Performing onstage with friends, family, peers, and even strangers watching can be extremely nerve-wracking. Putting yourself out there, being vulnerable, and taking risks onstage takes a lot of courage, which is why it’s common for student actors to be nervous before going onstage. They put pressure on themselves to perform perfectly. They don’t want to let their castmates and crewmates down. They want to remember everything they need to do out there – lines, blocking, entrances and exits, what costume they’re supposed to be wearing, their relationships to other characters…the list goes on and on.
If your actors are having trouble calming their nerves, try using the following tips.
As the Scouts say, be prepared! Students should use their rehearsal time effectively and review on their own every day. They must practice good habits: learning their lines until they have them letter-perfect, practicing their choreography daily, doing vocal exercises, stretching, and getting plenty of rest. The more prepared they are in advance, the easier it will be for students to step out onstage with confidence. Procrastinating, not doing the work outside of rehearsals, and being lazy will all add up to feeling stressed when the time for tech and dress rehearsals approaches.
Fear of the unknown is an easy way for students to psych themselves out when they are stressing over what might happen. What if they forget their lines? What if they miss a cue? Play the “what if” game as a group to put fears into words, and come up with an action plan for what students should do if something does go wrong. Encourage your students to be problem solvers and team players, and have them come up with creative ideas on how they can help each other out, should something go wrong in the moment.
When people are nervous, they instinctively take quick and shallow breaths to get more oxygen to their brain. Taking time to focus on breathing slowly and deeply can help students relax. Try the breathing exercise found here, give meditation a shot, or explore yoga techniques such as pranayama. Even a slow warm-up routine with simple stretching exercises can be very calming, and help students ease their nervousness.
This is a simple solution that teachers can put together in minutes. Take a jar or small box, label it “stress jar” or “worry jar,” and place it in a private spot with some slips of paper and pencils nearby. If students are feeling nervous or anxious, they can write their concerns on a slip of paper and either crumple it up or fold it into a tiny square, and then put it in the stress jar. Just the act of writing out their worries and putting them in the jar can help them alleviate nervousness – the worries aren’t immediately dealt with, but the jar will keep the worries out of the students’ heads until after the show.
An alternative is to have students boost each other’s morale by giving each other “warm fuzzies” – find the instructions for this exercise here.
Nobody goes to a show thinking, “Oh boy, I hope these students are going to really screw up tonight!” Audiences want to see a great show and they want the performers, technicians, and crew members to succeed. Especially when it is students who are putting on a show, audience members know that they are learning and growing, and that mistakes sometimes happen.
But what’s even more important for students to remember is that audience members are blown away by the courage displayed by all the students involved in creating a show. Those people coming to see the show certainly aren’t getting up onstage, running a lighting or sound board, creating costumes, and keeping the backstage running efficiently, and they will be proud and excited to see the students making their team effort work.
Furthermore, students must remember that it is they who are in control. And they can control their preparation, their attitudes, their effort, and their focus. By giving each performance their full effort, they have already succeeded!
by Lindsay Price & Kerry Hishon
The Drama Classroom Companion is filled with articles and exercises to build the skills needed for theatrical performance as well as real world skills like creative thinking, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication.