We’ve all been there: Standing on a stage, in front of a camera, or at a microphone. We’re alone up there, but we know that outside the single light that burns our eyes and gives us nowhere to hide, there’s an audience of countless souls, all watching, all listening. And our biggest fear, silence—which is closely related to failure, which in turn mimics absolute meltdown—seems to fill the room with a whole lot of nothing.
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. My own experiences range from radio and television to stage and public speaking, and in every case I’ve had meltdown moments that continue to haunt me to this day. But learning from the experience can make future performances in those very frightening places every bit as triumphant as they were destined to be. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the techniques I’ve evolved over the years to stave off stage fright and allow my inner performer to shine through for all to see:
1. 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, this work, than anyone else. Let your mastery of the moment be your guide.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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 that can teach you to naturally ignore whoever’s in the room so you can 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 after you transition to a real stage.
5. 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 feel what it’s like, or 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.
6. Visualize your mistakes. It may seem ridiculous to pre-plan your errors, but 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 instantly 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.
7. 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.
8. 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 unique 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.
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