Actors are not alone in needing to manage nerves, but compared to most professions, yours is unique in terms of how frequently you are placed in nerve inducing situations in order to get the job. Think of the engineers, nurses, teachers, etc. you know, and then of the frequency they are job hunting. I was recruited a lot during my marketing/advertising career, averaging a new job every two or so years. This was unheard of by my friends in other industries. It meant I became great at interviewing; yet I still had “nerves” before I walked in a door for that first meeting.
Auditions are the equivalent of the job interview for other occupations. I’m trying to picture most “normal” people tolerating that kind of pressure multiple times a year, let alone multiple times monthly, weekly, or even daily. And although I’m sure you reach a place in your career where the anxiety you feel about auditioning lessens, I do believe that even a subconscious response to the pressure generated can impact both your wellbeing and your ability to nail it. (And you will always have openings, and high profile jobs to set your nerves on edge!)
Enter Pursued by a Bear
Each of our physical responses to nerves are as unique as we are – this isn’t to say that every human brain doesn’t react in much the same fashion and release the same hormones in stressful situations, but because our bodies are unique, we may be more prone to one physical response than another. For example, you may sweat when nervous, where I become extremely cold and have a tendency to shiver. Either way, our bodies respond to stressful situations as if they are responding to danger.
In general, the body’s physical responses related to stress include:
– Heart rate and blood pressure increases
– Breathing becomes rapid, and the lungs take in more oxygen
– Blood flow increases due to a response in our spleen
– Fluids are diverted from the mouth, causing dryness and difficulty speaking
– The muscles of the throat can spasm, making swallowing (and speaking) difficult
– Blood flows away from the skin to support heart and muscle tissue, causing clammy or sweaty skin
– The scalp tightens, causing hair to actually stand on end
– The digestive system shuts down
– Short term memory is negatively impacted
And then you are supposed to be in the moment, suspend reality, and become a character you’ve never played before for truly the briefest time possible. Have I gotten it right?
Well now I’m stressed for all of you, but luckily, I know how the body works and have a few tricks you can use to stop the stress response in its tracks.
Learning Your Cues
Just like learning cues onstage, you can learn the cues your body gives you before you succumb to your nerves. Becoming more aware of your body and how it responds in various situations is a great way to learn when you must employ a strategy to calm your nerves. I like (and personally use) a daily Pilates practice in order to begin to understand what is happening inside your body and connect the dots between body, mind, and spirit (you can replace those words with thoughts and emotions if you like). I especially like Pilates for actors because it requires what I refer to as “multitasking” within your body. This will improve focus, but also allow you to gain a greater understanding of how all parts of you are connected. Whatever practice you choose, make sure are able to keep your focus on what is happening inside your body. Utilize a method that forces you to engage muscle and control movement. Your system operates differently when you are still or practicing release or relaxation techniques than it does when you are physically engaged in activity. Auditions require physical engagement (getting to an audition does too) so a practice that involves staying in the present and being physically engaged will be most impactful. Explore movement with breath. Learn what it feels like to be in your body daily by practicing a neutral position on the floor and noticing where you are heavy or light, which bones feel like they are pressing into the floor and where it feels your body is lifted away. And then see what you can do to balance that connection. You can do the same thing upright in a chair or against a wall. The point is to pay attention to your body and how you can change your attachment to gravity, what your rib cage does when you breathe, and if you feel like you can engage various parts of your body or if you feel restricted and/or disconnected.
Put your mind/body/spirit practice into the beginning of your day and see how it impacts everything that comes after, including how you are warming up your instrument for the day ahead.
Which brings me to one of the questions I ask every actor who works with me. Are you practicing your pre-show warm-ups every single morning of your life? If not, you should be. You get exactly one instrument with which you get to practice your craft for your entire life. One. Like me (Pilates teacher) there is not one single thing you can do in the world that won’t have either a positive or negative impact on the way you will be able to use that instrument when you are ready to call on it. By this I mean I expect that each time you open your mouth, your voice is at its most resonant possible. You should never, ever speak in any other fashion. Proper training will help allow your voice to simply show up in resonance each time you open your mouth, but that proper training is a daily physical thing. The same goes for your body. If you want to enter an audition in a perfectly aligned and neutral body, before transforming in front of the casting director’s eyes into a character other than yourself, you must begin each day training and measuring your neutrality. Again, I don’t have the vocal or physical power to teach if I don’t take care of my own instrument first each day, but even on a day when I’m traveling or writing all day, I must begin with my Pilates practice (my warm-up) in order to prevent the world and my activities from creating some new pattern. Your job is to take the best care possible of your instrument. If you do that, daily, you will achieve two things (at least two things!). 1.) You will teach it to show up for you in the way it’s been trained (think vocal resonance again as one example) no matter what the circumstances. 2.) You will be creating and guiding an instrument you know you can trust to do its job – this alone is going to subconsciously calm your nerves for the audition. This part is a bit like learning your lines and blocking. If you are confident you know the physical and verbal language of your character, you have space to play and create “more” – yes?
This will be the fourth piece I’ve written for the 2amtheatre.com blog where I stress the importance of healthy fascia. But healthy fascia has impact on whether you hold or release negative tension (muscle tension) and your ability to engage muscle to create the character physicality you have chosen, even for the audition. It also will impact your ability to physically try something different when asked. And then there’s the blood flow part. Healthy fascia allows great blood flow. Great blood flow is going to matter when your nerves kick in. (See list of physical stress reactions above.) I won’t go through the myofascial release techniques again, but read the previous blogs and learn to release and care for your fascia daily, this alone can get some of that nervous tension out of your head, neck, and shoulders.
Breathe (the right way)
Practicing a breathing technique that allows you to expand the use of your respiratory system should be part of your daily work. But before I teach any actor breath work, I generally need to break a bad pattern I find in most vocal artists. The easiest way I can describe it in writing is that most actors “suck” in their stomachs when they exhale. This is not how bodies work, but the physical stance you’ve been trained to practice (legs wider than hips) and ensuing postural alignment issues (a “hinge” back at the thoracic spine), and the cue to “relax” your abdominals trains the body to disconnect in a fashion that prevents vocal support. When your fascial patterns become cast, your ribcage stops expanding laterally. This causes you to continue to “lift” the ribs in order to breathe. When you become nervous (breathing becomes rapid, and lungs take in more oxygen), this inability to stay connected, expand your ribs laterally, and utilize your entire respiratory system, causes you to hyperventilate. That breath then impacts your support and your vocal resonance, not to mention your ability to walk into a room confident, present and grounded.
Try the following:
Lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor (if you can’t place them flat comfortably, revisit fascia after this, in the meantime, you can place a book under your feet to help) with one hand covering your stomach at the belly button. You need to have already placed your pelvis in a neutral position (the “hip bones” and tail bone will all be on the same plain – if you place your palms on the hip bones and allow your fingers to make a triangle toward your pubic bone, that triangle should be parallel to the ground, not tilting up or down.). You may place a rolled towel under your head at the occipital bones to support your neck alignment.
My guess is that your ribcage is protruding – that it is more prominent than your bellybutton. As you inhale, fill your stomach and “press” it out into the palm of the hand covering it. Exhale and don’t allow your stomach to lose contact with your hand. Repeat until your ribcage “softens” and you begin to feel a connection from the bottom of the ribs to the top of the abdominals around the hip area (don’t allow your pelvis to tilt in either direction).
After you accomplish that, try exhaling for a count of 10, pausing, inhaling for a count of three or four, pause, and exhaling again for a count of 10 or more. As you practice this part, begin to let your abdominals be controlled by your breath, but try not to allow anything (chest/ribs/bellybutton) to move/lift on your inhale. Allow your body to push the breath out with your exhale, but if you begin to “suck in” at the belly button again, start over. Practice this for cycles of 10-20 breaths. Be sure to have your mouth open on both the (very quiet) inhale and the (noisy) exhale.
Our goal is for your ribs to begin to expand laterally (toward your elbows). At first, they may not move much, but if you prevent them from lifting up and toward your face and you control your abdominals, you will eventually break through any fascial casting and get to lateral expansion again. Once that happens, just allow your breath to occur.
The expanding your stomach on the inhale and exhale isn’t any more normal than the sucking in your are doing now, but it is effective in stopping that pattern, softening your ribs, and finding a supportive rib/hip connection.
Now, once your ribs have stopped lifting toward your face and you’ve stopped sucking in your stomach when you exhale, speak. Does your voice sound more resonant? Is there greater support with less effort? Super. Add that to your daily practice.
Then, when you are headed to an audition (or waiting to go in) and the nerves hit, practice the pressing your stomach into your hand on the inhale and exhale breath. Two things will happen. First, that breath with a pause between inhale and exhale and the ensuing rib/hip connection will force you out of hyperventilation mode (and keep you in your voice) and second, focusing on your breath will put you in the moment and give your brain a (familiar) pattern to pay attention to – taking your mind off the unproductive thoughts driving your nerves.
Creating Tension, the Good Kind
Two more physical tips to try on your way to or outside the audition room. 1.) Squeeze your inner thighs. This will fire your pelvic floor and help with engagement. 2.) Learn to engage your serratus. It is a fact that you cannot hold tension in your head/neck/shoulders and engage your serratus. You must do this with your ribcage in alignment, but firing your serratus will remove that negative tension and allow your breath and vocals to show up as they’ve been trained. Each of these are techniques to fire useful muscles, but they also allow you to decide where you are creating tension in your body versus allowing stress and nerves to wreak havoc.
None of this will do you any good if you aren’t prepared, willing to listen to and trust your instincts, and able to stay present, listen, and respond to what is asked of you in the room. But training your instrument, daily, to be powerful and setting it up to help you succeed in using your nervous energy in a positive fashion is one way to manage anxiety and prevent it from interfering with whether or not you nail it, and having some fun while you do!
Latest posts by Marcia Polas (see all)
- Becoming Effortless - 1 March 2016
- Rethinking The Actor’s Instrument: It Shouldn’t Hurt - 24 August 2015
- Managing Audition Anxiety: Tangible Practices - 17 February 2015