We’d rehearsed and rehearsed, I had worked so hard to prepare my character, and of course I knew my lines, but you know that few minutes when you’re standing at the side of the stage listening to the audience chattering in their seats?
The audience that have come in to see YOU (and the rest of the cast but you get what I’m saying) move and captivate them with your performance? When you know there are reviewers, agents and people you know (family, eek) in the audience AND THEN SUDDENLY YOU GO BLANK AND CAN’T REMEMBER A THING??
Have you had that experience? Because I have!
I freaked and told the director I had gone blank and didn’t know what to do. He told me to try my best and if I really needed a prompt just to say ‘line’ and I could get a prompt. I said something like “Do people seriously do that??” (if you do… Seriously, stop it!) and made my entrance on stage.
I stood there palm sweating, heart racing and mind BLANK for a few seconds (but it felt like 2 hours), I took a deep breath and it all came flooding back to me (oh the relief!) but why did I get that mental block?
I attended every rehearsal, I prepared my character thoroughly, learnt my lines well, arrived early on the day, ran through the script with the rest of the cast, drank energy drinks to make sure I had enough energy… Where did I go wrong?
Well, the answer is down to science. Your body doesn’t know the difference between fear of being laughed at or fear of being attacked.
When we think about things that could go wrong and what would happen as a result, the hypothalamus part of the brain triggers the pituitary gland to secrete the ACTH hormone, which then stimulates the adrenal glands and, adrenaline is released into the blood. Your body doesn’t know the difference between fear of being laughed at or fear of being attacked and fight or flight sets in.
Your blood pressure and heart rate increase, your body instinctively wants to curl up into the foetal position to protect itself and your muscles shake, your digestive system begins to shut down to increase oxygen to the vital organs, you get a dry mouth and a funny feeling in your tummy, blood leaves the brain to send more oxygen to your limbs to allow you to fight or take flight and if there’s less oxygen in the brain, you know what that means don’t you? It messes around with our memory and speech… This is where things can really go wrong. If you forget a line, or trip over your words, fear will set in even stronger which will take the whole process up another level meaning you are more likely to forget again or be unable to get your words out.
We need to make sure we don’t get into this cycle in the first place!
- Prepare, prepare and then prepare some more. Prepare until you know your role backwards, sideways and standing on your head then keep preparing until you are sick of it. I’ll always remember preparing for a show at college and I told the tutor I was sick of looking at the script as it was coming up to show time. She said “Good, that means we’re getting somewhere. Go to scene 8…” If you are not thoroughly prepared, your brain monkeys are much more likely to come into play, telling you it could all go wrong and setting off the fight or flight response.
- Avoid caffeine, nicotine and any other stimulating substances.
- Relax. Arrive in plenty of time for your performance to give you time to do some stretching, deep breathing and visualization exercises. This will trigger the same part of the brain that releases the hormones to kick off the protective mechanisms, to now release hormones that trigger relaxation.
- Don’t entertain any negative thoughts that come into your head… They are not serving you. Focus on the positives and what could go RIGHT.
- Focus on your performance, not your audience.
- Take enough time before the scene to focus and get into your flow. If you are fully immersed in your scene, you won’t be thinking about the audience.
- Accept that nerves will never completely go away, nor should they. They energize your performance and make it come to life when you don’t let them control you.
- If a mistake happens, it’s not the end of the world. Recover and move on… Do not allow yourself to dwell on it.
- Hypnosis is a great way to combat stage fright!
- Practice improvisation until you are confident that you’d be able to recover seamlessly from any mistakes without the audience even suspecting a thing!
By Eirian Cohen, founder of Northern Star Acting and co-producer ESG Media, LTD.