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Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Dealing With Nerves

Palms are sweaty.
Knees weak.
Arms are heavy.
Something, something, something. (*)
Mom’s spaghetti.

Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” is a classic banger about a highly relevant issue: performing despite feeling nervous. It’s true, nerves can be incredibly debilitating. Trust me, I know! Showing up to my first ever workshop at The Improv Conspiracy (TIC) in late 2017, I did so many nervous wees beforehand I was almost late.

As an improviser, actor and acting coach, I am constantly surrounded by nerves: my own and those of others. I have learnt so much about performing under pressure and in doing so have helped many performers push through the nerves and book amazing acting jobs (despite them or I sweating profusely). Before every show I do at the TIC theatre, I still get butterflies. In this blog post I’d like to share with you how I deal with nerves, in the hopes it helps you enter your first improv workshop, or your upcoming audition with ease. 

Firstly, it’s important to remember that feeling nervous is a great sign that you care. Caring is good! Nerves and excitement result in the exact same physical response in our bodies, and since our brains respond to the words we use, the next time you’re thinking “I feel nervous” just adjust the phrase in your mind to “I feel excited”. Relabeling your negative nervousness as positive excitement will result in a much more pleasant experience.

Next, for the science stuff. Stick with me because this is really cool. I learnt the following concept from one of my acting mentors, Les Chantery. He explained to me the amygdala is a part of our brain that is responsible for assessing if situations are safe or not. Back in caveman times, the slightest danger could mean death – think lions, tigers, and bears! The amygdala literally saved our lives every day back then, but as it has no neuroplasticity (meaning it hasn’t evolved much since olden days) it still thinks anytime we feel uncomfortable we are in physical danger. Needing to wee, mouth drying up, sweating: these are all physical signs of your body trying to escape from danger; your brain is sending heaps of cortisol and adrenaline to help you deal with the “life-threatening” situation you’re in. 

However, as you’ve probably worked out by now, these symptoms do not help with the very non-life-threatening situation of an audition or your first improv class. We don’t need that much adrenaline! By identifying what is setting our amygdala off, we can calm it down and do our usual, relaxed, fabulous work.

The acronym to remember the four different amygdala triggers is TERA (pronounced similar to “terror”):

  • T is for Tribe: this means other peers make you feel nervous. When you see fellow classmates or auditions you may think, “Oh, they’re so good!” “That was really funny, what if I’m not as funny?” Comparative, debilitating thoughts. Now, remember the amygdala’s job is to keep us safe. So when you see a talented classmate, your brain interprets that as a physical threat to your life, which they aren’t. The fastest way to help your brain chill out is to actively scan the room for weapons. This sounds crazy, but it works. “See, brain? No knives in here, no guns, etc.” Once your brain knows there’s no way anyone in that theatre or classroom can physically harm you, it will calm the adrenaline and cortisol releases and you’ll be feeling less nervous in no time.
  • E is for Expectations: you want to know what to expect, and not knowing details makes you feel nervous. “Who will be there?” “What will the class be like?” “Who is on the audition panel?” These questions are actually symptomatic of your brain needing to know, again, if there is any physical threat in the theatre. Your brain needs to know there’s no lion (or tiger! Or bear!) at The Improv Conspiracy. So actively tell yourself “I am walking out the same way I’m walking in”. Your brain needs to know no matter how your scene work goes, no matter what exercise your teacher asks you to do, you’re exiting the room alive.
  • R is for Rank: feeling like the audition panel or workshop instructor is superior to you. While they do run the session or dictate if you’re placed on a house team or not, they cannot physically take your life. Remind your brain that the workshop is to provide you with value and the audition panel wants you there and to do well. No matter what the outcome is, no faculty member can physically harm you. By actively reminding yourself this, you will feel less nervous.
  • A is for Autonomy: feeling like you can’t speak up, when actually you always can. Unclear of what’s being asked of you? Ask. Need to go to the bathroom? Go. Need something clarified? Say so. You can ask for anything you like; the worst that can happen is someone says no. But your brain just needs to know that you can speak up. In fact, you could walk out of your audition or class midway, if you really wanted to. Once your brain knows you have the right to do as you please (within reason), it will calm right everything down and you’ll be able to focus more clearly.

Cool, huh? Your brain is always trying to protect you. You are not in any danger, in fact you may have already done the hardest part. You signed up to a class on improvisation. Most people will tell you that it sounds like the most terrifying thing you could do, but you were brave and took a leap of faith. And good thing you did – you’re about to laugh more than you ever have in three hours, meet some kickass people and hopefully become a great storyteller. While you may not ever stop feeling nervous, you will learn to function well with the nerves. 

And for those of you auditioning for TIC house teams? Remember auditioning is such a problematic system of evaluation. The entertainment industry hasn’t found a better way to deal with multiple applicants for few positions; so know that it’s dumb. Do your best to have fun for yourself. Joy and commitment often beat technically good improv, so make your primary focus to enjoy yourself, to make your scene partner shine, and to laugh freely at your talented teammates work while you watch them side stage. 

We’re all here because we love comedy. We love to laugh, and make others laugh. Everyone is out to have a good time. So remind yourself that the nerves will fade, and the laughter won’t. 

You’ll be great! Eminem told me so. 

(*) I obviously know the line I missed earlier is “Vomit on his sweater already” but I didn’t want to start this blog post talking about vomit. Yucky! So instead I’m ending with it. Cool, cool, cool.

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