Stage Fright and Performers: Nicole Kidman, Edie Falco, singer James Hampton

Many actors, musicians and other people sometime experience stage fright or performance anxiety so much it interferes with their creative work and success.

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Edie Falco

Edie Falco in Nurse Jackie

In an interview several years ago, Edie Falco said she had “not experienced anxiety attacks in many, many years, but everybody I know and love has gone through periods of anxiety.

“Everybody I know who has been pursuing a career in the arts. It’s a very difficult life to have chosen.”

She added, “And 15 years ago, when I was going through this, there were a lot of rough times, you know, wondering what the heck I was doing with my time, myself, my life.”

[CNN interview in 2002.]

That is one of the emotionally or spiritually harmful results of anxiety – it can cause you to be overly critical of your life, to doubt yourself, your talents and how you’re expressing them.

Nicole Kidman

Nicole Kidman in Cold Mountain

Nicole Kidman made her British stage debut in 2002 in The Blue Room, co-starring Iain Glen.

She recalled about meeting him the first time, “I was so shy I could hardly speak. I kept feeling like I was going to vomit: I had heard how brilliant Iain was on stage and he was formidable just as a person.”

She also had “absolute terror during the lead up to rehearsals. I was there the week before, starting to grapple with the accents and thinking, ‘What am I doing? This is crazy.’ … ‘This is madness,’ and I got really frightened.”

[From Naked in the warehouse, by Matt Wolf, The Telegraph UK, 10 Oct 2002]

Kidman gives much credit to her acting coach Susan Batson, and says in the introduction to Batson’s book, “I can’t create unless I have truth – I have to feel it. Susan helps me to find the truth in myself and use its purity, intimacy, and honesty to make my work real.”

That is another reason to deal with stage fright or anxiety – so you can be more fully and authentically yourself in whatever art you choose.

Many actors and musicians, and people in business giving presentations, use a beta blocker medication such as propranolol, which eases the physical symptoms of anxiety.

Dallas Opera - The Merry Widow

“James Hampton, a former tenor who is now artistic services manager at The Dallas Opera, says ‘There was a time I couldn’t go on stage without beta blockers. There is a degree of ‘good nerves’ that you want, but that can go too far.

“Hampton used propranolol for one stressful year, when he was overwhelmed by a shift from singing to stage direction and completing a doctorate.

“Before ending his singing career, he sang for four years without them, encouraged after he had a successful performance despite forgetting his pills at home.”

Quotes from article “Beta blockers can help ease stage fright,” By Daphne Howland, The Dallas Morning News, July 13, 2009.

[Photo: The Dallas Opera – Rod Gilfry in a production of THE MERRY WIDOW (2007). Photo credit: Karen Almond, Dallas Opera. Source: Dallas Opera Facebook Album.]

The article continues (on the site of the Performing Arts Medical Association) :

Many performers value that very rush of adrenaline that sparks anxiety. “It makes us aware of ourselves at a time when we need to be aware,” said Sally Nystuen Vahle of the Dallas Theater Center and acting and voice instructor at the University of North Texas.

Beta blockers can introduce a dullness that interferes with that, according to Dr. Bernard Rubin, a professor at the UNT Health Science Center at Fort Worth and a physician who treats many musicians. For anyone facing even heart-pounding nerves, Rubin advocates “a little bit of time, a little bit of forethought and much less pharmacology.”

Regardless of their stance on beta blockers for stage fright, every physician and performer interviewed said alternative relaxation techniques are also essential. And the No. 1 antidote to anxiety advocated by everyone is preparation.

“Practice, practice, practice,” said Kris Chesky, director of UNT’s Texas Center for Music and Medicine. “And put everything in perspective. If you falter, your life is not going to end.”

Anti-anxiety secrets

For anyone who can’t or won’t use beta blockers for stage fright, doctors, performance coaches and performers offer these stress reducers:

Prepare well: People underestimate how much preparation any kind of presentation requires, says Rick Ericson, senior communications director at the LeMaster Group in Dallas, which provides media and presentation training for professionals. “We recommend practicing 20 to 30 times, starting in front of a mirror or using a home video camera. The more you practice, the more comfortable you get with the words, and that allows you to practice your physical performance and do something with that nervous energy.”

Jimmy Clark, who plays first trombone with the Dallas Opera, advised making practice sessions as intense as a performance so your response will be the same. “Try to make yourself nervous in practice,” he says. Clark admits that speaking at recitals shakes him more than playing, but he hasn’t used beta blockers for either. “If I had a PowerPoint presentation to do, I would go in the room, fix the lighting, and have the talk virtually memorized. And get my friends to watch me practice.”

Get comfortable: Dress as comfortably as you can, according to what is appropriate for your venue and your audience. “I don’t care how well you’ve prepared, if you are uncomfortable, you’re going to be thinking about that,” Ericson says. Instead of looking at the sea of people, make eye contact with individuals in the crowd, which will feel like a more manageable, one-on-one interaction.

Breathe: Actress Sally Nystuen Vahle believes that inadequate breathing is a major contributor to performance anxiety. She recommends loosening your back and rib cage by stretching your arms overhead to enable breath support. Deep breaths can be calming and help return oxygen intake to normal, she says.

Stretch and prepare your body: Stretching can help you expend nervous energy, make you aware of any physical tensing up and help you relax. “Visualize different parts of your body, tighten up your muscle groups, then relax them purposefully,” says Kris Chesky, director of UNT’s Texas Center for Music and Medicine.

Include an icebreaker: One reason so many speakers start with a joke or anecdote is not just to make the audience feel comfortable, but also to help themselves relax, according to Candace Evans, freelance opera director at the Dallas Opera. Opening with a so-called high note can scale down the high-strung intensity. “A singer calls this a ‘tipping point,’ ” Evans says. “It’s getting early, positive feedback that you’re OK.”

Eat bananas (and avoid caffeine): Chesky recommends bananas to his jumpy music students and warns them away from coffee, which speeds up a racing heart. Eating bananas theoretically could work like taking a beta blocker because potassium has a role in calming the heart, and many performers believe in them. But there’s another reason they may work. “Of the people who do need help with performance anxiety, 20 percent to 25 percent will get a response from a placebo,” says Dr. Christopher Crow. “Sports psychologists deal with this all the time: When the pressure’s on, how does my mind remain calm?”

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Shifting anxiety with a mini-meditation

Energy psychiatrist Judith Orloff M.D., is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA and author of the book “Emotional Freedom.”

She uses beta blockers for some of her actor clients, but teaches everyone to do a three minute mini-meditation (also in her book Emotional Freedom) where they “learn how to breathe, center themselves, let their thoughts flow by, and focus on something really nurturing and positive for three minutes.

She thinks this “is a better way to learn how to shift your anxiety and really own the moment. You can do it anywhere.”

Hear podcast interview with Judith Orloff M.D.

Program: Undo Public Speaking Fear – The Lefkoe Method.

Morty Lefkoe says, “According to my experiences with over 12,000 clients and my research study published in a major scientific journal, the only way to get rid of a persistent and painful fear like the fear of public speaking is by changing what you believe on a very deep and emotional level.” Follow the link for more info and video testimonials.

[Image from article Getting Over Stage Fright.]

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