Sometimes it’s comforting to know that the anxieties that plague modern Thespians are similar to those battled by Thespians 50 years ago. Fortunately, these tips for conquering stage fright hold up today.

“IS IT ALWAYS this bad?”

I looked at the boy. Even with his makeup on, he was pale. His lips quivered slightly, and I noticed that his hands were shaking. His voice was dry and hollow. It was hard to believe that this was the captain of our football team. Right now, he was possibly the worst stage fright victim I had ever witnessed.

“Yes, I’m afraid it’s always this bad,” I said.

The boy gave me a miserable grin. Nothing I could say would help him now. As I tiptoed out from backstage and around to the light booth to watch the show, I vowed that I would always discuss stage fright with my casts before dress rehearsal. If I could not get rid of stage fright altogether, at least I could pull the ogre down to size.

My stage fright lecture has become standard operating procedure for all the plays I direct. It goes something like this. Stage fright is the most natural thing in the world. Stage fright is the attempt of the body to prepare itself for an ordeal or feat of strength. To meet the crisis, large quantities of adrenaline (a hormone that increases heart action) flow into the bloodstream, and your body is “on edge” until you begin to use the energy. Stage fright is not always a signal of actual fear. A boy can have stage fright the night before a hunting trip he’s been dreaming of, and a girl suffers similar pangs before a dance she would simply die if she missed.

There is some comfort in knowing that what you are suffering from is not the result of an inner cowardliness. You wouldn’t be in the play in the first place if this were true. If you can get through tryouts, you can make it through any performance. But even knowing that it isn’t fear doesn’t rid you of those terrible symptoms: the shaky hands, the quavering voice, the butterflies in the stomach, the hacking cough, the weakness in your knees. Well, many times you can’t completely get rid of these theatrical bugaboos, but you can often minimize them so that no one can tell — maybe not even yourself.

Here are some tested methods for curbing the symptoms of stage fright.

Athletes would not think of performing without warming up before the game. I’m amazed at how many actors feel they can walk onstage “cold.” For complete control of the body and the voice, as well as using up some of that tensing energy, go through some physical and vocal exercises. Deep knee bends, pushups, any of the standard exercises are good. Isometrics are easy and quick. For vocal exercises, you might do some singing — if permitted in your dressing room — or else try a few old standbys, such as saying, “Itty bitty pitty pat of butter” or “How now, brown cow?” Ridiculous? Not if it quiets the jitters and helps your performance.

Allow plenty of time before a performance for makeup and costume. It is well to establish a ritual of arriving at the theatre before the call. Believe me, it is better to sit there and be nervous than to have to rush. Actually, you shouldn’t just sit there. Use this time to check hand props and furniture onstage are set up to your satisfaction. Open the doors you will have to open and sit in the chairs that are blocked for you. Knowing that everything is in order will do much to relieve your anxiety. Although many actors do review lines at this time, it is generally better to go over lines before you come to the theatre.

Eat lightly before a show. No matter what you’ve heard about celebrities consuming huge meals before performances, don’t try it — unless you’re a celebrity. Avoid fatty foods. The worst offender is the french fry. Milk and ice cream don’t help vocal quality since they leave a coating on the throat. A light, high protein supper is best; hot tea is excellent to accompany the meal. Splurge after the performance.

The five-minute call makes every actor’s heart skip a beat, and it is this time that is the most trying. To relax, do a lot of yawning and breathe deeply. Keep moving quietly; don’t just freeze in the wings. As a coach would say, “Stay loose before the game.” Have your entrance cues timed so that you don’t stand behind the door 10 minutes before your entrance. Stay backstage, out of the way, until you hear the cue that will allow you to walk to your entrance, check your tie, and knock. Hovering by your entrance is the best way to forget your first line. The short walk to your entrance will relax you. Once you’re onstage, most stage fright vanishes. You wonder how it was possible to be so nervous.

Allowing plenty of time to get into costume and put on makeup prevents a nervous rush.
Allowing plenty of time to get into costume and put on makeup prevents a nervous rush. Backstage photo from the 2018 International Thespian Festival by John Nollendorfs.

But what about the stage fright that seizes you when a prop is missing or a line is dropped? Most errors like this can be covered if everyone onstage (and backstage too) keeps their head. The person that drops the line or loses the prop is the person least likely to pull themself out. The responsibility of saving the scene rests on the other actors. They have not made the mistake and are not half as shook as the one who did. They should cover. If they come in with a covering line, they can snap the scene back into order, and the actor at fault can easily recover and get back into character.

My advice, whenever a line is missed, is take a walk. Move. Don’t ever just stand there. The motion will cover the deathly silence and will also let you think faster. By the time you have crossed to the window, you will have thought of a way out of the calamity and be the hero of the moment. If actors think onstage, there is really no need for a prompter.

Of course, a stage manager has the responsibility for keeping stage fright to a minimum. Calm assurance is mandatory. No matter what happens, the stage manager must work quietly and intelligently. Likewise, the director should be a tower of confidence. How can a sailor be calm when the captain is in a frenzy?

Very few actors can learn to conquer stage fright completely, but most can learn to control it so that it does no harm to their performance. That’s my lecture on stage fright. It helps my casts, but of course, I never tell them that an actor that isn’t scared scares me!

This story appeared in the May 1967 print version of Dramatics. 

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