your performance. Try putting into practice the lessons from this article and if it’s till affecting you in a severe way look at having a session with a phycologist or counsellor that specialises in dealing with performers.
Quotes on Nerves
Here are some quotes from amazing actors to make you feel a bit better about your nevers:
Auditions make me nervous; any time I have to perform, I get stage fright. Octavia Spencer
I get stage fright and gremlins in my head saying: ‘You’re going to forget your lines’. Alan Rickman
I still suffer terribly from stage fright. I get sick with fear. Not every night, but at the beginning and on occasion – not necessarily when I’m expecting it. You just have to cope with it – take it on the chin and work through it, trying to use the adrenalin to perform. Helen Mirren