Overcoming Your Stage Fright
Matty Cardarople, a young actor in Los Angeles who has appeared in films and national network television, recalls a few anxious minutes when he acted alongside Owen Wilson in “Drillbit Taylor” (2008).
“It was the first time I had been on a professional set acting,” Cardarople says. “I was excited but also terrified. … It was pretty much all improvised. I remember thinking to myself, ‘I can’t do this.’ The director said, ‘Welcome to the big leagues, kid,’ and I remember gulping.”
Whether you call it stage fright, performance anxiety, or – as Cardarople expresses it, “set fright” – this particular anxiety creeps up on young performers who haven’t developed the tools to deal with it. The result can be a devastating, self-defeating loop of anxiety that inhibits the performance – and that, naturally, causes more anxiety.
Mind over matter.
The mind can be a performer’s worst enemy, says Mary Bennett, the artistic director at Bruka Theatre in Reno, Nev., and an actor, director and producer.
To counteract the mental “gerbil cage” of fear and inhibited performance, she recommends warming up the whole body through breathing or movement.
“That’s your instrument,” she says. “Preparation, for most people, is a huge benefit.” Remember, Bennett says, that the audience wants the performer to succeed.
“People want us to do well,” she says. “They want to enjoy us and know our authenticity.”
Cardarople had a support system – as Bennett refers to those invaluable people who back us in tough moments – in Owen Wilson. “He held my hand through it, and it went great,” Cardarople says. He still gets frightened sometimes on sets, but now he has learned how to calm himself.
“I close my eyes and imagine I’m climbing a big tree as a boy,” Cardarople says. “It’s where I feel most at peace and fearless.”
Pre-performance jitters are common and even healthy, says Ethan Paulini, an actor, director and choreographer, as well as acting teacher and drama coach in New York City. Paulini has appeared in hundreds of productions, including the title role in “Elf” – one of his favorites – at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre.
“If I don’t have a bit of nerves, I think something’s wrong,” he says. Actual stage fright, he says, “while disappointing, is also par for the course” and should be addressed.
Like Bennett, Paulini recommends thinking about who your audience really is.
“There isn’t anybody on the other side that’s rooting for you to fail,” he says. “They want you to succeed. It’s the same thing with auditioning.”
To prepare for your time on stage – whether it’s karaoke, a business presentation or opening night of your first show – preparation is key. Nina Schuessler, producing artistic director at the Harwich Junior Theatre, in West Harwich, Mass., on Cape Cod, recommends getting as much professional training as you can: Take acting classes, dance lessons, voice lessons.
Above all, Schuessler says, if you realize your performance is a gift, that will help lessen fear.
“Remember you’re giving a gift,” Schuessler says. “You want to give generously. You don’t want to hold back. Do it with an open heart, and give freely.”
Got Jitters? Tips from Professionals Can Help.
Calm your mind: The Anxiety and Depression Association of America advises regularly practicing ways to calm and relax the mind and body, such as yoga, meditation or deep breathing. Matty Cardarople says, “I still get frightened on sets sometimes. I think everyone does. When I feel the fright coming on, I'll take a deep breath and think, ‘You've done this a million times; you’ve got this.’”
Make preparation your priority: “Practice, practice, practice, so you feel strong,” says Mary Bennett. After all, performance anxiety is what happens when you focus on your anxiety, rather than on your presentation or performance.
Practice affirmations: “Mary Martin had terrible stage fright,” Nina Schuessler says of the renowned American actress and singer. “She used to hug herself backstage before she went on, turn in three circles, saying ‘I love you.’” If you have a favorite ring, wear it.
Use your onstage persona as mental armor: “Separate yourself from your role,” says Ethan Paulini. “You can hide behind the character.”
Take care of yourself: Exercise, eat well, and practice other healthful lifestyle habits. Schuessler suggests limiting your coffee intake and having a serving of protein before you go on stage.
Find a trustworthy mentor or coach: “I remember I had an English teacher in high school that had me perform in front of the class because I was so shy,” says Cardarople. “He really helped me break out of my shell. He was my ‘Mr. Miyagi’ (from “The Karate Kid” films); he helped me at a young age to overcome fear.”