Out of curiosity at work, I searched “tips for performing with” on Google. The phrase is finished with various words like “a cold” or “anxiety.” Believe it or not, most of the responses to this question are simply, “Get over it. If you want to be on stage, just do it.” Well, that’s not helpful advice, I thought.
I’ve been in the spotlight my fair share of time. In the chorus at the community theatre, high school plays, workshops for directing courses in college, a few student films--trust me, “getting over it” is not as simple as it sounds. I developed a routine and set of rules to be as comfortable as possible before an audition or show date. I find this is the best way to cope with stress, anxiety, or simple stage fight. A routine is unique to a specific person depending on their needs. However, I feel like I have a few basic ideas that could be the starting point for a modified pre-show anxiety plan.
Find a Quiet Spot
I "charge up" best when I’m alone in quiet areas, therefore running errands or going to a loud restaurant for a pre-show lunch is a horrible idea. What I do instead is reserve one to two hours of uninterrupted time to focus in a more-or-less quiet spot. This may be a park, a library, or the comfort of your own home. I prefer coffee shops for the ambient noise and easy access to pre-show tea and pastries. I use this time to stretch parts of my right brain that are unrelated to the stage, like writing in my notebook and doodling in the margins. This allows me valuable time to get out of my head about the oncoming call time and be present in a safe space where I can think and breathe.
Do. Not. Drink. Caffeine.
An instructor may have told you (or will tell you in the future) not to drink alcohol before a show. That’s a good tip. Another one from me: if riddled with anxiety beforehand, don’t drink caffeine before class or a jam or a show. That will just worsen the anxiety, and I’m speaking as an admitted coffee addict. Personally, if I absolutely have to get my “fix,” I go with green tea. While it does have caffeine in it, it has a much lower caffeine content than a cup of coffee. The best beverage for nerves (and voice) is always water, but drinking ginger or chamomile tea with a bit of honey and lemon helps too.
Meditate in Stillness, or Perform a Soothing Activity
Meditation is highly recommended for pre-show prep. Ten-to-15 minutes of being still and focusing on the breath has been proven to relieve stress and anxiety in most cases. That being said, I’m a very, very fidgety person, so I find a physical act that keeps me calm and occupied instead of focusing on the panic. My choice of activity is knitting or crocheting. I grab a pair of needles, a crochet hook, a ball of yarn, and lose myself in the repetition of stitching together a scarf. Take note, I have been asked if I’m knitting for my future baby. If by “baby” they mean the “growing ball of tension and doubt welling up in my chest and stomach,” then yes! If “baby” equates to “tiny human,” I burst into hysterical laughter that was meant to be a polite “no” and then get back to knitting. No offense to the tiny humans, of course, but I like to think they would be offended by the stereotype, too. #NotAllKnitters
Channel Your Energy Into Your Performance
Yes, yes, this sounds like some self-prescribed hippie-dippie pagan bull for theatre students. I mean, that’s not incorrect, me being a theatre major who prescribes to the hippie-dippie pagan bull. However, it’s as simple as mindfulness, being aware of the emotions and adrenaline pumping into the mind and body. Instead of bottling up that energy, use it for a character. I’ve done this during classes on depressive days and stage fright-driven showcases. Instead of tamping that down, I use mindful thinking to electrify my performance. If I can only handle two or three scenes in a 25-minute show? That’s OK. As long as I did not ignore the well of inspiration offered by my own immediate anxiety, then I call that a win. Performing is how I exorcise my personal demons, so why not make them tap dance to “Puttin’ on the Ritz?”
Like Exercise, Don’t Forget to Cool Down
True fact: the nervous-turned-positive energy I have after a show really messes with my circadian rhythm. To get the full night of sleep that I desperately need, I have to be smart and play ambient music on the way back home. Then I lay down in my bed and re-read a familiar book like Rebecca until I finally drift off. This is an admittedly difficult thing for me. I’d much rather play songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: A Hip Hop Musical at full volume on the way back home and dance around. (Imagine tiny, ol’ me at the wheel of a Honda Accord wildly bouncing in my seat and rapping, “Hey yo, I’m just like my country, I’m young scrappy and hungry, and I’m not throwin’ away mah SHOT!”) Although, the melatonin gummy chews from Kroger help, too. Never doubt the power of melatonin gummy chews.
While my suggestions are not ingenious and original tips, they are formed off of building blocks that I’ve had to search out and experience for myself. Honestly, some of the worst advice I’ve ever received is “getting over it,” whatever the circumstance is. Not necessarily because it is insensitive (which it is), but because it is so impossibly vague. When it comes to many things, especially something as terrifying and enthralling as performing on stage, a pre-show anxiety plan is the best way I’ve learned to manage my life as an actress, an aspiring comedian, and a functioning human being.
KC Ryan is currently a Level Three student at DCH. An office worker by day, she spends her nights writing, improvising, recording podcasts, and having existential crises. She’s a co-host of Parsec Award-nominated podcast Anomaly Supplemental about general sci-fi and fantasy topics. Her greatest achievement so far is convincing her husband to watch Project Runway.