Nearly everyone has been there; moments before you are about to go on stage something changes. Maybe you notice your palms are sweaty. Or maybe you go to pick up a prop and you struggle to maintain a steady grip. While some level of performance anxiety is only to be expected, for some people it can lead to an off performance of dropped lines or missed cues, ruining their self confidence for future performances.

Ralph* has experience performing in acting, singing and dancing roles. While he is not always affected by pre-performance jitters, under certain conditions he finds himself having “uncontrollable shakes [and] an inability to think straight”.

“Lack of preparation often feels like the cause, however, no matter how well rehearsed I am, I often find that my mind blanks and I can’t remember anything at all,” he says.

How self-conscious he feels can also exacerbate his symptoms. “I enjoy getting on stage with a band much more than getting on stage to act”, he says.

“I have never managed to embrace [stage fright] and that’s my problem I guess.”

While Ralph does not “feel the need to seek professional help”, for many performers their stage fright is so overpowering that professional help is essential.

Clinical Psychologist Catherine Madigan says “if you can’t function to the degree you want to be able to function, if it’s impairing your ability, then it’s probably time to get help.”

Madigan runs the website to provide resources for people with conditions including performance anxiety and says there are many benefits from seeking professional help.

“[Psychologists] help the person work out what it is about performing that’s stressing them. Is it the number of people; is it the qualifications of the people in the audience, whether they are going to see them again, is it the type of material that they’re performing; if they were presenting their own material is that more stressful than presenting someone else’s,” she says.

Madigan says once this is established the next step is practicing performing under the conditions that are causing the problem.

“When you’ve got these problems you need graded, repeated, prolonged massed exposure to performing”, she says.

This may be achieved through starting off with smaller performances to people you know and then gradually increasing the audience size over time to include strangers as well.

“You’ve got to build up and you don’t go on to the more difficult scenarios until you can cope with the easier ones”, she says. 

While Madigan says that performance anxiety is a common problem that can be affectively managed through professional assistance, it is important to also remember that pre-performance nerves are normal.

“Having anxiety in itself isn’t a bad thing, a little bit of anxiety actually helps you to perform better. Keeps you on your toes, can help you to be at your best. It’s whether your anxiety becomes excessive…[then] it can detract from your performance”, she says.

For those who experience mild anxiety causing symptoms like blushing or shaking self-management can also be achieved.

“It’s best to avoid stimulants, you don’t want to do things that exacerbate anxiety. So avoid caffeinated drinks before a performance [and] don’t smoke. If you’re tired that also makes you more stressed…some people may exercise before-hand [or] they might meditate before their performance as a way of calming themselves,” she says.

We should be more scared of him than he is of us.

Bob Pavlich is the Artistic Director of Student Theatre and Film at La Trobe University in Melbourne and has had lots of experience backstage before shows. Like Madigan, Pavlich believes there are many things you can do before a performance to reduce nerves.

“A proper warm up is good to avoid the shakes and just to get the body ready to perform [but] if it’s a little chaotic and a bit rushed it can actually add to the nerves,” he says.

Pavlich says he has seen actors do a variety of things including meditation and going over their lines.

“Ideally I’d say every actor finds their own way of dealing with stress. Often actors will do the same thing every night before a show. Especially professional actors who often have little habits that can be really anxiety relieving”, he says.

While actors often perceive performance anxiety as a hindrance to their performance, Pavlich sees anxiety as being somewhat beneficial.

“I’d always maintain than the best performances come out of actors who are always a little nervous before shows,” he says.

“A nervous energy might just make the performance a little fuller or rich in detail. But probably the biggest influence is when the actor puts the text in front of the audience for the first time; all of a sudden lines that maybe have gone a bit stale can become refreshed,” he says.

While the anxiety is likely to come from our fear of how the audience will perceive us or from a fear of making a mistake, Pavlich points out that most of the time the audience are unlikely to notice error.

“They’re sort of just in the space ready for the show. Especially if they’re non-performers themselves, they don’t really realise and they can also assume that the task is easier than it actually is”.

So the next time you feel jittery or your mouth goes dry, remember your fellow actors are likely to be feeling anxious too, and the audience is probably none the wiser.

* Not his real name.