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Saturday, December 3, 2011

Theatre For Thought, December 3, 2011

joel fishbane

I’ve been thinking about stage fright recently, mostly because I don’t suffer from it. But I used to. I was born late and had to be ushered onto stage a few years later in my school’s Purim pageant (Purim being Carnival for Jews). Stage fright, known in the non-acting world as Performance Anxiety, is a pretty common thing, afflicting everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Elvis Presley to Brad Pitt. Most people are able to endure it, but I’ve seen my share of actors crumble in an audition and once, many years ago, an unfortunate Cordelia fell apart on the opening night of King Lear. 
...acute stress “shifts the brain into a state that fosters defence mechanisms”.

You may envy my current fearlessness, but like so many things, science has shown that bravery is as much a curse as a blessing. Republican Presidential candidate Rick Perry’s recent brain freeze during a GOP debate (he couldn’t remember the name of a government agency he wanted to eliminate) has prompted a wealth of articles about performance anxiety. In the November 2011 issue of Science, a collection of authors argued that acute stress “shifts the brain into a state that fosters defence mechanisms”. Our senses become heightened as our brain shuts off all access to creativity, contemplation and thinking abstractly. 

This may not sound like a benefit to actors, but I’d argue it can be the best thing to happen to us. The theorized purpose of this neural defence comes from our ancestors who, when faced with a sabre-toothed tiger, couldn’t afford to spend a lot of time considering their options. They could only react. And reacting is essentially what good acting is all about. Actors (myself included) tend to think too much about their emotional states, far more then we do in real life. In a real moment of stress – say, the moment our lover announces they are leaving us – we often stop acting in rational ways. We simply react, which is why so many of us (myself included) have done regrettable things in the name of love.

Of course, it’s never a good idea to go onto stage heavily medicated (although it’s sometimes a useful state for the audience).

The downside of stage fright, of course, is when it incapacitates and causes the sort of brain freeze that afflicted poor Mr. Perry. The authors of the study in Science suggest that the drug propranolol, usually used on high blood pressure, may be of use in reducing the amnesia part of stress. Of course, it’s never a good idea to go onto stage heavily medicated (although it’s sometimes a useful state for the audience). For those who don’t expect to find any propranolol in their holiday gift basket this year, here’s a round-up of the most common, more organic ways to keep control:

●   Watch what you eat, or rather, watch to make sure you eat. During moments of
anxiety, your screwed-up brain may not send out hunger pains, but that doesn’t mean your blood sugar isn’t dropping. And amnesia is just one of the many effects of low blood sugar. 

●   Avoid proteins and fats, which take a long time to digest. Increase your intake
  of Vitamin C, Vitamin B, Calcium and Magnesium.

●  Avoid the three things you usually do when you’re stressed out – don’t drink,
smoke or go for coffee. 

●  On the other hand, if you can manage it, sex will release some soothing
endorphins. Not always the best idea five minutes before curtain, but hey, what happens backstage stays backstage.

● It’s all about perspective. Play down the panic inducing aspects of the audition
(“Oh God, I have to audition for Steven Spielberg!”) and accentuate the happier (“Oh Good! I get to audition for Steven Spielberg. Maybe I can get him to apologize for War of the Worlds.”) 

While these things have helped others, I should remark that none of them helped me overcome my own early bouts of stage fright. My own cure came in the summer of 1997 when I appeared in a show at Paramount Canada’s Wonderland, a theme park just south of Toronto. We had to perform four times a day, six days a week, which means in ten days I performed 40 times, which is longer then most runs of independent theatre in Montreal. Any anxiety I might have felt was gone by the third week. And it’s never returned. 

As I’ve said, this is both a curse and a blessing. There are times when I am grateful for my steady nerves; but there are also moments when I envy that rush of adrenaline which is propelling my fellow actors into something which is bound to impress. 

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