I’ve dealt with nerves all my life. Every time before I go on stage I’m nervous. Every. Single. Time. And I think it’s safe to say most actors feel the same. (I reckon if they don’t they’re lying) Feeling nervous is essentially a dulled down version of an essential emotion that our bodies need in order to survive: fear. And that’s good! Fear is what kept us alive as cavemen. I mean, its not natural is it? Going to the front of a room with hundreds, maybe thousands of people, expecting you to entertain them. This blog is just a few ways I have learnt to deal with those pesky nerves.
Connecting to actors around me before I go on stage.
This takes my brain off “self” before I go on. In Legally Blonde I would go to the actors I worked closely with and chat to them. I would have different routines for different actors depending on the working relationship or friendship I had with them. With one actor we would have a quick hug-to-connect and have a two minute chat to check in with each other. With another actor we would do a hug-to-connect and then talk about a shared goal we wanted out of the performance. With my sorority girls we would do our “Delta Nu” handshake. Going and connecting with others before I went on, made my focus go on to something else other than my nerves.
Accepting things can (and will) go wrong.
A drama teacher told me once he had never done a show where something hadn’t gone wrong. And come to think of it nor have I. People are not perfect. They make mistakes, they forget things. Sometimes your’e in the wrong place at the wrong time but lets face it, some major curve balls will be thrown at you. And that’s one of the best things I’ve learnt. Going on stage with the knowledge that something will likely go wrong keeps you alive in the moment and as an actor, and that is what we all strive to do, right? It keeps you focused and ready. And it also gives you a sense of relaxation as opposed to tightening up praying and hoping you do the perfect performance. Because unless you’re a robot, you never will. In Mamma Mia, I played Sophie, and there was a point where we were on the Jetty and Sky lifted me up in a cradle hold as he begins to sing and then puts me back down on the floor. But one night my skirt got so horribly caught in his buttons, while he was singing I had to literally perform the task of extracting myself from his clothes. It took me maybe 20 extcruiating seconds because we were so tangled. I then did a playful smile to the audience which got a laugh. And afterwards that actor said to me “How did you do that? You got them all on your side.” And it was purely because I had accepted and then acknowledged the screw up that had happened.
*that darn skirt and that darn top that got caught on each other in Mamma Mia!*
Having those pre-show routines.
I’ve learnt a lot over the past few years of not being afraid to take the time to focus myself and taking the time to do whatever will make me feel more comfortable onstage. The First 15 minutes in Legally Blonde was always the most nerve wracking for me, up until the end of “What You Want” I was always like a cat on a hot tin roof, because it’s really technical stuff, and I find often that first 15 minutes is essential to finding my rhythm in the show. So I would go backstage to a quiet place mark that first 15 minutes, at super speed. Say every line of dialogue and every dance move. It helped me settle because I have essentially already done the hardest bit of the show. Next time, I’ll just have a few hundred eyes looking at me doing it.
Trusting your body is often faster than your mind in high stress situations.
You’ve been rehearsing essentially to train your muscles to hit that note or that dance move without your mind having to think about it too much. And if you do get overwhelmed and anxious that’s okay! Because you remember that you’ve been training your body to have your back, no matter what. The scariest moment I’ve ever had on stage is when I was in a scene and the actor opposite me forgot his line and said something that made no sense, that had no link to my next line and you know what? My mind went blank. So so horribly blank. But my body on the other hand? My body knew that there couldn’t be a long silence for one of us to remember our lines. There had to be dialogue. So it made up some dialogue for me. Before I could even control it I was saying “What are you even talking about?!” (It was an argument scene) and that was the few seconds the actor needed to take some time and remembered the next line and we jumped back into the scene. I saw the panic in his eyes and he could see my shaky hands doing up his tie, and honestly? Neither of our minds were in the next scene, it was all muscle memory from there until we recovered. Our bodies knew what they had to do.
And that’s on a professional stage.
Yeah. It happens.
And finally, Breathe
Sometimes when I would sing I would often feel like I was about to faint, it wasn’t until I saw vocal physiotherapist Peter Chun that I realised I was breathing so shallow I was essentially making myself hyperventilate! I would rush through things in a nervous daze until one director said “Ellie you need to breathe deep breathes all the time the whole show, from your tummy and through your nose.” The first time I did this I thought about nothing else offstage than taking those breathes and I did one of the best performances of that role I’d ever done. My wonderful dresser Scotty would always be reminding me to breathe and I’m reminding you and myself again. Oxygen is a great thing. Yassss. Use it wisely and properly. Especially when singing and especially in high octane fast paced shows.
I hope this helps you in some way!