For some people, improv is the scariest thing they can imagine. There is literally something called the ‘actor’s nightmare’ where the dream entails being shoved in front of an audience without knowing your lines or what on earth you are doing in this show. Welcome to improv.
Of course, improvisers don’t come to the stage unprepared; we have loads of skills, training and other performers to help us through, but for some, the actor’s nightmare still resonates.
I am certainly no stranger to stage fright and nerves. I first got stage fright at the age of eight when my school play won a huge national competition and we played in a massive London theatre. I was so excited to perform, but when the curtains opened I had no memory of the speech I should have been doing about Guy Fawkes. My body was frozen and I stood there for what seemed like forever. The spell eventually broke and I hobbled through my speech, finally freeing up and remembering the rest of the show.
Over the years I’ve had some heart-stoppingly scary gigs like News Revue and the Treason Show where we performed topical sketches and songs that were sometimes written on the same day. Backstage before my first News Revue we all kept rushing to the toilet and agreed that it would be better to die than go on stage. We lamented being performers and not listening to our parents’ advice about having a ‘proper’ job. Of course, the show was excellent and every other night – though not easy – was ridiculous fun. The best.
Here, then is a list of thoughts and techniques that I pass onto my students when they are about to go on stage; especially when they are new to performing, or trying out something different for the first time.
Nerves Aren’t All Bad
If you get nervous, it’s not a bad thing. Sure, it can feel horrible, but adrenaline helps you focus. You’ll be able to listen better and make decisions more quickly.
The Higher the High
You get nervous? Lucky you. That means you get a real high afterwards. It’s nice for the calm ones, but they don’t get such a big pay-off.
Rebrand ‘Nerves’ to ‘Excitement’
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Hypnosis have excellent techniques for dealing with fear and anxiety. I recently had my arachnophobia cured by Creature Courage and a lot of the tools are totally transferable. I really think I’ve managed this rebrand over the years. Not every time, but mostly I get a kick out of the scary stuff and I want to push forward into it, not run away.
By standing like Wonder Woman for two minutes, you increase the testosterone and lower the cortisol in your system so that you are more relaxed, braver and ready to take to the stage. See Amy Cuddy’s TED talk.
Warm Up Properly
Remember the first ten minutes of improv classes? That’s often the most sticky bit, the bit where everyone is a little uncomfortable and still in their day-to-day mind-set. If you don’t warm up before a show, you are performing in that awkward ten-minute headspace. Get to a place where you are ready to play!
Reach Out, Not In
Improv is a collaborative team game; if you’re nervous, remember to connect with your teammates. Eye contact and physical contact with your team before the show is invaluable; it’s a reminder that the show is all about them, not you. That’s where your inspiration will come from.
You’re probably trying to run imaginary scenes in your head for every eventuality that might come up on stage. If you’re nervous, I’d recommend doing less, not more. If you’ve warmed up and connected with your team, now is the time to have a little quiet for your brain; get receptive and open.
Water is going to help you function and you’ll get a dry mouth on stage if you’re really scared.
The times when I have been super scared before shows (like the Funny Women Final or my first Knightmare Live show) I could NOT eat food and that made me light-headed and even more scared. Have a massive lunch knowing that that’s probably your last meal for the day. Don’t eat right before you go on, you’ll be all sleepy and your comedy brain will be busy digesting.
Don’t Be Gross
Brush your teeth! Wear deodorant! You don’t want to be distracted by your own nervous sweats, or scared of getting up in someone’s face on stage for fear of halitosis.
Do It Regularly
Stick with performing and do it regularly, because I promise it will get easier. If you don’t go running for a few weeks, the first run back is harder. Improv is a muscle and it will atrophy if you don’t practice.
It’s Not a Big Deal
We practice failing in improv all of the time; it’s kind of our superpower. If something does go wrong; you fall over when you walk on, you get a name wrong, you miss someone else already making your joke; it doesn’t matter. Your team will make anything you do look good; they will all fall over, they will justify both names, they will repeat the joke a third time. Failure is funny. Embrace it as your muse.
We’re All Going to Die Anyway
So you’re still scared? How long are you going to be on stage? Fifteen minutes, an hour? In the grand scheme of things, that is such a tiny part of your long life that it can’t really matter. So what if it is the worst gig you have ever done? So what if you make a tit of yourself? It’s over in the blink of an eye. Get back on the horse. Your glorious, wonderful best show ever will also be over in no time. Enjoy the shit out of both.
That pint on the other side of a scary show looks to me like Indiana Jones treasure. What is a good reward you can promise yourself?
Break a leg and I’ll see you on the beerside.
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Katy Schutte is a London-based improviser who teaches improv classes in London, Europe and the States. Katy performs with Project2, The Maydays and Destination. See her live show dates for upcoming shows.
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