Posted on 18 March 2014
One old saw has it that people are more frightened of public speaking than they are of dying. With comedy not only are you speaking in front of a room full of people, you have the added expectation that you will make them laugh. That’s serious pressure.
Everyone Gets Nervous
When I tell people I do comedy, the next question I’m asked is: don’t you get nervous? Of course I get nervous. Young performers seem to think that with time and experience, the nerves will go away. This just isn’t true.
Everyone in the live performance industry gets nervous. All eyes are on you and if you slip up, it won’t necessarily go un-noticed. Even crew members get nervous. Recently, I offered a friend a job as prop manager. In the end he disappeared. He was terrified of people’s judgement if he got things wrong. For people who have been treading the boards for decades, when they take an unintentional pratfall, they know some people will take great delight in pushing them off their high perch in the public eye.
These examples may not make you feel any better, but know you are in good company. Nerves are part of the territory and you will have to learn how to negotiate with them.
The first best way to calm some of your nerves is to simply practice your routine. Practice will distract you. In time it will help bolster your self-confidence. Knowing your material inside and out from practice will make it possible for you to perform on automatic pilot, even if your brain is screaming, “RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!”
You will need to practice in front of different (friendly) people and in different environments. The ability to perform your material in any environment in front of anyone will keep those elements from distracting you when you properly get on stage.
I would also suggest practicing confident body language. Practice holding your head straight, your shoulders back, and your feet firmly planted on the ground. Practice looking into people’s eyes and smiling. Practice a slow steady walk across stage. Practice clear, meaningful hand gestures. Then when you get in front of people, act as if you are confident. Your heart may be racing the Grand Prix, but your body should say you are one hoopy frood.
Certain attitudes toward performance will help immensely in keeping you focussed. To foster these attitudes I would suggest turning them into mantras and repeating them until they are burned into your subconscious.
“My audience is filled with friendly people.”
If you go out expecting people to be friendly, you will have more courage to treat them in a friendly manner and put them at ease. An at ease audience is always going to be simpler to deal with than an antagonistic one.
“I can only do my best. It’s okay if I make mistakes.”
A lot of the best comedy comes from mistakes. Comedy is all about human fallibility. When you feel free to expose yourself and allow yourself the vulnerability of making mistakes, you often win audiences over. Even if you do not, you have given yourself the space to learn something new. People who don’t take chances don’t learn anything, and consequently don’t become anything. Mistakes are part of the process. You will have to accept that and learn how to be forgiving of yourself.
“When it is my alotted time in front of the mic, I own that stage.”
Ban shyness and take control of the stage. Make your audience feel comfortable that you are in control and know what you are doing. You may be feeling anything else but…nevertheless pretend you are Brian Blessed, if you have to, and fill the room with your presence.
Here are a few practical things you can do to keep yourself from a melt down.
Before you open your mouth take a moment to breathe deeply. Feel air fill your chest such that your rib cage moves in and out. After each breath blow out any air you still have in your lungs, so that your breathing becomes complete. Do this a couple times. Shallow breathing will keep you nervous and make it hard to perform.
Put your feet shoulder width apart and solidly on the ground. Make sure you can feel the weight of both your heels and the balls of your feet connecting with the floor. You will be standing your ground, not running away. Prepare yourself with that feeling of steadiness.
Nervousness is just a form of energy. Instead of getting lost in that energy, focus it and use it to keep you sharp while you are performing. With all those fight or flight hormones pouring into your brain, your awareness will be made keener and you will be able to direct your energy to where it can be most effectively used. This is something of a skill. It’s why seasoned performers don’t even want to stop being nervous. You experience something of a bungee jumping high when you do this.
Understanding that being an artist is a process and not a destination will help you to accept all your experiences on stage. You need to be constantly learning, experiencing, and updating your skills. What was a total wreck one night can become your greatest triumph another. Find within yourself the humility, self awareness, and confidence to examine your own performance, determining what worked, what didn’t, and what you would like to explore more.
Whatever happens on stage is not the end of the world. But it can be the beginning of something wonderful.
Peace and kindness,