Tips to help overcome stage fright

Going on stage can be terrifying, and this apprehension isn’t reserved for first timers. Acting and public speaking are very similar, in that there is a group of people watching you and reacting to what you say and do. While I do have public speaking experience (in that I’ve spoken in public before – so I guess that counts) performance is really what we’re going to focus on here (although the skills are transferable and a great reason to take a theater class).

It’s important to remember how powerful the stage is – it can (literally) make or break a person. I was inspired to write this piece because of a recent situation. A couple of months ago I was doing a show, and a young actress was to perform a monologue – this would be the first time she ever performed on stage. She was nervous when she went on, blanked on a line, didn’t know how to recover, cursed, panicked, and ran off stage. She collapsed in a corner and didn’t move for 20 minutes.

It was a horrible experience. I didn’t see her for 4 days, by which time she had recovered (as best she could, I suppose).

I realized that part of the problem rested with me – I hadn’t prepared her properly. Not only was she unprepared to go on stage, but she also didn’t know how to recognize the signs of stage fright, cope with them, or recover if something were to happen while performing. All of these factors added far too many variables and certainly worked against her having a relaxed, successful performance.

Similarly, another young actress, in an audition, was so terrified that every time she went to open her mouth she broke down and cried. We were there for an hour. She wanted to audition, she wanted to do the show, but the fear of even auditioning for less than a minute completely crippled her. I tried my best to talk to her and calm her down, but that level of stage fright is something that is beyond my knowledge. Never had I seen something this serious before (update: she eventually coped with her anxiety and successfully auditioned).

So, inspired by these incidents, I decided to do some research and read up on stage fright. I’m still learning, so I certainly don’t have all the answers (and won’t pretend that I do). I decided to use this post as a source of information, and the following links lead to resources that I’ve found helpful. For additional help, I’ve summarized some points below and added a few of my own observations and strategies that have worked for me that have more of a theater angle.

Here are the sources:

http://business.uni.edu/buscomm/Presentations/stagefright.html#control

http://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/social-anxiety-disorder/treatment/conquering-stage-fright

http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200512/fighting-stage-fright

http://www.webmd.com/anxiety-panic/guide/stage-fright-performance-anxiety

http://www.violinist.com/discussion/response.cfm?ID=23075

http://www.anxietycoach.com/performanceanxiety.html

http://io9.com/5950544/the-neuroscience-of-stage-fright-++-and-how-to-cope-with-it

http://m.wikihow.com/Overcome-Stage-Fright

Why do people get stage fright?

For plenty of reasons. For actors, perhaps the biggest fear is blanking. That is, forgetting a line or where to move and not being able to recover. There is probably nothing more terrifying than going on stage and not knowing what to say or do. And this is even worse if you knew what to say and do, but forgot.

No one likes to feel like they aren’t in control, and panicking on stage, in front of an audience, creates a vicious circle of anxiety. The fear of this happening is one of major causes of stage fright.

What happens? What are the symptoms?

These fears may materialize themselves in several ways:

  • elevated heartbeat

  • sweating

  • accelerated speech

  • hyperventilation

  • panic attacks

  • loss of muscular control (freezing)

This is the body’s “fight or flight” response, and these physical manifestations enabled our ancestors to run from Woolly Mammoths, velociraptors, and ancient aliens. It either gives us the necessary tools to run far away very quickly, or stand our ground and fight. Our brains and bodies work together, telling us that we’re in a dangerous situation and that we need to prepare for battle.

 How can we cope with it beforehand?

Since theater is hardly a life or death battle (insert your joke here), we need to convince our bodies and minds that we’re in no physical danger, and remove any of the potential stressors that could be causing the anxiety.

The best way to de-stress is to over prepare. Know your lines cold. Nothing adds or detracts from confidence more than preparation. Leaving little doubt to your personal level of preparedness helps you to relax and gives you confidenceboth elements are essential to quick thinking on stage.

If the above isn’t enough, take steps to deal with the stress:

  • Exercise: Work out the extra adrenaline and feel physically and mentally stronger. This includes vocal exercise.
  • Breathing exercises: Breathing properly helps to focus us and get essential oxygen to the brain
  • Arrive early: Give yourself time to get into the mindset of performing. Walk the theater, the stage, and get acquainted with your dressing room. Acclimate yourself into the environment before the craziness begins. A little stress-free quiet at the venue is much, much better than rushing to try and get there on time.
  • Diet: Avoid eating heavy meals on performance days. Stick to protein, keep it light and healthy, and stay hydrated. Being a little hungry is good (but not to the point of light headedness) – it makes sure the blood goes to the head and not to the stomach. Trust me on this one. I’ve seen it proven over and over again.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol: An upper and a downer. Both affect the way we function.
  • Avoid dairy: It creates unpleasant phlegm and can upset your stomach.
  • Focus on your character and performance: Getting into character early, visualizing your performance, and having positive thoughts about the entire experience will help you transition from backstage to onstage smoothly.

How can we recover if something goes wrong on stage?

Improvising: Know all of the subtleties of your character, the other characters, the scene, and the play (this goes back to being prepared and confident). With all of that important information at your disposal, and the confidence that comes with knowing it, you’ll be in a much better place to improvise, should you have to. It’s a powerful tool, but one that should only be implemented as a last resort (i.e., if there’s absolutely no other way to stay on script). That being said, knowing you have the ability to seamlessly – and in character – improvise your way back into the scene is another way to build your confidence (there isn’t enough room in this post to go into how you build that ability – but look into improv if you never have). Another way to look at this is through a simple metaphor: build a bridge. A bridge takes you from where you are to where you have to go. Get to the next part of the scene as quickly, strategically, and logically as possible. This means staying in character, relaxing, and making it look like nothing went wrong. In this moment, knowing your character and the play exceptionally well will be your savior (see the part about “overly preparing” above).

Final words

If you’re struggling with stage fright, or know someone who is, remember that the audience is really on the side of the performer – the audience wants you to succeed and they want to be entertained and moved – so you’re really at an advantage already. You’re there to have a great time on stage and the audience is there to watch you and feel like they are a part of something. That’s really the best part.

Stage fright plagues even the most seasoned performer. If you are having serious anxiety problems, you should probably seek professional help. I am not a doctor. I can’t guarantee that these methods will work for you.

Do you have any other suggestions? 

How I produced a dramatic show with Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry

Edgar Allan Poe is one of my favorite writers. Many know him for his short stories and a poem or 2 (“Quoth the raven”). But the few examples of his work that we all know from high school don’t even begin to uncover his genius – or madness. Read “Hop-Frog” or “The Oblong Box”. The man was the best at what he did.

The same can be said of his poems. Yes, we all know “The Raven”, but go read “A Dream Within a Dream”, then watch Inception, and try to convince yourself that the two aren’t related.

What

Anyway, in October of 2012, just in time for Halloween, I decided to create a show using his poetry. Not a poetry recitation (except in one case – which I billed as a “staged reading”), but full dramatic interpretations. Poe’s poetry is autobiographical, very descriptive, and very musical. My task was to tap into this work and bring the characters and situations to life.

First, one of the main things that made this show unique was its location: a farm. I decided that in order to up the creep factor (and help out a local business) that I would stage the show in a tent in the middle of the farm field. It was dark, and the only lights were from my stage lights and people had to use outhouses (including the cast and crew). Exactly what I was going for.

For a few years leading up to the show, It had been a goal of mine to figure out a way to take Poe’s work and bring it to the stage. Should I go with his short stories? How would I dramatize them, should I go with someone else’s dramatization? I decided against both methods because the stories would be tough to dramatize, tough to recreate on stage, and the problem with someone else’s interpretation is that the language – Poe’s language – will most likely not be accurate. The language, to me, is one of the most important things (if not the most important thing).

I chose my poems, tried to stick them in some sort of logical order, and then worked on creating the show from scratch.

One of the poems that I used in the show was “Annabel Lee”. I reproduced it below:

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
I and my Annabel Lee—
With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
Went envying her and me—
Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we—
Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Michael Pagano in "Annabel Lee". Photo by Sue Grieco
Michael Pagano in “Annabel Lee”. Photo by Sue Grieco

Why

When I first had the idea to do this show, this poem was the first one that popped into my mind. The darkness of its theme would fit well into the setting I chose, and it’s a beautifully written story, with so much power packed into so few words.

If we take a look at this poem and break it down, we can see that its structure is very much like that of any good story – there’s an arc, that is, a beginning, middle, and end. That’s the first thing that stuck out, and the reason that I knew it could be turned into a scene without stretching too much.

Next, because it’s a poem by an exceptional poet, there is a lot of meaning packed into those stanzas. I knew that this could lend itself to creating a terrific character (the character of the Narrator, who tells this story to the audience) with real emotion and depth.

Third, there is a lot of imagery (again, credit to the writer), so while I certainly relied on the audience to do a little work during this production (imagination!), I was still able to create some visual images on my own to accompany the acting and the storytelling.

How

Stanza 1 is the set up. The narrator is speaking directly to the audience. He introduces the story and the character of Annabel Lee. We know from this stanza that they have, or had, a relationship. We don’t know the extent yet, but he has captured out attention. For setting, I used a dark background and blue lighting, to simulate the night and reflection of the water.

Stanzas 2 through 5 tell the story. It starts at the beginning, when they were children and goes through the part when she died. I had an actress play Annabel Lee. She would mirror some of the narrator’s lines, as if she were really there, but she was in fact a “ghost”, perhaps literally, or perhaps a ghost of his memory. She slowly walks towards him as he tells his story, with her arm outstretched, getting closer. She is just about to reach him, his arm also outstretched, when he says the last lines of stanza 5:

Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

At that point, her light is shut off (I’m talking about the stage lights, not the light of her soul or anything like that) and she retreats backwards, exiting the stage area, towards the afterlife (or, at the very least, out of view of the audience).

In stanza 6, the memory is over and he is back in the real world. The actor who played the narrator (above) did a phenomenal job of taking a poem and creating a three-dimensional person from it, and the audience was very appreciative of the effort (I think they were expecting a simple poetry reading).

Now, the narrator has retreated back to center stage, takes a breath, and delivers stanza 6. It is not so much a memory as it is a eulogy. He makes his way towards stage right, stops, and delivers the final lines of the poem:

And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

At this point, a rigging is pulled, and a tombstone appears next to the actor with a spot on it. Blackout.

I followed this scene with “The Raven”. It seemed like a logical flow of ideas – in “Annabel Lee”, the man remembers his lover, speaks of losing his lover, and then in “The Raven”, the man is in his chamber, slowly going crazy wondering if his lost love is being taken care of in the afterlife. I tried to choose poems that could be loosely linked thematically, and present the possibility of the entire show being centered around the same person (the men in both “Annabel Lee” and “The Raven” could be the same person if you really want them to be). Of course, there is some truth to this, as this mysterious person is Poe himself.

* * *

A little creativity can really go a long way when you’re trying to do original work. Always aim to take your audience on a journey, and be open to finding inspiration everywhere.
Local press on the show:
http://malverne-lynbrook.patch.com/articles/first-malverne-theatre-show-all-about-poe-photos