Stage fright is something that pretty much every actor I know has dealt with at some point. It can be to varying degrees, from isolated and mild to debilitating and constant. If you are currently suffering from this annoying affliction, don’t worry, you are not alone and I am here to help.
This is a topic I was eager to write about because I have dealt with several bouts of stage fright throughout my acting. At its most extreme, I thought I would have to stop performing all together. The thing I loved to do became unbearable.
I had to make a choice: do I let this thinking ruin the thing I love doing, or do I try and get it under control? Obviously, I chose the later and learnt some tricks that help along the way.
There is no quick fix solution. It is part of the job. However, just because this feeling happens, that doesn’t mean it should stop you doing the thing you love. If your work is hard on your back because you are sitting down all day, or the sport you love playing causes your ankles to play up, wouldn’t you try and fix that? You would! You would get physio, or do exercises, or maybe warm up more before games. You would get another chair, or a standing desk.
Stage fright is no different to these other workplace hazards. If you can stay aware of it, and have ways to manage it, you can make sure it’s never a barrier to you doing your best work.
What Is Stage Fright?
Stage fright is literally what the name suggests: you have become frightened of the stage. In this day and age, stage does not have to mean a literal stage. It is any moment of performance. Auditions, self taping or even working with a new actor informally can cause stage fright to appear.
Stage fright is becoming frightened of allowing someone to watch your work. Even though I feel I sometimes do my best work when no one is watching, acting needs an audience. Without an audience it is just practice. If you become afraid of being watched whilst you act, it can make performing a not only difficult, but frankly unenjoyable.
What causes it can be varied. It may be caused by the pressure you have placed on the job, the size or scale of the production, the culture of the workplace, the difficulty of the roll or a bad review. Though the causes are varied, the symptoms are the same. It always manifests into negative thinking about whether the work you are doing is worth watching.
Once this mentality sets in, you stop playing and taking risks. You stop being present because you have become worried about what the people watching are seeing. You are busy watching and monitoring yourself, rather then being in the moment.
What’s most affecting for me, is the enjoyment of the process starts being undermined by the stress of the mindset. Acting should be if nothing else, enjoyable. We have all chosen to pursue acting because of a passion for sharing stories and an enjoyment of the craft. If you let stage fright get to the point where it stops you enjoying acting, then what’s the point? If I am going to be miserable in my job I may as well do something less volatile with a more regular paycheck.
Is Stage Fright Just Nerves?
I think its important to point out that nerves are not Stage Fright. They can be linked, but for me they are two separate states a performer might find themselves in.
Nerves is just excitement. Getting the rush of nerves can be confusing feeling, but it’s usually short-lived and manageable. They are usually experienced at the start of the production or performance. Opening nights, first big scene, or a big call back can get nerves going. Usually after the initial shock, the nerves dissipates as you get more comfortable with the situation.
That’s not to say they are fun. They can affect the body, and that can be frustrating. Breathing can get shallow, heart rate goes up, and calming this can make it hard to stay in the moment. My hands shake when I am nervous. Glasses of water or loose paper props in scenes have become a particular pet peeve of mine, because the shaking is amplified with these items.
Keep breathing and the nerves will disappear. Stage fright takes a little more gumption to remove.
What Can I Do to Stop Stage Fright?
Whilst you might not be able to stop Stage Fright completely – as like any physical or psychological injury, you may get a niggle from time to time – there are definitely steps to stop it becoming a barrier to you doing your best work.
For those of you that have had a bad case of stage fright, you know it feeds on itself. It is a self-fulfilling prophesy: You worry that your work isn’t good enough which makes you play it safe and not take big risks, which makes your perceive your work as weaker, which makes you less confident with your work, which leads you to worry that your work isn’t good enough…. And so on. Round and round it goes.
Sometimes a good show, or a compliment from the sound person, or an interesting note will disrupt the pattern. Sometimes you have to do it yourself.
Ultimately its about changing your perspective. It’s a pattern of thinking that needs to be disrupted. Its about now I should say I am not a psychologist, or counsellor or neuroscientist. I do not know how the mind works. I am just an actor that would like to share – actor to actor – some truths that can help in disrupting this unhelpful way of thinking.
Story Is King
Hamlet is not Hamlet without Claudius. Princess Leigh can’t exist without the Empire. Jerry is not Jerry without Elaine, Kramar, George and New York. Sophie doesn’t have to make a choice if she wasn’t there.
It is easy to fall into the trap of feeling its all about you, but nothing happens in a vacuum. Everything you do is attached to something: the story. For an actor working with a script, you have to remember that someone has built a journey for you to travel along. The fact that you are reading it means someone has put a great deal of thought into what that journey is, and if it’s gone through development, you know it’s a pretty dam good one. Its your job to show this journey to the audience.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether you are casting a show or watching a movie, as someone watching a performance you are always watching a story. The story is what acting is all about. In fact I shouldn’t be able to see acting at all. I shouldn’t be thinking about it. Because I should be watching the story.
I had an acting coach once tell me: let the text do the heavy lifting. Allow yourself to remember you are a part of a team, not an individual, even when doing scenes by yourself. You are one part of the whole. The writer has your back even if you will never meet them. Have theirs and the other actors you are with, and the performance becomes a team effort, not a solo job.
This reminder can stop us worrying about what we are doing and whether it is ‘good’. Instead focus on, ‘is the audience receiving the story?’. This takes the focus off the individual, and allows us instead to serve something bigger than ourselves.
Trust the Work
If you are feeling terrible about an audition, performance or workshop, but you did nothing to prepare…. Then you deserve every bad feeling. You have wasted everybody’s time and that feeling is just the feeling of letting everyone down.
However, if you put in work – thought about character, made choices, structured the scene, learned lines, followed direction etc – then back yourself. Your work is worth seeing.
Whilst rehearsing a scene, you have made decisions that you think are worth seeing. You have worked out how you feel this character should be played, and what they offer to the story. Really, you are doing the scene how you want to see it. If you want to see it, then trust someone else will too. You made a choice to act this way because you think its good! Just because someone else is watching now, doesn’t mean you should change or doubt a thing.
When stage fright kicks in, the panicked brain starts doubting the hours you’ve put in and tells you that you’ve made bad choices, and you can start backing off. Remember, if you have put in time and effort, you can put your faith in the work you have done showing through. A bad run of a well-rehearsed piece will only be off by a couple of degrees. A well prepared, hard working actor will always do more good work then bad.
This doesn’t mean that everything will always go smoothly. You might drop a line here, or miss a moment there and these stumbles can feel monumental, but they are just moments. We all have good days and bad. Overall if you have put in work and are prepared, you can trust it will show.
Don’t Judge Yourself
One of the patterns of thinking that can get in the way is when you start watching and judging yourself in real time. This is a terrible place to be in because you never become fully present. Your brain is instead scrutinising your work and worried about whether people are judging you for it.
If you find yourself here, there are two important to things remember:
#1 No One Cares
What? That’s right. No one cares. Sure they might not like the show or cast you in that role… but so what?
In reality, we are providing escapism or stories to people that want to see them. Our highest aspiration is to be watched in people’s free time. Whether people like it or hate it is entirely subjective. No one is judging you personally. It is just a job. Even your greatest work will be hated by someone. Paradoxically, the more successful you are, the more people will see your work, and therefore the more people there are that will hate it.
I hated Lala Land. Couldn’t stand it. The closest I have been to walking out of a movie. Does that mean its bad? Or that the creative team should care what I think? Or that I think less of Ryan Gosling as a person because of that film? These are laughably ridiculous thoughts.
Actors have a strange habit of making our work on stage or camera our entire identity and whether people like it or not the entire measure of our worth. That’s where stage fright can fester. If my acting is no good, then I am no good. This is too much pressure, and it absolutely isn’t how people think. They may not like what they saw, that’s true, but that’s as far as they go.
Not getting a part, or a good review, is irrelevant to our existence. You are still you, and you still have value. We might judge the work, but that’s all it is – work. This is how the rest of the world views work. Remembering that acting is no different is an important way of stopping this spiral. It is just a job. Just a contract. If this one was no good, don’t worry, there will be a next one.
#2 It’s Not That Bad
So you’ve had a bad show, or a bad audition? You feel like you could have done better, and the performance was better the last time you did it.
Every actor has felt this feeling. The feeling of not nailing it. This feeling is normal and fine, but what becomes a problem is when this thought takes root and you start beating yourself up for your perceived failures, and pre-empt this will happen on your next attempt.
Having directed shows in theatre, I have learned that actors are THE WORST judge of when they are good or bad. I am sure a lot of you have also felt the strange disconnect of landing a role after feeling like you butchered an audition. Or getting a great response for a ‘dud’ performance. Or watching an edit and seeing that the used the take you hated performing. The gap between a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ performance is usually only a couple of percentage points. Whilst it might feel like a 50% difference when you’re in it, its closer to 2% when watching it.
Whats important to remember is just get out of your head. This is easier said than done, but its important to stop thinking in definites. You have no idea how it’s going, because you can’t watch it. Shift, the self talk that says “This isn’t going well”, to “I don’t know how this is going”. Even allowing the self talk to be open can give you space to breathe and get back into the moment.
Luckily, every scene, every take or every breath is an opportunity to have a reset. Take a moment, stop the judgement of yourself and have a play.
Important to Talk about It
For the longest time I tried to control my stage fright by just pretending it wasn’t there. I deny its there, I tell no one about it, and try my best to hide any internal anguish from co-workers. Because I can act, I always managed to hide it pretty well too. For anyone dealing with any sort of mental health problem or negative self talk you would know that this is the exact opposite of what you should do.
If you are acting, in any situation, the people around you want you to do well. The director cast you because they thought you would be great. The casting agent wants you to be the one to book the job. The rest of the cast want you to do your best work, because it makes them look good.
If you are struggling, let them know. People around you understand the pressure of performance and they may be able to help. Admitting to a casting director that your nerves are getting the better of you or telling a director you weren’t happy with a run, or a coach that you’re struggling to receive notes objectively means they can now try and help.
This does not mean you make it their problem. This is not “I’m struggling, so now do everything to make sure I am not”. Nor is it something you should use to manage expectations; “I’ll say my nerves are bad so they go easy on me” Both of these are selfish and disingenuous. It is just letting them know calmly and honestly that you are having a rough time. They may be able to help, they may not, but at least they know where you are coming from.
In my experience, simply saying that I am struggling helps to alleviate it. More then once, other actors have been in the same boat and my admission has given them an opportunity to talk about it as well. Directors have been able to check in and reaffirm good work, and casting directors have allowed a moment to centre myself.
No Harm in Taking a Break
If stage fright keeps bubbling up and making performing unenjoyable, there is no harm in taking a break. If you are genuinely not enjoying acting because of stage fright but keep putting yourself in positions where its exacerbated, I guarantee your career will be short lived. You will stop all together. Whereas a short hiatus may be the reset you need, and will allow you to focus on the aspects you love.
Actors fear saying no. They fear saying no to a part because that may be their break! They fear disappointing directors because they may be blacklisted, or their agents because they may not work as hard for you anymore. For me, the worst pressure comes from the people in your life that always ask “so, hows the acting going?”.
In any other field if people change jobs, its called a career change. If you need time away or you’re burned out, you take leave. But with acting if you stop for any time its because YOU QUIT!
This is nonsense and frankly a really toxic part of acting culture. Don’t listen to this way of thinking. If you want or need a break, take it. You may even find you need a break from some of it, but not all of it. You might want a break from stage because audiences are overwhelming, but film may be fine. You might put a pause on auditions to focus on classes. You may find that the pressure of employment is too much to place on it, so you might move your full time aspirations to part time.
For me, whats most important is that you are still doing the thing you love. So take the time you need, and make the decisions you need to, to make sure you love what you do.
This is a real thing. Although originating from the sports world, this is a growing field of psychology that focuses on people that need to deliver at specific moments. Performing Arts universities usually have someone on staff to they work with with the unique psychological pressures faced by performers. They help dancers, musicians and actors to develop strategies to limit the pressure their occupation creates.
If you feel this is something that interests you, and you feel your stage fright is becoming unmanageable, this sort of professional treatment is very targeted and understanding of the situation you are in.
Whilst stage fright can be a real spur in the side of actors, it can be managed. The most important thing to remember is that you are not alone. This is something all actors will deal with at some point and to some degree throughout their career. Do not suffer in silence, and do not let it get out of control.
In recent times, our understanding of mental health has grown. We know that patterns of thinking can be disrupted, and maintaining a positive outlook takes work.
So stay aware of yourself, stay honest about what is happening, and get on top of it before it gets on top of you, so you can keep loving the thing you love.