How to Combat Stage Fright

It’s interesting just how many actors and performers I hear who want to talk to me about how to get rid of stage fright. You know, that nervous-“Oh God, I’m going to be sick”-pit-of-the-stomach-twisting anxiety that suddenly takes grip just before going on stage?

Stage fright affects many performers, and not just at the beginning of their careers. There are a number of highly established professional performers who suffer from stage fright, despite many years of performing under their actor-y belts… (Helen Mirren and Vanessa Redgrave immediately spring to mind).

In short, stage fright or “the nerves” strike us all to some degree or another – and to greater or lesser degrees. For some performers these feelings are so intense that it can feel debilitating (nausea, white-outs, blackouts, constant urge to urinate), for others it can be quite mild (slight shortness of breath, dry mouth or over-salivation, cold sweat). Regardless of how stage fright manifests itself in you, there are some techniques and considerations you can use to begin to take control once more…

Why do I get nervous before going on stage?

Generally, the easiest ways to conquer your stage fright is to:

  • Not care about the quality of your performance
  • Not care if you get your lines right
  • Not care if anybody can hear you speak
  • Not care if you get to your entrances on time
  • Not care if you get your blocking correct
  • Not care if your performance doesn’t go as planned
  • Not care if anybody gets the point of your presentation
  • Not care if your performance is slopped together, half-baked, ill-timed, dull, boring and a waste of everybody’s time.

In other words, the easiest way to conquer your nerves is to quite simply not care about your work, not give a damn about the piece and just ‘get-by‘.

So, there you go. You wanted to know how to get over stage fright, it’s simple: stop caring about it. Stop being worried, start being happy and you’ll never be nervous again!

Of course, not giving a *&%$ is NOT really an option…

The fact is, we put a lot of effort and energy into our work as performers, and we want to get the best out of every moment we can conjure in playing our parts. So, if you:

  • Do care about the quality of your performance
  • Do care that you get your lines right
  • Do care that everybody can hear you speak
  • Do care that you get to your entrances on time
  • Do care that you get your blocking correct
  • Do care that your performance goes as planned
  • Do care that somebody gets the point of your presentation
  • Do care that your performance is skilfully crafted, professionally executed, spontaneous, engaging, exciting and fun for everyone involved…

…then trust me, you will be nervous. Possibly very nervous. You will be nervous because… HAVING NERVES MEANS YOU CARE!

Stage fright is what happens when your performance matters to you – when you want to do good work. When you want to prove yourself, and support your cast colleagues, professionalism and dedication means something – it is IMPORTANT.

Of course, excessive nerves can get in the way of doing good work. So here are a few tips on how to keep control of your performance and prevent excessive nerves from creeping in.

1) Memorise your lines

Do this as early as possible in the rehearsal process as possible. There are many “tricks” to memorisation (I will cover some of them in another post soon). Use them, and any others you can find that work for you to ensure you get your lines committed to memory as quickly as possible.

Memorising your lines early will free you from the burden of the physical script. It will allow you as much time as possible to explore the action, character relationships, sub-text, your character and all the other things you can’t do well if your eyes are glued to a script in your hand.

2) Understand your character’s reason for existing in the play

Every character is crucial to the play. Why did the playwright bother to have your character enter, say lines, perform actions, then leave? You should know why your character is in the play. The reason your character is on the stage is the reason you are on the stage. If your character belongs up there, then you belong up there. You have a purpose for being up there.

You belong up there. This sense of “I belong up on the stage” will help improve your comfort level. You feel comfortable in places you know you belong. Find the reason your character belongs in the play, on the stage. You will be more comfortable with the idea that you also belong in the play, on the stage.

3) Become familiar with the performance space

As early as possible in the rehearsal process, become familiar with the space in which you will perform. Stand in the middle of the stage. Look out toward the house. Look at the seats, the lights, the exits, the curtains. Walk about the whole acting area. Walk in the wings, down the stairs, look in the orchestra pit, if there are platforms: walk on the platforms, open and close doors and windows if they are part of the set, sit in the furniture on the set, handle your props, do everything you can to become familiar with the theatre and the acting area.

We are comfortable in familiar places. We feel like we belong there. You must develop your sense of belonging by exploring the space you will occupy; by making it your space.

Do this alot. As often as you can during rehearsals. Do this before every performance as well. Don’t stop doing this until the curtain goes down for the last time after the last performance. You belong on that stage. It is yours.

4) REHEARSE, REHEARSE, REHEARSE

Rehearse until you can’t stand rehearsing…then rehearse some more. Even go above and beyond what is expected of you in the rehearsal room, and make this a commitment you strive to even without the director present.

Read the play every day. The whole play, not just your part. Know the play inside out, outside in, upside down, downside up, backwards, forwards and standing on your head. Become so familiar with the play that you say lines in your sleep; so familiar that at parties your conversation consists almost entirely of lines from the play.

Become so familiar with the play that doing the play on opening night is like visiting an old familiar friend.

5) Be prepared, and know your stuff…

Think about everything your character is supposed to do, say, think and feel during the play. What are your actions? Where are you supposed to stand? When are you supposed to pick up that tea cup? How are you supposed to hold it? Which way should you be facing? Are you supposed to be enjoying the tea? How much? Are you supposed to close your eyes? Lick your lips? Say “m-m-m-m-m-m-m”? Is one leg supposed to by forward? How many steps are you supposed to take to get to the far end of the stage? What line should you be saying when you get there? When you fluff that pillow, are you supposed to hit it hard? Soft? At all?…When your character says, “I love you” does your character mean it? What does your character mean?

There are about a hundred-and-one things you think about in a play. Think about them. Prepare for what you are supposed to do or say next, where you are supposed to be next. How are you supposed to be reacting to the other character’s words and actions…? How do they make you feel?

Did I say a hundred-and-one? I meant hundreds-of-hundreds in fact… Think of those things and you won’t have time to think about how nervous you are. There won’t be any time to think about how nervous you are. You’ll be too busy thinking of all the thousands of things you’re supposed to be thinking about: the individual moments that make up your character’s living/breathing existence upon the stage should be all consuming.

Do this thinking thing while putting on make up, putting on your costume, waiting for your entrances, while on stage, every moment from the time you enter the theatre until your last line and exit.

6) What is your character’s context?

Your character did not suddenly, magically appear in the wings a split second before your entrance. Your character has a life besides the life the author documented in the words of the play. What was your character doing before your entrance onto the stage? You, the actor, get to decide.

Say your character is supposed to enter carrying a number of boxes, presents for his children. Well? Where did he get those packages? Did he go on a shopping trip downtown? Maybe he walked back from the bus stop six streets away, carrying five heavy boxes, an umbrella, and wearing shoes that are bit too tight after a long day of walking downtown? He’s tired, his arms are sore, but he’s happy because he is going to surprise his kids with his great presents.

It is time for your entrance. And guess what, instead of standing in the wings, waiting for your entrance, getting all nervous, you have been occupying yourself with the thoughts of your character. Thoughts about the stores you shopped in, that funny looking clerk in the shoe department, the bouncing bus ride home, the guy who smelled of beer and who fell to sleep leaning on your shoulder, the walk home from the bus stop, how red Mrs. Waxwings geraniums are this year, how sore your legs and arms are, how you have your house keys in the wrong pocket, and…ta da-a-a-a-a…

Then, a natural extension of this off-stage life conjured in your actor’s mind, you enter, stage left, one tired, sore, happy man, eager to put down those heavy packages, but gentle with their contents, smiling in anticipation of his children’s delight.

Enter one actor, too busy thinking about and living his character’s life off stage; too busy being involved in his character’s here and now…

Too busy thinking of the job at hand. Too busy to be nervous.

And yet, 100% committed to achieving the highest performance quality they can muster. Simply because they DO CARE, and that careful behaviour enables them to drive nerves into an opportunity to provide the full scope of their ability.

So, the next time you are suffering from stage fright – embrace it, accept it is because you care and then go out there and enjoy being the character…


Also published on Medium.

1 Comment

  • Ellie
    February 28, 2015 8:23 pm

    This is so true! I always get horrific stage fright before going on stage. I’ve found the more comfortable I am with my stage and where everything is – the less my nerves. Great article! Thanks

Leave A Comment