When Those Butterflies Attack...
A year ago I decided to put acting on hold. I told people I was tired of trying to fight my way into Equity auditions, tired of working for free and needed a breather to focus on playwrighting. All these things were true, but the biggest, truest (and most embarrassing) thing was that I’d suddenly and unexpectedly developed debilitating stage fright.
Before going onstage I’d find myself engulfed in a full-fledged panic attack. The kind I only got when my subway car was so full that I’d get to third base with the straphanger next to me or when I was forced to walk through a sea of self-taking tourists in Times Square. But this kind of anxiety was worse because I could talk myself out of and down from the crowd-induced anxiety attacks. I couldn’t talk myself out of the acting anxiety I found myself struggling with. No amount of deep breathing and mantra repeating, I’m breathing in focus, concentration and energy—I’m breathing out nerves, anxiety and fear could knock the anxiety that set up camp in my head at tech rehearsal and didn’t leave until closing night’s curtain call.
At first I thought I could combat it by solidifying my superstitious-actor game. I’ve had pre-show go-to’s since undergrad. Run 3 miles. 3 sun salutations. 30 minutes of meditation. Run lines while walking my blocking on the stage before call time. “Normal” actor preparation stuff. But I took it to a new level when I realized how bad my stage fright was. If I made it through a dress rehearsal without flubbing any lines I’d attempt to repeat all my actions in the hours leading up to rehearsal, the next day. Meaning I moved from “normal actor preparing to go onstage” to “psycho wearing the same underwear three days in a row and freaking out if she accidentally bought the wrong flavor Luna Bar.”
I didn't know what to do. Other actors and friends offered coping techniques. “Rely on the other actors onstage.” YES. Amazing advice, so good, so true. But what if what I was worried about was f-ing up so badly that I threw my cast-mates. Because THAT was what I was worried about. “Imagine the moments after the show, when it’s done.” Again, YES. Amazing advice, so good, so true. But what’s the point of doing the thing if you’re plowing through as rote and mechanically as possible just to get to the end? Doesn’t that kill the whole point of, the love of, the magic of live theatre if I’m not living in the moment I’m creating? “Focus on your breathing and trust that you know your lines.” YES. So good! So true! I SO taught that in Performance 101 when my students asked me how to deal with stage fright. But the problem with stage fright like any other offshoot of anxiety is that you can’t rationalize it away. Of course I knew my lines earlier in the no-pressure situation where the audience consisted of my dog, but suddenly with tickets sold and lights and audiences the stakes were unmanageably high. And I was panicked.
This was doubly frustrating because as an almost 35 year old actress with an MFA and years of being onstage, I’ve only recently felt like I found myself as a performer. I’m in my body, I can drop into my voice, I am comfortable stepping out onto limbs in rehearsal that would previously paralyze me. In terms of confidence in my ability and what I can only describe as a settling into myself as an artist, I’m at a place where I always dreamed I’d be—literally and figuratively. So why can’t I calm down enough to enjoy it?
I don’t have the answers. As someone who’s always thought of pre-show jitters and nerves as a good thing—as energy and electricity and the key component to keeping the show a living, breathing, ever changing entity I’m now faced with the question of what to do when the nerves turn to anxiety and butterflies into demons. Since packing away acting I’ve been presented with two opportunities (isn’t that always how it works?!) that have been so fulfilling, rewarding and renewing that instead of running away, I want to break past this anxiety. So tell me, theatre world—who’s been there, who’s done that and what do I do to keep the butterflies from attacking?