WHAT EXACTLY is stage fright? In the simplest sense, it is the body’s reaction to and mobilization in the face of perceived danger. The actor fears something is about to happen, something they can name, like a memory lapse, or something nameless, just a pervasive dread of going onstage.

Tens of millions of people, performers and nonperformers alike, suffer from stage fright. When people in the population at large are surveyed about their fears and phobias, before a fear of flying and the fear of snakes or any other simple or complex phobia, a fear of public speaking heads the list. Getting up in front of an audience and having the spotlight turned our way is, from all indicators, one of the surest ways of lighting up our early warning systems.

Thespians from North Penn High School gather backstage before their 2019 International Thespian Festival performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Thespians from North Penn High School gather backstage before their 2019 International Thespian Festival performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo by Susan Doremus.

It is the activation of the human warning system that produces the physical and emotional symptoms of stage fright. But what sets off the warning system? Any one of a score or more of psychological causes may be involved. You may fear that you’re unprepared or that you’re bound to suffer a memory loss. You may feel a terrible burden of responsibility, as if the success or failure of the show rested on your shoulders alone. You may fear a negative response from the audience or a negative evaluation from critics. You may doubt your competence and feel like an imposter. Or you may be burdened by a very primitive fear of the unknown. These are just a few of the many root causes of stage fright, and one or several of them are likely to be implicated in any given case.

Each performer who experiences performance anxiety will have their own individual set of physical symptoms and distressing thoughts. Some of the most common physical symptoms of stage fright are sweaty palms, a dry mouth, increased heart rate, shaky hands, weak knees, shortness of breath, butterflies in the stomach, and an increased need to urinate. Psychological signs include feelings of confusion, disorientation, powerlessness, and loneliness. In extreme cases, performers have reported a temporary loss of sight or hearing. Additional signs include the desire to escape or hide, feelings of impending doom, and feelings of unreality or craziness.

What can be done to handle stage fright? There is no perfect answer, but the best one is to attack the problem on two fronts, by starting a long-term anxiety-reduction program and by learning practical strategies to employ right before a performance, when stage fright strikes.

The best time to begin to deal with performance anxiety is not 15 minutes before the performance starts. The more anxious or stressed you are in the rest of your life, the more likely you are to experience your performance anxiety as the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It’s important, therefore, that you put in place a general anxiety-reduction program to help you with all the stressors in your life. Such a program might include a meditation practice, yoga, a regimen of exercise, good diet, adequate rest, and, in some cases, individual counseling.

Here, however, I’ll focus on the practical strategies you can turn to immediately before a performance. (We’ll assume you know your lines and business, are well-rehearsed, and have a reasonable level of confidence in the other members of your company. We’re talking here about fear of something that’s not likely to happen. If you’re not prepared, dread in the green room is probably appropriate.)

Each of the 30 strategies that follow works for some performers, but obviously one performer is going to feel more comfortable “silently screaming” than another. You may take comfort in prayer, or you may find that mantras and mudras work beautifully for you. Only by testing of those strategies that seem most compatible with your basic beliefs and personality will you be able to decide which ones really work for you.


Many performers have pet superstitious behaviors that help them reduce anxiety before a performance. Dr. Douglas Hunt observes in No More Fears: “The simple faith that a good luck charm will carry one through is a time-honored way to handle performance anxiety. Frequently, faith in an object actually lowers the anxiety and fear levels, and things consequently go better. Superstitions may seem out of place in modern society, but if not carried to extremes, they can be viable techniques for self-control.”


A ritual that is repeated before each performance can have a soothing effect on the performer’s nerves. The actress Marian Seldes explained: “There is ritual in the dressing room, private for some, gregarious for others. The look of the room, the temperature, where each article of clothing is set — yours and the character’s — mementoes from other plays. Special towels, soap, cologne. Brushes and combs. The actual rubes and sticks of makeup, the brushes.” You might manufacture your own ritual and use it the length of your career.


Sheldon Kopp wrote in Raise Your Right Hand Against Fear: “Determined to destroy the Buddha, a dark and treacherous demon unleashed an elephant charging drunkenly. Just as the raging beast was about to trample him, the Buddha raised his right hand with fingers close together and open palm facing the oncoming animal. The fearless gesture stopped the elephant in its tracks and completely subdued the recklessly dangerous creature. The Sanskrit word for such ritually symbolic gestures is mudra. The Buddha’s mudra allowed him to face the fears in his momentarily uncontrolled imagination.” You can use the Buddha’s gesture or one of your own creation to help quell your “momentarily uncontrolled imagination.”


When tension builds up, it can feel wonderful to scream. But it can also prove a bit disconcerting to others if you start screaming backstage before a performance. A silent scream, however, can feel just about as therapeutic as a real one. First, practice your real scream where and when you can (unless you’re a singer, in which case your voice coach may frown on the idea of screaming). Note how wide your mouth opens, how rapidly your head nods, how your neck muscles flex. Then practice obtaining the same tension-discharging effects without uttering a sound.


Dr. Christopher McCullough describes several different breathing exercises in his book Managing Your Anxiety. The exercises have names like “slow, complete breathing,” “slow, deep breathing with shoulder relaxation,” “counting breaths,” “following your breathing,” “circling your breaths,” and so on. He describes “circling your breaths,” for instance, as follows: “As you start to inhale, you slowly bring your attention up the ventral centerline of your body from the groin to the navel, chest, throat, and face, until you reach the crown of your head. As you exhale, slowly move your attention down the back of the head, down the neck, and all the way down the spine.” Learn at least one good breathing exercise that works for you.


There are recordings available that teach you and talk you through progressive relaxation techniques. There are also a great many music and sound recordings meant to put you in a tranquil mood. Bring your headphones and listen to soothing music or a progressive relaxation exercise while you’re waiting backstage.


Moving about helps reduce anxiety. If you feel like pacing, pace. Jog in place, skip up and down, stretch, or do a little walking meditation or yoga.


Focus on the wall next to where you’re standing. Focus on your thumb, on the swirls on your thumb, on one swirl in particular. As soon as you lose contact with your doubts and fears and begin to take a real, lively interest in some commonplace visual phenomenon, your anxiety level will drop dramatically.


Reorienting is very much like focusing. Dr. Manuel Smith in his book Kicking the Fear Habit argues that each of us has a powerful reorienting reflex that we can put to good use in managing anxiety. He writes that we naturally orient to five kinds of stimuli: stimuli with novelty; stimuli with biological significance; stimuli with innate signal value; stimuli with learned or acquired signal value; and stimuli with instructed signal value.

Thus, while you’re waiting backstage and becoming anxious, you might orient to a new announcement on the bulletin board, to the attractive person you’ve had your eye on for the longest time, to your breathing, to the first lines you speak, or to the last-minute instructions your mother taped to the sleeve of your jacket.


Or at least smile a little. Tell yourself a joke. Imagine that the actors around you have been transformed into animals from a Dr. Seuss book. Now how do they look? Even if you can’t smile a lot, smile a little, because the very act of smiling counteracts the buildup of tension.

Photo of the J.J. Pearce High School Thespians before their 2019 ITF performance of Shakespeare in Love.
A smile or laugh can go a long way toward quieting performance anxiety. Photo of the J.J. Pearce High School Thespians before their 2019 ITF performance of Shakespeare in Love by John Nollendorfs.


Stephanie Judy, in her book Making Music for the Joy of It, writes: “A mantra is one kind of thought pattern you can use to block negative thoughts. Often taught in conjunction with meditative techniques, a mantra is a word or short phrase that is simply repeated quietly, over and over again, aloud or in thought. Peace can be a mantra, as well as one or loveOm and shanti are Sanskrit mantras. The former is a universal word of affirmation or assent; the latter might be translated as ‘the peace that passeth understanding.’”


Massage your hands, forearms, upper arms, shoulders, and neck. Take some time to give yourself real pleasure. Make little sounds of satisfaction. Exhale and sigh. Find the knot in your shoulder and work it. Absorb yourself in the process.


You don’t want to perform in a trance, but self-hypnosis techniques that you can learn from a certified or licensed practitioner can help you reduce specific anxieties before a performance. The concert musician Robert Aitken, who learned self-­hypnosis from a medical hypnotist, reported: “It’s a very useful thing. I think many of the great musicians always used it, maybe without knowing it. It can be used for very specific purposes — even for speeding up a trill.”


The actress Dorothy Sarnoff wrote in her book Never Be Nervous Again that she learned the following technique from watching Yul Brynner backstage before performances of The King and I: “Sit down in a straight-backed chair. Carry your ribcage high, but not so high you’re in a ramrod straight military position. Incline slightly forward. Now put your hands together in front of you, your elbows akimbo, your fingertips pointing outward, and push so that you feel an isometric opposing force in the heels of your palms and under your arms.

“Say ssssssss, like a hiss. As you’re exhaling the s, contract those muscles in the vital triangle (below the ribs, where they begin to splay) as though you were rowing a boat against a current, pulling the oars back up. Relax the muscles at the end of your exhalation, then inhale gently. While you’re waiting to go on, sit with your vital triangle contracting, your lips slightly parted, releasing your breath over your lower teeth on a silent ssss.”


Sometimes there’s a person in your life who calms you. It might be a friend or a present or former teacher. It might be the one person who’s always had great confidence in you and would always say smilingly to you, “Why, of course you can do it!” Picture that person while you wait, picture their calm, confident smile. Have a little conversation with that person in which they assure you that not only will everything be fine, it’ll be splendid!


For most performers, it’s not a good idea to focus on the audience or to imagine what the audience is thinking. But if it works for you, you can imagine making a friend in the audience: You can visualize that friend smiling, happy to be there, calm and uncritical, on your side.


If you need to go to the bathroom, go to the bathroom. The ongoing discomfort you’ll feel if you try to ignore what’s happening in your body will only increase your anxiety — including your anxiety about having an unfortunate accident. Don’t feel the least bit embarrassed about making the bathroom your home away from home.


The violinist and aikido expert Paul Hirata taught a technique he called Half-Half-Half. The idea is to suggest to yourself that you release just half of your anxiety, using the word “half” as a kind of mantra. You exhale, relax, and quietly say, “Half.” You inhale again, continuing relaxing, and upon the exhale say “Half” again, and continue the process as necessary.


Stephanie Judy writes: “Anxiety disrupts normal breathing patterns, producing either shallow breathing or air gulping in an attempt to conserve the body’s supply of oxygen. The simplest immediate control measure is to exhale, blowing slowly and steadily through your lips until your lungs feel completely empty. Don’t ‘breathe deeply.’ It’s too easy to hyperventilate and make yourself dizzy. As long as you make a slow, full exhale, the inhaling will look after itself.”


Think about your entrance. Recite a few of your opening lines. Speak softly, confidently, not to master anything or to prove anything but just to get in touch with the drama about to unfold.

Taking a moment to rehearse before your performance can boost your confidence and allow you to get in touch with the drama about to unfold. Backstage photo from the 2019 ITF Opening Show by John Nollendorfs.


Anxiety can easily become contagious. We’ve all had the experience of attending a student piano recital and feeling the tension mount as one student after another freezes up, makes mistakes, and forgets whole passages. The audience begins to feel as if the anxiety monster has taken over the room. Many performers prefer to be alone before a performance in order to avoid contracting this anxiety contagion. If you’re regularly bothered by certain anxious people before a performance, try avoiding them or practicing ways of tuning them out.


Create a battle cry for yourself and treat the moment as if you were Don Quixote or some knight or hero. Imagine that you’re going out to joust windmills, that you’re going out on a great, maybe even somewhat foolish, adventure. Shout “Charge!” in as wild and playful a manner as you dare.


An affirmation is a positive statement you can create and repeat in which you assert that you are capable and confident. To be most effective, affirmations should be short and simple and framed in the present tense. Examples of affirmations are “I’m perfectly able to perform today” or “I know my lines.” Your affirmation can be as simple as the word “yes,” repeated with conviction.


If you regularly pray, you may use favorite passages from religious text as a performance prayer.


Rather than wishing for the theatre to burn down or for a terrific flood to arrive and wash away the audience, accept the situation. Say to yourself, “All right, I’m here, I came here of my own free will, I meant to be here, I wanted to be here, and now I’m through squirming.”


Eloise Ristad suggests in her book A Soprano on Her Head: “Take one of your own symptoms — clammy hands, shaky knees, or whatever — and apply the principle of pushing it to the point where it can go no further. Do not try to control it or make it go away; try only to increase the intensity and see how far you can carry this particular symptom. If you are like most people, you will find that you can’t push your symptom past a certain point, and that when you reach that point the symptom actually reverses. Your saliva begins to flow naturally again, your knees stop shaking, your hands get respectably dry. You may find that almost as soon as you try to intensify a symptom, it begins to disappear.”


Creative visualizations are mental pictures you create for yourself. You can imagine yourself in any spot that calms you — on the beach, in a garden, beside a secluded lake — and spend time there, in your mind’s eye, relaxing and letting your worries slip away. Or you can create a different sort of visualization by picturing yourself acting with tremendous confidence and ease, performing exactly the way you want to perform.


Dr. Charles Stroebel in his book Quieting Reflex Training for Adults advocates adopting a four-step “quieting reflex” to help reduce anxiety. The steps are:

  • Become aware of the stimulus you are responding to (say, the sounds of the audience arriving).
  • Give yourself the suggestion, “Alert mind, calm body.”
  • Smile inwardly with your eyes and mouth to reverse their tendency to go into a grim set.
  • Inhale slowly and easily to a count of two, three, or four, imagining your breath coming through the pores of your feet. A feeling of “flowing warmth and flowing heaviness coming up through the middle of your legs” may accompany this mental image. “As you exhale, let your jaw, tongue, and shoulders go limp, feeling that wave of heaviness and warmth flowing to the toes.”


Many sorts of negative thoughts can plague you as you wait to perform. When you grow aware of a given negative thought, you need to substitute a more assertive, positive statement that not only refutes the thought but serves to build up your self-esteem and self-confidence.

I hope you can make use of one or more of these strategies. Stage fright can be as real and disabling as an acute illness, but if you work at preparing yourself, you’ll have a much better chance of handling these sudden, terrible onslaughts of anxiety when and if they strike.

This story is excerpted from the September 1992 print version of Dramatics. Learn about the print magazine and other Thespian benefits on the International Thespian Society website.

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