Performance anxiety & celebrating being human!
I get approached frequently by acting students across Europe, because they all seem to have a common problem. And that is: how do you perform a monologue without feeling awkward and self-conscious?
This ‘performance anxiety’ plagued me early in my career, but I’ve found some tools to overcome it - which I’d like to pass on.
To my apprentice students, your secret weapons for overcoming this will be listed at the bottom, but please read on so that you can learn they why’s and the how’s.
I intensively studied the art of solo acting at graduate school at the University of Texas, and have performed full-length solo dramas across Europe and the U.S ('My Name is Bill' at right). I learned the painful truth: that if you don't have confidence while you're performing, what you have is fear. And every actor knows that if you are full of fear, you cannot be open and creative.
THE PROBLEM: A DISEASE OF PERCEPTION
Performance anxiety is a disease of perception. When I'm feeling it as an actor, I’m perceiving you, the audience, as a threat. Why? Because “it’s me against you.” I’m here on stage, separated from you the audience. I choose the word, “separated” deliberately, because there lies the eventual solution. And since the most common fear among humanity is 'addressing an audience', it’s natural that the actor might feel anxious. But you don’t have to be.
Let’s look at it a different way: Imagine that you’re looking down on the audience from the lighting grid. You and your audience are experiencing a communal event that’s as old as theatre itself. In their very act of observing you, the audience is a group of people who have silently agreed to drop all judgment and criticism, and submerge their individuality for the bliss of having a connected, collective experience.
We the actors, are guiding them through this experience, and by our struggles onstage and the feelings that we’re feeling, we’re reminding them what it means to be human, which they'll feel safe to experience because they’re feeling it with others. That's the key: connection.
So, of what use is it to be afraid? Are you actually afraid of someone that you’re sharing an experience with? And if you decide to carry on being afraid of them, that means you’re giving away your power to them. Which makes you feel insecure. So by being fearful and self-centered, you’re depriving them of the experience that they’ve come to enjoy. Pretty selfish isn’t it?
The sooner you accept that the dramatic arts is a spiritual act (in other words, accepting and connecting us all), the more you and your audience will enjoy this precious experience.
We need to embrace the audience, and do whatever it takes for to conceive the idea of becoming one with them. This may be saying an affirmation, having a time of meditation before going onstage, or learning the St. Francis prayer (“Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console...It is in giving that we receive.”), which I personally say before every performance.
Sound a bit happy clappy? If this seems a bit ridiculous or “up your own arse”, think about this: we now live in a digital age where theatre practitioners are desperately needed to remind the audience that we humans are not gadgets, we are not part of some ‘hive mind’ created by Silicon Valley. We humans precious, distinct, wonderfully unique individuals with our own points of view. And it is in the Arts that we’re able to have that healing experience. You actors are priests!
But this is only shifting the perception. Now we actors need to action, by using the tools.
THE TOOLS: DOING OR DYING
Now here’s the bad news: if you’re going to have that wonderful experience with the audience you’ll have to start acting like a human being. Wha? Actors are the only people who think we have to deliver an emotional result to the people we're with, and worse: we demand their approval! But if you buy this idea that these fear-based survival techniques that you’ve been using to survive in front of your audience is creating a wall between you and them, then the only way to break free is start behaving in a human way, that’s normal, vulnerable and uncontrolled.
Example: we humans wants something, and we go for it. A beautiful example of a woman using these tools is Tina Brown, the British editor who conquered America. Explore her life, and you’ll see she’s the queen of action: writing, crafting, digging, exploring, pushing boundaries, persevering. What’s her secret?
In a recent interview she said, “It was a wonderful time – coming from England with a new pair of eyes. When you are very young and new, you have less to lose, so I just plunged in. You don't get so much performance anxiety when you're in the throes of do or die."
Do or die - a heightened experience that we in the audience will thrill to.
SECRET WEAPONS FOR ASA APPRENTICE STUDENTS
With all this in mind, apprentices, here are your secret weapons for putting your characters of your monologues in that ‘do, or die’ situation. Find yours below (and these are my suggestions - discard and think of your own if you prefer), and the more important your need to get your objective, the more you'll feel that your audience is with you, and the less awkward you’ll feel.
Alexia needs to meet the boy so that she can get away from being stuck on the farm.
Alice needs to survive this flight so she can visit her gran before she dies.
Daisy needs to share her feelings with Rachel because she’s burning up with guilt over her dishonesty with Lloyd.
Flossie needs to get her father to apologise to her mother so that they don’t break up.
Hannah needs to get close to her husband because she’s dying of loneliness from being shut out.
Hattie needs to convince her mother to allow her to take the bus because she’s dying of boredom.
Jake needs to convince Louise that his story is true because this is his final chance to win her.
Katie needs to finally learn to love herself and take responsibility for her life, or she’ll continue killing herself.
Lois needs to find a way to come to terms with her part in the murder.
Lucy needs to find a way to solve her problem because this is her one chance to meet Max.
Molly needs to make friends with the boy, even though she’s afraid he’ll laugh at her.
Ollie needs to break free from his flat because he’s dying of loneliness.
Saskia M needs to steal this man so she can get out of being a servant.
Saskia S needs to get understanding from her new friend so she can find a way to talk to Albert, who likes her.
Sophie needs to make a connection with Felix so she doesn’t have to kill herself after being abandoned by everybody.
Sully needs to get understanding from his doctor that boys are allowed to have feelings too, or he’ll think he’s crazy.
Thomas needs to break through to Charlotte, because he too lost his mother.
Notice that nearly every ‘need’ above is about love. The acting guru Michael Shurtleff said, “Every scene is a love scene. The actor should ask the question: 'Where is the love?’”
So think of your acting as a craft of love: accepting and loving that human need in yourself that we all identify with, and then directing those energies of love toward the audience. You’ll make their day.
Bryan Bounds, professional actor, writer and producer, is the founder of the American School of Acting in Yorkshire, providing 21st century classical acting techniques to young artists in Yorkshire.