Nerves can be crippling for every kind of performer. I’m a shaker– when I get nervous, my knees and fingers endeavor to vibrate off of my body with the force of a volcanic eruption. But why do actors get nervous? Where do nerves come from?
In my experience, I get nervous when I feel underprepared, show how I care intensely about my work in the play, or want to impress someone in the audience. Let’s break these down one by one, shall we?
Underprepared: I’ve never been one to just see what happens. When I have neglected to give a role the work it deserves, I always feel unsure of what to do in the moment, and then it becomes me the actor on stage, as opposed to a character living from moment to moment truthfully. The pressure is off when my actor self leaves the room, and in order to boot her out the door, I know that I need to do my homework on a script. Without proper preparation, I’m doomed to shakey purgatory.
Showing how you care about the work: Don’t get me wrong–as actors, it’s incredibly important to care about the work we do. Every play has bottomless possibility and we need to want to do the work. But I find that if I care too much about the great homework I’ve done on a script, or the life-changing discoveries I’ve made in rehearsals, or that I can take every note my director has given, I am chained to these cares and the performance becomes about me deeply caring that everything is right and meaningful and life-changing for the audience. It’s not bad to care: that’s what fuels our devotion to the craft and all the hard work it requires. It is not our job, however, to leak how we feel about acting onto the audience, who is there to watch a play. If we aim to show them our actor selves caring, they won’t be leaning forward into the world of the play, they will be watching actors on a stage. That’s not engaging theatre.
Impressing the audience: It is possible for a particular role to show off your skills. Maybe you hit that high note really well, or you’ve been chosen to dance in the front row. That’s great–feel good about your work! Be proud of yourself. But again, when the play begins, it’s not you on that stage, it has to be the character. The more the actor thinks about how great they are, the more they show the audience a performance when the work is to live in the moments of the play. While you might be an amazing sight, your ego becomes more important than the play. For me, if I know someone important is in the audience, I have to forget myself, or else I become acutely aware of being on stage and therefore cannot do anything but recite my lines and fake emotion on my face. And shake, because my actor self being watched by hundreds of people is probably the scariest thing ever.
All of these reasons for nerves are caused by matters outside the world of the play. So it seems like the way to battle nerves is to do everything I can to stay in the world of the play. I leave my homework at home, dash my actor ego, and allow the character to live in each moment, like a walking meditation.
Here are some questions that can be asked in a moment of nervous hesitation to bring the mind back to the world of the play. What happens if your character handles the problem of their fingers and knees shaking? How much can your character notice about the world around them today? What is new about the other characters on stage? These are only a few ways to hand the problems of the actor to the character so she can deal with them truthfully.
As with many things, these suggestions are easier said than done, but when practiced at every chance, they can become second nature. What a gift to give your problems to the character who can deal with them. What an enormous amount of pressure is taken off of the actor. And let me tell you, this has transformed my life because instead of being a nervous wreck, doing a play becomes incredibly fun when I can forget my actor self! What an exciting job to have!
Mantra: I will lose myself in the world of the play.