Be more confident, they yell, as if such a thing were possible at the flick of a switch. Few people ever respond with the question that really makes a difference; How? One starting point is the breath – a reliable root to stability and assuredness, that is easy to utilise, available to all and very very effective.
It’s no coincidence that breathing is the starting point for all meditation and mindfulness – both hugely important actor tools that have made their way into the mainstream. The history of this kind of practice and theatre from the far east has a long long history but even European and American actors have been using breathing techniques in this way since Konstantin Stanislavski recognised the power of yoga for training control and calm in the late 19th century. Breathing is a very special function as far as the human body is concerned as the lungs are an internal organ that operate automatically until we decide to take conscious control – try doing it with any of your other internal organs! Think about your breathing too long and you might suddenly find that you stop. The other special thing about breathing is that it signifies the beginning and end of life, marking it out in many cultures as what has been called the primum mobil – the prime mover or most important source of action. You can go without food for weeks, water and sleep for days but without breathing only for a few short minutes. This can be extended through training but the world record stands at 22 minutes and 22 seconds by Tom Sietas in 2012 – nowhere near the length of time we can do without other essential life sustaining operations. If you take control of your own breathing, you take control of your entire self. Whilst you retain the rhythm and speed of your breath you retain a grip on your situation and train yourself to getting used to operating your own body on a fundamental level. Try breathing in for a count of 10, holding it at the top for 10 seconds, and then slowly releasing for a count of 10. Repeat this and practice getting your timing right to really grasp your own reigns. Be aware of tension. Some people tend to tighten their shoulders and pull in their stomach muscles which isn’t going to help the process at all. Shoulders down, not up around the ears and stomach relaxes and responds, it doesn’t force. Try other counts when you feel comfortable with the relaxation part – 5,15, 25, even just 1. The other thing that you can control is the shape of your lungs as they expand. This is important because the ribcage, spine and other organs can restrict the amount of air that you take in. In yoga classes, including those employed by actors, you’re told to diaphragm breathe – to push the air downwards towards your stomach so that it inflates. Practice this kind of breathing and use your nose, rather than mouth, for good control. This will also act as a temperature control and filter.
One you’ve mastered good breathing technique you can start to bring it out when you most need it: those moments when you’re anxious, scared or worried. One of the primary responses that breath has is a rapid change to rhythm if required. This is most visible in a change of emotional state so can be used to assess the feelings of others. Part of that response pattern is to become shallow and fast when anxiety or fear strikes so it’s this we must tackle. For some people this is an annoyance, preventing them from peak performance, for others it’s a debilitating life-long illness that prevents them from living a normal life. For most of us, being in between these poles, it’s something that we can at least help to crush with what’s known as an anchor. If you practice your breathing exercises in a quiet, relaxed state then your body starts to associate the action with that serenity. Your brain will stop producing cortisone (stress hormone) and your thoughts will slow down, often preventing frantic imaginings of grim futures or what could go wrong at any moment. Actors experience this in “the wings”, the space at the side of the stage where they wait to make their entrance. Some actors such as Laurence Olivier, Michael Gambon, Benedict Cumberbatch and Stephen Fry have suffered terribly with this, though almost all performers experience it at some stage. Fry, known for his roles on TV in A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Blackadder and QI once got stage fright so badly before a run in London with his friend and colleague Rik Mayall, that he simply disappeared, the only trace a message on an answerphone saying I’m sorry, I’m so very sorry. He turned up days later after a suicide attempt and didn’t return to live theatre for 17 years. True that this is an extreme case and Fry has openly talked about his many mental health difficulties, but it remains a very real danger for the most confident of performers. Jim Morrison, lead singer of the Doors and archetypal rock star spent his first few gigs with his back to the audience, too frightened to turn around, and he became one of the most confident and strutting stars that ever lived. The go-to way out for many stage performers is to concentrate on the breath, anchor themselves to that calm feeling developed in quiet time and let the thoughts that are plaguing them drop away. Now it’s your turn to try. Don’t force the bad thoughts out, keep concentrating on the breath as you watch them go by. Eventually they will go, or at least quieten down, and you can make your grand entrance.
Breathe to Reflect
It’s very easy to assume for an actor, as it is for everyone, that you are the only one experiencing the gnawing sensation of doubt, the impending doom, the rush of blood and shaking terror, but the truth about human psychology is that anyone who experiences absolutely no measure of nerves, fright or anxiety has a brain that very much resembles that of a psychopath. When we pause to breathe we can let our thoughts extend outside of our own anxieties and start to reflect on the feelings of others. When an actor forgets their lines onstage, the audience are probably more embarrassed than the actor, but the actor wouldn’t know it, so caught up are they in their own crisis. If you are afraid of walking into the party, then think about everyone that’s there already all having been through the same entrance trauma. You are NOT alone in experiencing the nerves and you can cross the same threshold they did.