Performing isn’t easy. Stage actors know it, as do film and television performers and voice professionals. All it takes is one forgotten line or one inadvertent break in character and, for some of us, it’s game over. The fear doesn’t creep in as much as it blasts into our reality and wipes out any hope of a successful outcome.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Learning from the experience can make future performances in those very frightening places every bit as triumphant as they were destined to be.
Stage fright is the anxiety or fear produced by speaking or performing in front of a crowd. Also known as presentation anxiety, performance anxiety, or glossophobia (the fancy name for the fear of public speaking), it is an extremely common phobia. Estimates suggest as much as 77% of the population experiences anxiety over public speaking.
The condition is particularly prevalent among actors. A 2012 study from Gordon Goodman, author of “Stage Fright: Who Needs It?,” found that 80% of working actors have experienced stage fright at least once in their lives. The same study found that auditions are nearly 20% more likely to cause stage fright than performances, indicating that who is in the audience matters more than how many people are watching.
Stage fright is not something that only impacts amateurs; experienced professionals—most likely your favorite stars of film, television, and theater—have felt stage fright. “I was so tense in the back. Coiled up. Nobody could talk to me,” Tony and Emmy winner Jeffrey Wright said of his earliest acting experience. “It was like pushing through stone to get those words out. I’ve evolved since then, but we all have that. It’s natural.”
“I had a couple of dark moments where I didn’t feel like I could do this profession,” Joel Kinnaman (“For All Mankind,” “Suicide Squad”) once told Backstage. “I had really bad stage fright. I threw up every time before I went onstage for the first three or four years. I’d also get panic attacks onstage. I’d blackout and have no clue of what I was going to say.”
Hope Davis notes that she was “never the person who could joke around backstage and then hit the stage and knock it out of the park,” despite a career that includes a Tony nomination, two Emmy nominations, and a New York Film Critics Circle Awards win for best actress. “I’m always very nervous. I need to concentrate. I was a very nervous auditioner when I was in my 20s. I was almost paralyzed with nerves, to the point where I thought of giving up a couple of times.”
From a biological perspective, stage fright is the body’s fight or flight response, produced in reaction to the perceived danger of public speaking. The amygdala sends a distress signal that causes the hypothalamus to send signals to the sympathetic nervous system. The adrenal glands release adrenaline into the bloodstream, which causes the all-too-familiar symptoms of stage fright: increased heart rate and blood pressure, heavy breathing, sweating, and a terrible feeling in the pit of the stomach.
Although we typically think of stage fright as occurring on, well, a stage, it can happen in any situation involving performance judgment. Speeches, interviews, presentations, auditions, and performances can all cause stage fright.
When you perform, you want the audience to be entranced by your acting skills—not by your shaking hands. Here’s a quick rundown of some techniques to stave off stage fright and allow your inner performer to shine through:
1. Concentrate on the physical
Movement gets your adrenaline pumping ahead of time, meaning that you won’t feel so out of sorts onstage. Go for a brisk walk if you have time before the show or audition. Just before performing, try breathing exercises like lengthening your exhale and breathing from your belly. Shake out your muscles, do a dance, and move around until your body feels loose.
2. Remember who the performer is
The audience is there to see or hear you. And only you. It’s your gift, your expertise, your unique ability to make the role yours that got them out of the house on a rainy night. Of all the people in the room at that moment, you’re the one who knows more about this character, this performance, and this work than anyone else. Let your mastery of the moment be your guide.
3. Forget the stakes
You could be in front of 20 people in a repertory theater or thousands in the most prestigious of performing arts facilities. In the end, they’re all the same. Too many performers allow the supposed importance of the performance—of the night, of the people in attendance—to affect their mindset. Don’t. See above: You and you alone are the key performer. Whether they’re wearing tuxes and gowns or overalls and sundresses is irrelevant. The audience doesn’t matter. You do.
4. Performance over audience
In a related vein, what you’re delivering matters far more than who you’re delivering it to. Maintain focus on your performance, to the exclusion of all and everyone else, and you’ll be well-insulated from any audience-related fears. That said, if you find it helpful to make eye contact with a few friendly members of the audience, follow your heart and make that connection early on. Some performers find it helpful to get that little bit of extra visual feedback and support.
5. Be a temporary broadcaster
Television and radio are excellent proving grounds for actors and other stage and performance professionals, because they allow you to practice your craft without the physical distraction of a visible audience. I know it sounds overly simplistic, but getting some studio time with a camera or a microphone can help you develop the mindset to naturally ignore whoever’s in the room and focus on your performance. Spend enough time staring into an unblinking red light, the theory goes, and you’ll never even know who’s sitting behind the bright lights when you transition to a real stage.
6. Practice like you mean it
The deadliest mistake performers can make involves never feeling the weight of a performance before they have to deliver it for real. If you don’t perform at full volume, at full cadence, and in the venue where you’ll be delivering it, your body and mind will never have the chance to know what it’s like to do so. This is crucial in order to adapt to the very different reality of a live, in-person performance. Reading your lines at half-volume into your bedroom mirror doesn’t count. Replicate the intended space as closely as possible, and get used to the unique cues associated with practicing, as if you’re actually performing.
7. Visualize your mistakes
Expecting the worst is good practice for managing yourself when the inevitable occurs. Because, let’s face it, you will make mistakes. My recommendation: Don’t even call them mistakes or errors. Accept the fact that they’ll happen, and instead focus on how you’ll respond to ensure you can continue with a smooth and consistent performance. Set up specific speed bumps within your practice sessions to help you learn, innately, how to roll with the punches. By the time you get to a live performance, none of this will seem like much of a big deal at all.
8. Slow down
We tend to speed things up when we’re nervous, which can increase the likelihood of tripping over our own tongues—or worse. To counter this, use clocks, timers, or even metronomes during rehearsals to control your speed and force your brain to keep to a workable pace.
9. Buffer the performance
Try to put as much time and psychological space as possible between the real world and any given performance. Arrive at the venue early—and preferably either alone or accompanied by supporters who understand why you need your space. Settle in slowly and disconnect from those around you. Turn your smartphone and related electronics off. Use the time to review your lines or notes, have your favorite non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverage, and get into your performance mindset.
Over time, build personal rituals that make sense to you and help you achieve comfort and balance before you’re scheduled to perform.
There is no one all-encompassing solution for stage fright. Every performer has specific needs and approaches to the craft, and you’ll need to keep an open mind to what works and does not work for your particular needs. But with some focused attention to this very real issue, you can raise the level of your performance game—and probably have a little more fun in the process, as well.