Working in theatre, I am often falling prey to, and witness others experience, crippling stage fright. I say crippling – come on, I work in theatre. The delicious terror that descends upon everyone scrabbling about in the mole-tunnel wings, shuddering and cuddling and staring wide-eyed at each other for brief moments as acceptable substitute for normal communication. I have even been known to rock silently on a chair, myself.
Why? What purpose does it serve? How does it come up? And is there a way to lessen this ever-recurring crisis that strikes us down in our final moments of preparation before we give the audience “what they are waiting for”? Is it to do with the audience, or is it entirely about one’s individual performance.
Personally, I take a lot of life in my stride. I am a sensitive soul and it serves me well to channel emotions and situations as they come, and to accept the transience of things. A nice (if a little cheesy) line in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel goes, “Everything will be all right in the end. If it is not all right, it is not the end.” And I like to think there is something in that. If you are experiencing some unresolved conflict or stress, it will surely work itself out in time, because everything runs in waves. Everything will move up and down for the all of time.
Knowing this allows for a certain amount of mental freedom. My biggest flaw and my biggest gratitude is that I am able to let go and move on, sometimes even before something has happened. I may be living a rather numb existence because of this and other factors, but I want to invest in this ideology. After all, freedom is something I deem very important to living a full, enriched life, and thoughts and feelings can trap you just as tightly as less abstract limitations.
At this point in my life, the dreaded moment at which stage fright is at its worst tends to come about two minutes before curtain-up. I sometimes get butterflies earlier in the day or the week before opening night, but it really hits me when I have no way out. I am here now, it is already happening, and I can’t do anything about it. I think this is ultimately freeing. To go through these feelings when you are powerless in a chain of events already set in motion frees you to carry out your duties while channeling the fear; often told as the cause of some of the world’s best performances. So many times have I heard of insane-sounding pre-show rituals carried out by famous, renowned actors, that it seems almost ridiculous not to lose all reason on opening night.
I have tried alcohol, rescue remedy, group huddles, solitude, pacing, meditation, herbal tea, squealing, abstaining from food, abstaining from work, going to work amongst other things. The focus on the pending doom only makes things worse. So here’s what I have found works best…
Keep a positive attitude. Send out good vibes of love and trust, and you will have an impenetrable sense of community that will make you feel like you can walk on water. Which is useful, because you are playing Jesus in the mystery plays, after all.
Do what you need, individually. There is no right or wrong answer, no ‘should’ about it. Find your own routine, space, habits that make you feel comfortable and allow yourself that. Don’t get hung up on what others have done before or what you are being told to do. What your body tells you is usually right. Once your mind is free of these hang-ups, your body can let go too.
Eat and sleep. Don’t deprive yourself of basic bodily functions. This is a form of self-harm and is unnecessary. You will feel worse in the long-term because you are priming yourself as more vulnerable than ever, and so you will be overcome by thoughts and feelings that might not normally feature on your radar.
Read something. Play something. Have another goal or interest running alongside the show. Not only a distraction; this reminds you that there is more to life than this show, and you are a part of that too, so if you make a mistake here, it is not the end of the world because you can go home and collect more Mario stars than the number of people who didn’t laugh at your soliloquy punchline.
Meditate on how the fear benefits you. Yes, it is bigger than you right now, but that is a good thing because it is able to teach you something/get you somewhere that you couldn’t otherwise access.
Warm ups. The most obvious and fool-proof ritual I have ever used.
Don’t invite your parents. (It may be mainly about how happy you are with your method-developed behavioural traits, but you can’t truly marry the idea of mummy and daddy’s pride with your speech about how sore your legs get when you masturbate, within your comfort zone.)
And in all honesty, that is all that springs to mind. I hope some of you find some use or interest in this. As for the why, I’m sure there are many factors involved. Who’s watching you, what you want out of the show, how the rehearsal process has been, how long you’ve been doing it… Whether you’ve had sex today. Who knows. It is different for every performer, but it is universally accepted that opening night backstage area pretty much looks like a cage full of animal rescue centre newbies. Each one of the utmost importance and talent, of course.
Thanks to Sam Freeman, who suggested the topic.