Facing the Fear: Bella Merlin on overcoming stage fright

Stage fright afflicts many actors, and has the power to drive you away from the stage for months, years, or even a lifetime. In her new book, Facing the Fear: An Actor’s Guide to Overcoming Stage Fright, performer, author and teacher Bella Merlin shows you how to meet the challenge – or simply how to prepare yourself in case that day should ever come. Here she recalls her own experience of stage fright, and what it taught her about how to deal with it.

In 2004, I was smitten with an overwhelming bout of stage fright. It was very near the end of a five-month run of David Hare’s powerful verbatim play The Permanent Way, directed by Max Stafford-Clark for his company Out of Joint in collaboration with the National Theatre. I’ll let my production journal reveal the pride and fall:

 May 1st 2004: Last night at the National Theatre

The last night at the National and the end of something very special. I’ve never before felt so strongly that performing a play could be so important. The audiences have been incredible, with all kinds of eulogies – from critics, public, theatre professionals, stage-door staff and ushers. It has been extraordinary.

It’ll be good to get out of London, though. Not that I’ve been nervous, not that it’s ever worried me who’s in and what they might think. But who knows? – There might be a sense of ‘pressure off’ among us all, so that we can finish this long run with some playful fun.

May 5th: First night at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Courtyard Studio Theatre

What a nightmare!

Tonight I had every actor’s worst possible scenario. I get midway through a sentence – and my brain shuts down. All those thoughts I’d had about being out of London – the pressure off and the fun on – couldn’t have been further from the truth. Earlier in the day during the tech rehearsal, my fellow actor Matthew Dunster looked out into the auditorium of the intimate Courtyard Theatre, where the front row is barely a foot from the stage. ‘God, they’re close!’ he said. ‘This is scary!’ I didn’t think anything of it at the time, apart from being surprised that any of us should find anything scary so far into the run.

Then – during the show – I walk to the front of the stage in the role of the Investment Banker and, as always during this moment, I address a member of the audience. ‘Well, I don’t know about you, but I can only work when I feel the hot breath of a competitor down my neck.’ Well, that’s what I’m supposed to say…

Instead, I manage to say, ‘Well, I don’t know about you…’ but then, as I look at this man on the fourth row, I can see the whites of his eyes. ‘Wow!’ I think. ‘You really are close, aren’t you?’ And at that moment, any connection to the play is cut in my brain. I have no idea what I’m supposed to say next.

Strangely, I don’t get the mad pumping of adrenalin that I’ve had in the past when I’ve momentarily tripped over a word. No heart pounding, no instant sense of fight or flight. Just a feeling of floating away… Into oblivion… As if I’m in a dream and nothing really matters… In this fleeting moment, it doesn’t matter that I’m eyeballing a total stranger and saying whatever nonsensical words come out of my mouth. It doesn’t matter that Max Stafford-Clark and Ian Brown (Artistic Director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse) are watching, and his casting director, and a full house of audience from Leeds. It’s just me and this kind of floating-away feeling.

The moment maybe lasts a split second, yet it seems like a thousand years. Somehow I retrieve the next line and manage to get to the end of the scene seemingly in control. But all the time, I just want to slip into this strange kind of fainting place. I get off stage feeling totally, utterly spaced out.

And then it hits. The shakes and the palpitations kick in. It’s as if my legs from pelvis to knee don’t exist – it’s just thin air. My peripheries have vanished. I can’t feel my hands. Maybe I’d experienced some kind of ‘connection overload’ out there. What I mean is that in the National’s Lyttelton Theatre, I hadn’t really been able to see the eyes of the person whom I’d picked out in the audience for the Investment Banker’s ‘hot breath of a competitor’ line. Here, however, the guy on the fourth row was as clear as daylight. And he was looking straight back at me. There was a true connection, and maybe the electrical currents of that connection overloaded my brain, giving me a moment of meltdown. Who knows? Whatever…

 Bella Merlin performing in The Permanent Way by David Hare (photo by Geraint Lewis)

Bella Merlin performing in The Permanent Way by David Hare (photo by Geraint Lewis)

May 12th: First night at the Oxford Playhouse

I’m just so glad to be back in a bigger space. You’d think this verbatim play would be perfectly designed for intimate studio spaces, but I’m so much happier now that we’re back in the big theatre of the Oxford Playhouse. Apart from anything else, I can’t see the audience!

May 14th: Third night at the Oxford Playhouse

I don’t believe it!

It’s the last time Sir David Hare is going to see the play and I do it again! I fuck up! I’m shocked and appalled at myself. This time it was a stupid fluff, and again as the Investment Banker. What is it with that character? She’s supposed to be calm and confident. Instead of saying, ‘In fact, you can hardly get out of the country without using something I’ve had my finger in,’ I say, ‘In fact, you can hardly get your finger… out of… something I’ve had my finger in…!’ In that split second, my brain does a million somersaults as I strain to bring everything back to the present tense. But what a load of bollocks came out of my mouth! And I know what Sir David is like! I know he won’t let me off the hook!

Sure enough, he’s backstage after the show in the middle of a conversation – and suddenly he sees me. ‘And as for you!’ he booms down the corridor. ‘Oh, no – could you tell?’ I wince. ‘Of course I could tell! It was a load of rubbish!…’ And off we all troop into the Yorkshire night. And the knight goes off to the station to catch the last train back to London. And yes, yes – I’ll never work in British theatre again…!

My stage fright grew worse in the final two weeks of the run. I came down with chronic laryngitis and could barely be heard. It was as if my body didn’t want me to go out onto the stage and into the spotlight any more, but, with no understudies, I had no choice.

As it turned out, I wasn’t alone in feeling performance anxiety so very late in this long run, and little by little some of the other actors spoke of how uneasy they were feeling. It was then I began to realise that sharing our fear-based stories brings with it a kind of talking cure.

The talking cure

It takes courage to be an actor. It takes even greater courage to admit how terrifying it can be. Yet the very act of admitting it can be transformative. Describing the actor as An Acrobat of the Heart, the writer, director and acting teacher Stephen Wangh writes, ‘It takes real courage to say, “I am afraid”, so in the act of naming it you are already converting the fear into usable energy.’ Certainly sharing my ‘shameful’ secret with some of my fellow actors was an important part of dealing with the situation. That said, not all of them wanted to talk about their experiences. And it’s true that the small amount of literature that exists about stage fright tends to stem from psychologists and theatre scholars, rather than the actors themselves. There’s something of a conspiracy of silence. Which isn’t surprising. We all know that stage fright is an irrational fear. After all, the audience and the performance situation can’t (usually) harm us. So the damaging force has to be our own inner messages. In fact, all too easily stage fright can feel like some sort of mental illness, or what German scholar Adolph Kielblock (back in the 1890s) called, ‘the result of a morbid state of the imagination’. That’s almost the scariest part of the fear: we’re doing it to ourselves. And if we’re not careful, we start perpetuating our own downfall. Our morbid imagination conjures up all sorts of catastrophic conclusions that wholly outweigh any rational assessment of the situation – like ‘I’ll never work in British theatre again…!’

Facing-the-Fear-big-700x455

‘It takes real courage to say, “I am afraid”’ – Stephen Wangh

The thing is that, whether we realise it or not, we’re going to talk about our stage fright anyway. If we’re not going to talk about it out loud to others, we’re going to find ourselves talking about it over and over and over in our heads. In fact, there aren’t many healthy options when it comes to dealing with stressful situations. Sometimes we pretend they don’t bother us. Sometimes we try to avoid them. Yet both of these strategies (according to writer Taylor Clark) ‘are destined to fail’. Clark suggests that if we try to control our emotions or we try to avoid the stressful situation, we actually keep our fears alive – because then a significant part of our thoughts is taken up with worrying about how we’re going to avoid it. It’s a downward spiral. Worrying may have the short-term pay-off of making us less afraid, but in the long term it traps us in a cycle of anxiety. This cycle of anxiety is perpetuated by the fact that the voice in our head (‘the Fear Voice,’ as sports psychologist Don Green calls it) doesn’t just talk – it literally poisons us. It leads our brain to create more stress chemicals such as cortisol. And these stress chemicals increase our physical state of alarm – and so the situation simply grows worse. Our inner Fear Voice is chemically – as well as psychologically – unhealthy. So we might as well talk about our stage fright out loud!

Yes, indeed, talking about our anxieties has been scientifically proven to help. It’s known in psychology as ‘flooding therapy’. Every time we confront, describe and relive our thoughts about a negative experience, we find that ‘the very act of disclosure lessens these thoughts’. So by putting our feelings into words, we actually change how our brain deals with the stressful information. (Not least because we’re producing less cortisol.) It’s also known as ‘mindful noting’. And the very act of translating our stressful feelings into words (or mindfully noting them) is almost more therapeutic than understanding them. As we try to put the chaos of our feelings into logical sentences, we find ourselves unpicking that chaos, like knots in a string. And then we can be more objective about what we’re feeling, whether or not we actually understand it. (‘I feel afraid – though I’ve no idea why – but at least I feel better for naming it “fear”.’)

Of course, it’s very difficult for us as actors to confess that we’re experiencing anything that might in any way impede our work as professionals. Jobs are hard enough to come by without directors or casting directors getting a whiff that we might be afraid of what we do. Yet if we don’t talk about it, our Fear Voice keeps us alone with our fear, and coping with a fear alone can be difficult and distressing. As biophysicist Stefan Klein puts it: ‘Loneliness is a burden for spirit and body. Getting support is normally one of the best ways of dealing with stress.’ So rather than churning our anxieties over in our heads, we should share our fears out loud. That way, we can change our damaging inner monologue and, thus, reduce our stress hormones. This is pretty important for us as actors, as stress hormones do two unhelpful things. They undermine our immune system (and no actor can afford to be ill) and they affect our memory (and absolutely no actor can afford to lose their memory!). As I explore in my book, Facing the Fear, loss of memory and stage fright are intricately interwoven. So talking about our fear might actually improve our memory, which in turn will reduce our stage fright. Seems like a no-brainer to me!

It’s important to remember that many actors never suffer bad stage fright. Most of us experience a lively adrenalin buzz – and that’s perfectly normal, if not actually rather helpful. The point of Facing the Fear is to dispel the unhelpful nerves. If you’ve never suffered from stage fright, reading the book is a chance for you to get to know what your fellow actors might be going through. And there’s no need to worry that by knowing all the ins and outs of stage fright, you’re somehow going to provoke it. In fact, the opposite is true. A certain performance buzz can be a benefit to any actor. Not only that, but, if you read my book, you’ll see that any unnecessary stage fright can ultimately be overcome. In fact, the monster is rather funny when you look it in the eye. It need be no more frightening than Shrek!


FormattedThe above is an edited extract from Facing the Fear: An Actor’s Guide to Overcoming Stage Fright by Bella Merlin, published by Nick Hern Books

To buy your copy for £10.39 (RRP £12.99) plus P&P, visit the Nick Hern Books website here.

Bella Merlin discusses her book in a National Theatre Platform on 7 June 2016 at 5.30pm. For more information, and to book tickets, visit the National Theatre website here.

Author photo by The Riker Brothers.

Birth of the ‘Rules’ by Andy Nyman

Andy Nyman

illustration © Jemima Williams

Andy Nyman’s The Golden Rules of Acting offers real-world advice on how to be an actor – written by a working actor with over 25 years’ experience. In irresistible pocket-sized paperback, packed with short, punchy bulletpoints and illustrated in colour throughout – it certainly gets the message across in a totally memorable way. In the words of actor and comedian Simon Pegg: ‘Christians have the bible, now actors have this book. At last, everyone is happy.’ Here, Andy – currently starring in Abigail’s Party in the West End – explains why he had to write the book.

I’ve wanted to be an actor ever since I was a boy.

That feeling was confirmed for me when my Dad took me to see Jaws at the cinema. I was 13 and the experience of that film shook me and awakened me to a couple of key facts:

  • Films aren’t just for watching; when they are great they can be a visceral experience. The jolts I suffered that day shaped a taste for dark material that has stayed with me throughout my career.
  • Seeing Richard Dreyfuss up there on the big screen allowed me to dream in a whole new way. As a stocky, glasses wearing, curly haired Jewish teenager, I was looking up at a stocky, glasses wearing, curly haired Jewish actor playing one of the leads in the most exciting movie experience I had ever had. Could this be true? Did this mean that if you weren’t a tall, thin, impossibly beautiful man you could still play leads in films? My world changed.

I pursued every acting opportunity I could. Amateur dramatics at Leicester’s excellent Little Theatre, drama classes with the teacher my brilliant Mum found, then off to do Drama A-level at Melton Mowbray college before getting into the Guildhall School of Music & Drama to do the 3-year acting course.

In the 30 years since doing those amateur shows my enthusiasm for acting has never waned, not once. I think I am blessed with a genetic make-up that means my default outlook is positive; I love what I do so much that the very pursuit of it keeps me excited.

My passion for acting borders on obsession. From the very earliest days I wanted to know what an actor’s life was like. I bought every book on acting I could lay my hands on. But something struck me as I read them. Whilst there was an abundance of material on how to act, how to create a character, the different schools of thought on methodology, styles of performance etc etc etc, I couldn’t find anything on what I really wanted to know: what was it like to actually be an actor? How did one survive in the business? How did one sustain a career?

When I finished drama school and entered the business there was still nothing that represented a real handbook of advice on actually existing as an actor – and I craved one. It suddenly felt more important than ever. I was now in the business and I wanted something that would hold my hand, guide me and tell me some of the potential traps that lay ahead and how to avoid them.The Golden Rules of Acting

The desire for that book never subsided, and over the ensuing years it simmered away in the back of my mind. In 2006 I jotted down a few thoughts I had on acting. I have always been inspired by books of quotes and often carry a pocket-sized book of quotes with me. I scribbled some bullet points down on the inside front cover of the quote book I had with me – it felt like a sensible place for them as I looked at the book so frequently. After a few days a couple more thoughts occurred to me and I noted them down in the same place.

I soon found that the act of noting these thoughts down had become habitual. Within a week I had started jotting down thoughts on a regular basis. Instead of using the inside cover of the pocket book, I now carried a pad and added new ones as they popped into my head. As I noted them down I began to recognise in them some of the important lessons I had learned about surviving as an actor.

Over the next 5 years I jotted, scribbled and noted thoughts as they came to me. I tried to write in the shortest, most pragmatic way I could. I didn’t want to be flowery, I wanted to cut to the heart of what I wanted to say. I kept being as honest as I could with myself – after all, why lie? It’s better to be aware of the truth and find inspiration in that than limit yourself with half-truths. This was always a personal project for me, a way of reminding myself of what mattered to me about the acting business.

I have a love of quirky design and images and realised that it would help if I could find images to accompany my ideas. I knew that the right image or design could really help me remember the point I was making; it somehow ‘anchored’ it in my mind. I also added into the mix many of the quotes that inspire me. The feeling that someone else had been there before me and done it – or even been there and failed – was a real comfort. I began to think of each point as a Golden Rule for me – something to abide by, something that I needed to remember and consider.

Once I had assembled my Golden Rules I carried them around with me, in the way I had my books of quotes. This served several purposes: not only did I enjoy reading them as entertainment, I found them useful in different situations – be that an audition or a rehearsal. Most importantly they reminded me that I was an actor, I was living the life that I had always dreamt of. This was something special, something to always protect and cherish.

When I started talking to Nick Hern about publishing the book I knew that I wanted to do something different with it. I wanted it to feel like the pieces of paper I carried around with me, full of odd images, scribbles and, hopefully, inspiring thoughts. I wanted it to be affordable and real-world, something that could act as an honest friend who has been through it, who understands and always tells it like it is.

I’m so excited that The Golden Rules of Acting is being published. To think that this could help and inspire working actors, drama students or simply those who want an insight into the challenges of an actor’s life is tremendously exciting.

I hope that the book will be something that can live in your bag or pocket, go with you to auditions, rehearsal rooms, sets and locations, or simply be there for you whenever you need it, like the best kind of friend, sharing your fears and your dreams. It’s the book I always wanted and could never get. Enjoy.

Golden Rules of Acting - magnets

A ‘Golden Rules’ magnet anyone?

NHB are thrilled to publish Andy Nyman’s The Golden Rules of Acting. To order your copy with 20% off (a steal at £4.79) click here – no voucher code required.

We have a small stack of Golden Rules magnets up for grabs – in fact, only 13 exist in the world! To win one, just add your own ‘Golden Rule’ at the bottom of this blog post (as a ‘comment’). The first 13 rules added win a magnet, it’s as simple as that. But make sure to also email info@nickhernbooks.co.uk with your full address.

In need of inspiration? Check out the @GoldenRulesBook twitter feed to read some fantastic rules that have already been shared.