The symptoms of stage fright sound like the side effects of a prescription drug. Actors can experience dizziness, dry mouth, tremors, nausea, short-term memory loss ("What's my next line?"), difficulty breathing, disorientation ("Where am I?"), and excessive perspiration. The sudden onslaught of panic can happen in the wings before making an entrance, at the audition in front of a group of strangers, or during a sleepless night rehearsing a first meeting with a casting director or talent agent.
In A Sense of Direction, William Ball's brilliant work about the collaboration between the actor and the director, Ball reports the results of scientific studies in relation to art: "Tests were applied to the nervous systems, hearts, skin, glands, and brains of actors before going on stage. They showed that an actor's 'stage fright' is composed of precisely the same physical and nervous responses as experienced by a man confronted by a raging lion, or an angry mob intent on destroying him." So how can actors conquer the fear that is constantly threatening to block their creativity? The following exercises might prove helpful:
• Use a relaxation technique to control your physical symptoms. Slow, deep diaphragmatic breathing can reduce stress. Check your reflection. If your shoulders are hunched, your brow is furrowed, or your jaw is tense, close your eyes. Count to 30, inhaling on each count and pausing after exhalation.
• Firmly squeeze the base of each fingernail with your thumb and forefinger for five seconds. Release. Switch hands and repeat as needed. Find the tender spot in the fleshy part of your left palm. Press firmly while taking deep breaths.
• Mentally transport yourself to a situation in which you feel confident and calm, such as a sunset at the beach or a walk in the woods. Visualize yourself sensing every part of the scene.
• Listen to soothing music that is slower than your heart rate.
• Welcome nervousness and anxiety. Your body sends signals because it aims for peak performance. Forget perfection. Learn to laugh at yourself if you trip, your stocking runs, or you forget the punch line.
• Give yourself short, clear messages: "I'm under control." "I can get through this because I am prepared." "I am enough. I have enough. I want to share it."
To overcome fear, Oscar-winning actor Kathy Bates believes we mustn't be afraid to be ourselves and tell our stories. Ball believed that actors are heroes. "It takes great courage to act," he writes. "All acting is praiseworthy if for no other reason than that the actor has the courage to walk from the wings to the center of the stage."