Australian stage superstar Jacqui Dark shares her thoughts on every performer’s hidden shame… nerves.
As a very small child I found recorded noise and the solitary singer beneath the spotlight so dramatic and so brave… walking the plank… willingly… It was sink or swim. The very notion of standing there, alone, I found beautiful.
Steven Patrick Morrissey
We all know that feeling – sometime, on the day of opening night, a day on which you’ve had low-level nerves grumbling for hours, it hits you. Your stomach drops, your hands shake, your nerves jangle and your mouth goes dry, as you suddenly realize that tonight is the night when all of your blood, sweat and tears (well, maybe not blood, unless you’re working with the gorgeous David Hobson who will no doubt have stabbed you with a prop at some stage, but definitely, DEFINITELY sweat, and probably tears), will coalesce into … whatever your performance is going to be on this one night.
So how do you make these nerves work for you instead of against you? Ah, I’m still grappling with it, but some of the ideas below have helped.
NB: This article is intended for performers with normal levels of performance anxiety and nerves (which are tough enough to deal with), and not for those with genuine anxiety disorders or crippling nerves that can invade every aspect of their lives. If you’re in the latter category, I strongly suggest that you seek out a counsellor that you trust and work through these issues with them.* So many of my friends have been in this situation and, after living with anxiety for so long, it was a huge relief to them to find that there were actually strategies that could help them to function. Given that it’s completely standard practice in every professional sport to have a staff psychologist or performance coach available to all the players, the sooner the arts industry incorporates this as an integral part of its operation, the sooner alarming statistics like those recently published on the rates of anxiety and depression within our industry will begin to improve.
Know your work
This is the absolute big daddy. If you don’t know your work, you’re screwed. You will forget stuff. You will panic. You will feel like crap. You will crash and burn … unless your talent for improvisation approaches a Robin Williams-esque level, and even then you will screw it up for your fellow performers. Know your work forwards, backwards, and gargling in the bath. This is the best security you can have, and the best defence against nerves. As the squirmies attack, be secure in your heart that you KNOW this, that you have this covered, that you’ve put the work in, and that this performance is so much in your body and mind and psyche and muscle memory that even if your brain blanks, your body will somehow keep going and words you thought had cruelly deserted you in your hour of need will miraculously pour of your well-oiled memory banks. This has happened to me. That stone-cold, stomach dropping terror of knowing, KNOWING, that you just do not remember the next line … and then hearing it issue forth from your mouth like a chorus of angels of salvation, as you bless those tedious, excruciating, expletive-drenched hours you spent repeating that bitch of a line over and over and over again.
Experiment in rehearsals
Try everything out in the security of the rehearsal room. Run through all possible permutations of character. Refine your performance down to the version that feels the best and fits snugly with the other performers and the whole show. This will eliminate most of those pesky moments on stage when you suddenly have a brilliant new idea and go out a limb by trying it out on opening night, taking your colleagues by surprise and causing you to forget your next line in your excitement. Having said that, I am utterly guilty of sometimes finding things in the adrenaline-fueled heat of the moment on stage that I hadn’t previously discovered in the (usually) less stressful arena of the rehearsal room – sometimes that heightened state can squeeze new ideas out the top of your head like a tube of creative toothpaste! The wisdom in these situations is in knowing when to run with these great, sudden “AHA!” moments. Do you know the show SO well that it’s not going to knock you off your perch (in a good or bad way, depending on whether your great new idea is truly genius or falls flatter than a pancake in reality) or distract you so much that you trip up the next section? Do your COLLEAGUES know the show (and YOU) well enough, and do they trust your instincts enough, that whatever you’re contemplating will not throw THEM off their perches? An experienced performer working with folk they know might get away with this … if you’re not, or they’re not, don’t even contemplate making any radical changes on opening night. It’s selfish and can piss people (including the director and the folk with the power to re-hire you) off.
Manage your pre-show time to minimize nerves
If you’re someone who likes arriving early and having plenty of time to decompress, nothing exacerbates a hefty set of nerves like the additional drama of running late. Plan to be at the theatre with loads of time to spare. It also gives you some time up your sleeve to breathe, make a cuppa and do whatever other preparations you know work for you.
On the other hand, if the thought of being at the theatre two hours before the show or stressing about your performance all day fills you with absolute dread, pack your day with distractions and arrive just in time to do whatever you need to do to get on stage.
You’ll discover very quickly which one of these works best for you.
OK, let’s be clear – I’m not talking hard drugs here, and I really wrestled with whether to include this one at all, but decided I had to in the interests of complete honesty and transparency. You can’t really talk about what’s going on in the industry without … talking about what’s going on in the industry and what kids coming into it will be faced with. For some folk, nothing else works. I have colleagues who have tried psychology, acupuncture, meditation, reading the runes, sacrificing virgins and wishing on a star, but in the end they just cannot step out into the spotlight without a sneaky Beta Blocker or shot of gin. As a fellow performer once asked Elaine Stritch incredulously upon learning that she’d just given up alcohol (she used to smuggle booze backstage, or drill holes in champagne bottles so they still looked unopened when management came around to check whether she was sober on opening nights): “You mean you’re going out there ALONE???” Some performers love their careers but have just never found a way to deal with their nerves. I don’t judge them for this for a second – it can be bloody terrifying out there, and if it came down to a choice of never stepping on a stage again or chugging a few Beta Blockers now and then, I might go down this road too. Then again, I can’t imagine performing, or even WANTING to perform without that buzz, that excitement, that TERROR that makes the whole experience what it is. That sweet, natural endorphin surge that raises your performance to another level, and also makes this career so addictive as you shoot into euphoria with the natural rush of adrenaline and the satisfaction of having faced and, if not conquered, then at least shaken hands with, your fears. Anyone I know who has experimented with b-blockers speaks of being ‘numb’ on stage – no nerves, but also no fizzy adrenaline to bubble you up to a heightened level. They speak of going calmly through the motions without really feeling anything. I can understand why some might choose this, but for me, it’s the opposite of the reason I perform – to feel EVERYTHING, to come out the other end totally wrung out but having shared something real of myself with the audience. This may – actually, this probably does – make me a bit of a weirdo, but that emotional connection is what I love about performing and and what I love about watching OTHER people perform. If I can see into your soul for a moment, you have me!
The down side of these methods must also be mentioned – the physical toll they take on your body (b-blockers are used pretty widely in this industry, both on stage and in the pit, but have a very serious list of side effects). There’s also the mental toll of dependency – watching a performer scuttle desperately about under their dressing room bench for a dropped b-blocker before a show is not a pretty sight. If you possibly, POSSIBLY can, ‘go out there alone’.
Bach Rescue Remedy. Vocalzones. Licorice tea. Lucky undies. Touching your dressing room mirror three times. Steaming your face off. A 23 year old makeup towel and a full jar of M&Ms (I’m looking at you, Mitchell Butel!). Kissing every last one of your castmates.
Every single performer I know has some kind of pre-performance ritual. Even me. I’m an ex-physicist who enjoys debunking pseudoscientific myths, but I know, I KNOW that if I don’t have that Black Adder licorice tea before certain shows, the lighting rig will fall on me within the firsts five minutes. I am the least superstitious person in the world but I KNOW that if I don’t say the words “See you at the other end!” to somebody at some point before I first go on stage, disaster will strike and it will all be because I FAILED TO SAY THE MAGIC WORDS!!!
Rituals are fantastic, because they give you a sense of order and control over your world as you embark on a journey which is far less controllable. They give your brain and body a set of safe, familiar things to focus on before leaping out into the unknown. They comfort and calm. The only drawback is that if you rely on rituals (as most of us do), you have to be prepared in some small portion of your brain for them to go awry. I remember the show where every shop had sold out of Black Adder, which the whole company was by then addicted to. There was a great wailing backstage and a gnashing of teeth as panic and mayhem descended. I remember when Vocalzones became unavailable in Australia – I smuggled 30 packets back from a gig in NZ, darting furtively through customs Mission Impossible style, and then wrapping them up in bows for all my singer buddies for Christmas. Pavarotti used to search around the stage before each performance looking for a bent nail from the set as good luck. The mechs took to leaving a few scattered around, just to ensure that he felt secure and the show ran smoothly.
The other caveat I’ll add to the end of this one is that if you’re completing a ritual before every show and still feeling crippled by nerves (ie: if it’s not actually helping), consider tweaking that ritual bit by bit. You might just stumble on a different version that works much better for you! If nothing is working for you and you feel an inexorable and unbearable build-up of tension before every single show that takes away your pleasure in performing, it really is worth seeking some professional help. I know I’ve already said this, but it’s far better to be proactive in dealing with crippling nerves than to surrender to them.
Is there a certain section of the show that really worries you? That one insanely difficult part of your aria or that stratospheric high note? That tricky, tongue-twisting monologue that trips you up every time? That crazily contorted choreography that you just can’t quite seem to master? Take some time in the weeks leading up to the show to sit quietly and mentally imagine yourself successfully performing that section of the show on stage. Really immerse yourself in this vision, as if you are actually performing and, in your mind, see yourself executing that note/monologue/dance step perfectly. Do it every night if it’s a bit that really worries you. Do it with the whole show if you have the time and inclination. Make the visualization as clear as you can – imagine the sights, sounds and smells that will surround you, and add in the sensation of nerves that you know you will have, the feeling of your feet on the floor, your posture, your thought processes. Then imagine yourself, as clearly and in as much detail as you can, absolutely nailing it. The more vivid your mental image, the more effectively your brain primes your body to perform the same actions in reality.
It’s a trick that top athletes use (especially ones like divers, gymnasts, basketballers and golfers, where precision reigns supreme) and it works. Your mind is a mighty powerful beast. Studies have shown (oh, I know, my pesky scientist side again!) that this method of giving yourself a ‘memory’ of being successful before you ever hit the stage or the sporting arena, tangibly improves your chances of success. Michael Jordan played out every single shot clearly in his mind before he ever shot the ball at the hoop, and he did all right for himself. It also lessens nerves because it tricks your body into thinking you’ve performed under opening night stress before, even though you haven’t. Cool stuff!
Evaluate whether your fears are grounded
Honestly evaluate whether you are underestimating your chances of success and overestimating your chances of failure. Overestimating the negatives is a common thing to do under conditions of anxiety, with nerves robbing you of perspective and leading you to a bleaker than reasonable outlook. If you look at it realistically, you may see that you’ve been rehearsing your role perfectly for weeks and have no reason to doubt that you’ll do so again tonight. It won’t take the nerves away, but will make you feel a little more grounded and secure.
Physically shake your nerves out
Whether it’s in your dressing room or in the wings just before you go on, have a good old shake of your arms and legs. Jump up and down. Shake your face and whoooooosh your breath out. Physicalising your nerves can make an enormous difference – it somehow helps to convert them from the purely mental (and possibly a stumbling block) into a physical energy which can actually be incredibly useful out there. Audiences sense energy, even if you are standing perfectly still on stage, so if you can re-channel the nerves into every part of your body, feeling that energy flow away from your mind and down your limbs, you’ll be doing yourself a huge favour. It’s exciting to watch someone positively spiking with prickly heat in a performance, and exciting to feel it happening to you – get amongst it!
Let your mistakes go
If they happen during rehearsals, analyse your head off. Figure out where you went wrong and fix it if possible, or modify your performance if not. Then let them go.
If they happen during a show, let them go immediately. Mistakes are going to happen (and that’s part of the thrill of live performance), but if you fret about that one line you flubbed or that one note you cracked on, you will start back-thinking, and flub and crack on the next one. Then you’ll back-think about that one, wrench your mind right out of the game, and keep flubbing all down the line. A veritable self-perpetuating cascade of flubbery! If you stuff something up, let it go. Roadkill – just drive past; don’t keep glancing in the rearview mirror. Remember that as performers we angst over every tiny little error, but the audience doesn’t. They take in the performance as a whole and don’t really care about a tiny blip if you pick yourself up and stay true to what you’re doing for the rest of the time. I’ve obsessed over a dodgy note all night only to have folk say afterwards that they didn’t even notice it. Not worth it – let it go and get on with it – the audience will forgive that little flub. Oh, dang it, I’m going all the way out there and saying that they’ll even forgive a big, FAT blub … they’ll probably even ENJOY it, because that’s why they’ve paid the bucks to see live theatre instead of hiring a DVD. It’s imperfect and messy and glorious. The punters LOVE a good stuff-up. I was recently performing my cabaret with Strange Bedfellow Kanen Breen and took a tumble off my (admittedly sky-high) heels, falling A over T and crashing ungracefully to the floor, taking the keyboard with me and causing it and the sound system at the venue to freak out and require complete resetting before the show could continue (we also had to wait for Kane to finish his fit of hysterical laughter and our brilliant MD Daryl to stop eloquently raising a single eyebrow and looking wryly between me and his prized keyboard). I was wearing hotpants and fishnets. It was not pretty. Most of the audience said it was their favourite part of the show. I don’t feel that this bodes well for our future in cabaret, but it does make the point.
Trust your colleagues – you are not alone
They have your back. They are as invested in the show being a success as you are. They want you to be awesome. You are not alone (even though your fear may be screaming that in your ear) – you are part of a team. Performing is often described as the art of public solitude, and so it is in that ultimately you are creating something from yourself and responsible for your own performance (and how often do we hear from friends and family: “It’s harder being in the audience than on stage because there’s nothing I can DO!”?). But it’s also a team you and willing you to do wonderful things. Draw on them and their energy and it will help to stop you from falling so far inward that you lose yourself. Chat to them and let them pull you out of your own head before it gets messy in there.
Have a swee
My best friend Tanya and I coined this phrase many a moon ago. Even if you don’t think you need it, when you get your five minute call, treat yourself to a ‘safety wee’, or ‘swee’, as we have come to know it. Your bladder will thank you by the end of Act 1, and it will eliminate that ‘standing in the wings and suddenly having a desperately distracting urge to wee’ experience.
Live in the moment
That moment when you’re about to step on stage and it seems as if the rest of the world disappears. When there is noise all around you, but it feels as though everything in the universe is distilled down to that one infinitely sweet moment in time when it’s all about to begin. The moment which everything that comes after stems from. The silence before the explosion. The calm before the storm. Savour this. There are few jobs in the world that allow you this feeling, and it is truly awesome. And addictive. Enjoy it. Live it. Then live in the next moment. That moment when you have begun and you’re soaring and creating and becoming and just existing for a little while in this exquisite world that you and your team have built. Then live in the next moment. Then the next. Think only as far ahead far ahead as you need to in order to do your job. That way, you can’t ‘borrow disaster’ and fill your head with ‘what if’ premonitions of failure. Breathe and concentrate on now. On a single moment. This. Moment.
Channel that nervous energy
Learn to love your nerves. Don’t pretend they don’t exist or they will nip you in the bum! Acknowledge them. Treat them as a friend and ally rather than as the enemy. Using your powers of panic for good is a HUGE asset to your performance. Choose to harness those nerves. Stand quietly with those nerves just before you go on stage, hold their hands and explain patiently that it’s really best for both of you if you take the reins for a little while. Make friends with them – they are not to be feared but to be celebrated. Promise them that you will let them out to join in the fun, but only if they play nice and don’t pull your pigtails.
If you let them run out of control and take over, they will destroy you. Keep the little buggers on a leash and give them some rein when you need a spark or a boost or that little extra spike of energy. You can do it. Be brave. It. Is. Awesome.
You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’
Maintain your perspective
This career can be an all-encompassing one and makes emotional demands that can take a tremendous toll. It is rife with criticism and rejection. It is very easy, and very unhealthy, to become so single-minded and obsessed with this world that you exclude and neglect everything else. Resist the temptation. You need your family and your friends – they will ground you. They will be there during the times that the industry decides you are not the flavour of this month or when you really do make a major misstep. Have other things in your life that you love and that make you smile, and focus on them when you feel your nerves start spiraling out of control. It can be as simple as holding onto the thought of shopping at the markets every Sunday with a friend or that regular golf game you look forward to, or it can be a child that you love more than the stars. Focus on something awesome, something that you love, for a moment until the nerves pass. If performing is the ONLY thing in your life that you care about, your world will crumble utterly when it all falls apart (which it inevitably does, from time to time). Even if you DO have other things in your life, your world will crumble, but you’ll have help to glue the pieces back together and friends to chat with or cry with or get drunk with and laugh about how you could ever screw that song up so badly. If you have these things, when nerves attack you can think of them and know that there is a life beyond the fourth wall. Know that life and joy still exist, even if you utterly screw up, and one day you will laugh about your onstage disasters. I’ve often gone on stage under-rehearsed and had a colleague shrug and say “Ah, well, we’ll still wake up tomorrow, the sun will rise and no kids are going to die if we screw up royally.” I often pop out a wry “When the dawn comes, tonight will be a memory too!” as I step out for an opening night that I know is precarious. You are not a brain surgeon (I have NO idea what THEY do to combat nerves!). One of my dear friends, John Longmuir, once sang an opera with terrible sinusitis and knew from the first bars that it was going to be a disaster. He had no choice but to push on bravely. His partner was in the audience cringing and horrified, unable to help him. He got through it. It was terrible. We now laugh hysetrically about it over dinners, him included. This is healthy. He is awesome and continues to have a wonderful career after something that could have destroyed a lesser spirit. I once came off stage after performing with the flu, to my mother saying “Jacs, I think that’s the worst I’ve ever heard you sing!” This is now family legend. Perspective maintained.
Remember why you do it
This is the one piece of advice that I keep coming back to, for every ‘advice article’ I ever write (which now numbers two). For some reason, you are backstage about to launch yourself into the tightrope-walking, nerve-fraying minefield of a juggernaut that is live performance. You are there because you chose to be. Hopefully you chose to be because you love the euphoric, controlled insanity that constitutes the life of a performer. Do not sell yourself short. Take a deep breath and remember the story you are trying to tell. Remember your character and their part in that story. Remember why it is important. Remember that there is an auditorium full of people out there wanting you to succeed and be brilliant, and to transport them for this one night into another world, an utterly fragile world of which you are one of the caretakers. The audience are not your enemies, they are your allies. Use their energy. Trust them.
A famous director once spoke to me about nerves and said that every time he walked out onto a stage, he mentally took in the whole audience and sent them friendly, positive vibes and said silently to them and himself (paraphrased in my own soppy fashion): “OK, friends, here we go. Let’s go on a journey together. Hold my hand and come with me on this ride and I will show you new places. I will make you think new thoughts. I will challenge you. I might even change your life. Come with me, friends, on this voyage of discovery.” I like this. I really like this. It has stuck with me and I use it to this day. Except at competitions. Some of those bitches actually DO want you to fail! 😉
* Knowing the financial limitations of many folk in our industry, I have friends who have had huge success at the Psychology Clinic at the University of Sydney. The Clinic offers a broad range of clinical psychology services to the general community at very low cost. If you feel that this is a path you may wish to pursue, it comes highly recommended.