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Managing Student Stage Fright

A Thespian dealing with stage fright peeking from behind the curtain

It’s 10 minutes to curtain, your lead actor looks green, and you’re not performing Wicked. Yep, it’s an attack of stage fright, also known as performance anxiety, and as a theatre educator, knowing how to handle it is key.

While stage fright may be difficult to experience, the struggles are real and not a sign that a student shouldn’t perform. But knowing how to help in the moment and guide your students’ development of coping skills to self-regulate is an essential part of running a theatre program.

So let’s explore common causes, symptoms, and tips educators can implement to help their students prepare.

Stage Fright Causes & Symptoms

Even the most seasoned performers experience stage fright. Barbara Streisand has forgotten song lyrics in a Central Park concert, Octavia Spencer prefers movies over live shows, and even Taylor Swift admits to using positive self-talk before performances.

In simple terms, stage fright is a form of anxiety that occurs when our brains and bodies believe we’re in danger. It’s the human body’s response to perceived threats that has evolved over millennia. And while no woolly mammoth is chasing us today, the early cave dweller in us feels that going on stage may be dangerous. The anxiety attack gets our attention, forcing us to decide whether to fight, flee, or freeze.

Some of the physical symptoms of stage fright include:

  • Racing pulse and rapid breathing
  • Dry mouth and tight throat
  • Trembling hands, knees, lips, and voice
  • Sweaty and cold hands
  • Nausea and an uneasy feeling in the stomach
  • Tunnel vision

Helping Your Students Banish Stage Fright

Developing strong pre-performance routines is a solid way to help ward off stage fright. Although it can’t cure it entirely, the “muscle memory” of a solid centering ritual helps performers avoid doing what Adele is said to have done—use a fire escape in a bout of stage fright to avoid performing.

“Outside of diagnosed mental illness (which should be treated by a mental health professional), I find two major reasons why students develop performance anxiety,” says Zach Schneider, Troupe Director at Natrona County High School in Casper, WY. “One is a lack of preparation, while the other is the desire to do well and avoid mistakes. Oddly enough, solving the former often helps alleviate the latter.”

And while you can always look out for the signs of performance anxiety, like facial expressions and body language, it’s important to acknowledge your students’ feelings. “Telling a student ‘It’s going to be OK,’ or ‘It’s not that big a deal,’ are not helpful words,” he says. “Anxiety is not a logical response. Anxiety is tens of thousands of years of evolution you’re battling, and it doesn’t stop because someone told us to calm down.”

3 Strategies to Combat Performance Stress

Two students sitting cross-legged practicing meditation to avoid stage fright

Part of the journey to overcoming stage fright is finding a method that works for you and your students. As you prepare for your next show, consider the following:

  1. Preparation is key. Even 30 minutes of prep, like running lines, practicing an instrument, or rehearsing a solo, helps develop sense memories that can kick in during moments of panic. This doesn’t mean you, the troupe leader, need to hold a daily organized rehearsal. Instead, encourage students to set a daily reminder and timer on their phones to practice. Suggest they run lines on video chat with a friend. Or sing that solo for their adults at home (who may be thrilled the student wants to hang out with them for a bit).
  2. Use positive self-talk. Everyone has an inner voice that seems to want to be in charge. And negativity bias is a powerful force to be reckoned with. In layman’s terms, negativity bias is the human way of focusing more on perceived threats over good situations. By practicing positive self-talk, students remind themselves they are prepared, they have successfully performed many times before and they will do so again.
  3. Practice meditation. The power of our minds is profound, and the practice of meditation helps harness that power for good. The Mayo Clinic has a full explanation of meditation, but two practices that can be easily implemented into rehearsal schedules include guided meditation (perfect for practicing creativity) and yoga (great for getting loose before practice).

Please note meditation isn’t a replacement for traditional medical treatment for anxiety that persists beyond moments of stage fright. Seek trained medical help if your experiences are persistent.

If you want more than just these three ideas to manage stage fright, check out this article over on Dramatics.org, it’s packed with 29 more suggestions.

Stage Fright Can be Managed

There are many ways to deal with stage fright. Help your students (or yourself!) by experimenting. “I’ve used breathing exercises. For example, breathe deep on a four-count, hold for an eight-count, and exhale on a seven-count,” says Schneider. “Or try redirection of thoughts based on focusing on the environment. That is: Find five blue things, four smooth things, three round things, two letters, and one word.”

However, the most important thing is to recognize that stage fright is normal and your Thespians aren’t alone. Just the process of talking about stage fright, its components, and shared commonalities may help students accept the situation and find the solutions that work to help them.

Patty Craft is a regular contributor to the Educational Theatre Association.

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