How to Be Vulnerable Onstage without Losing Your Shit Completely
One of the things that I look for, and what I think makes live performing arts so thrilling, is the element of risk. I want to see some daring involved. Someone taking some chances, whether it is an aspect of the work that is improvised or the performer being emotionally open with the audience. Risk. It is one of the things that sports has us beat on. That's why you can go to a baseball game on a Tuesday afternoon and see ten thousand people in the "audience." There is so much risk and no one knows how it is going to turn out. Risk is compelling. In order to give a viscerally igniting performance there has to be an element of risk, or vulnerability - the person performing has to be allowing pieces of their authentic selves to show up. The best artists can balance persona with authenticity: they understand that in order to capture the audience you have to weave together theatrically with true humanity.
Unfortunately, the fear that often crops up among performers is that if they become too vulnerable or real then they might lose themselves, or lose control - I've counseled artists who were afraid of crying onstage - but more often the anxiety manifests itself more subtly in things like tight movements, inexpressive faces, or well-executed, but non-moving performances. Audiences are smart. And they can feel when the person onstage has a tight grip on what's going on. They aren't as moved if the performer isn't moved - resulting in performances that might be good, just not great.
Over years of observing performers as well as putting myself in the hot seat onstage, I've determined some useful tools performing artists can use in order to allow for authenticity, while at the same time, soothing their anxiety about it.
Use Movement to Evoke Emotions
not the other way around
There are many ways up the mountain, so to speak, to creating and performing art, but in order to clearly illustrate my point, let's simplify and talk about only two approaches: You can either feel an emotion and then move from the emotion, or you can begin with the movement, using different movements to elicit an emotional response (using variation of speed, texture, levels, specificity, timing, etc.) Both approaches are valid and work well in different situations, but for purposes of allieviating your anxiety about "being vulnerable" - it would do you well to approach what you are doing by focusing your thought and interest on your movements first - and then allow your emotions to arise and unfold from there.
The body is a powerful messenger to the brain. Do something with your body, and your emotions will fall into line. This can be understood easily by simply smiling, or frowning. Try crying artificially: scrunch up your face in a grimace, slope your shoulders forward, make some heaving crying sounds, and it doesn't take too long until you actually start to feel sad and really cry. Now lift your shoulders up and back, relax your face, take a deep breath, tilt your chin upwards and let the corners of your lips lift in a smile. Don't you feel better? It is helpful to know that your body can elicit an emotional response. Once you understand this you can manipulate your emotions through movement of your body.
If you choose the other approach, to focus on some story or image in your head - especially if it pertains to a memory of an actual personal event- in order to elicit an emotional response before the movement, then your body can flip into a "flight or fight" mode and your instinct could be to freeze up and stop moving altogether. It depends on what emotional response you are working with in your piece, but if you are anxious about losing the ability to move, then start with the moving, not the memory.
Look for the Eyes
Look for the eyes of your audience members. Are you lucky enough to be onstage with someone else? Great. Look into their eyes. It is so simple but effective. There is something truly grounding about connecting to another human being. This is probably more powerful than everything else I have to say in this article and yet about it I will say the least. Just start trying it out everywhere, in art and life, and report back to me about what you find. Do it in grocery stores, do it with your co-workers, look deeply into the eyes of your children, spouse, friends. My favorite actor, Amy Poehler, says it best in her Harvard commencement speech*: "If you are scared, look into your partner's eyes. You'll feel better."
Learn to Move from General to Specific
and back to General again
Start working with the tool of going from general ideas to specific ideas and then back again to general ideas. It works like this: the more specific in details you get, the more intense the emotions; but the more general your thoughts, the more you slow down energetic momentum. [Note to dancers: I think the same can be said for movements of the body: the more specific the movement, the more intense and emotional; the more general the movement, the less intense. It is more complex than that really, but it needs it's own article to dig into].
If you want to really tug on your emotions then get specific about the details of what you've created for yourself. Actors know this. Good actors like to prepare themselves for their work by creating a whole world of details about their character's life and thoughts. Sometimes they will even journal as though they are that character. Andrew Utter of Mother of Invention Acting School in L. A. calls this the "lonely work" of acting. What this does is it gives actors a whole host of details to draw from when they are becoming that character onstage. The minutiae makes it "real" to them so they can live the part, as opposed to "acting" the part.
Specificity is a great tool to dig in. But it also works the other way around. If you are performing and feel yourself getting strung too deeply into a dark role, you can always back away by allowing your thoughts to be more general and thus slow down the intensity. With practice you can do this without sacrificing the authenticity.
Wait Until the Last Moment to Get "Into It"
I recently watched an interview with actor, Angelina Jolie, on Inside The Actors Studio*, in which she describes this lesson so perfectly. She says that if she had a really emotional scene to shoot that day she would wake up and immediately start thinking about it, thus affecting the way that she treated those around her, making her feel pulled in two directions as she navigated between having her head in the scene, but at the same time wanting to be able to function with others. She said that by the time it was time to shoot the scene she would have a headache from all the mental gymastics she was putting herself through. Finally she learned that it was much better for her if she made sure she had a really good day and left the mental preparation for the fifteen minutes beforehand.
This is a good lesson for all performers. Don't exhaust yourself mentally ahead of time. Imagining the performance is an important tool which I would not dissuade anyone from, and yet, there is something to preparing and then giving yourself a rest. Letting it breathe, letting it go, and having the best day with others trusting that you'll give yourself a few really pertinent moments to "get in the zone" before you actually go onstage. If you've taken yourself there in practice, if you've put in your rehearsal time, then it is best to leave your emotional resources for the final few moments before stage time.
Lose Your Shit and See What Happens
Do the thing you're afraid of. Take advantage of small audiences, low-pressure performances, classes where the vibe is comfortable, rehearsal time etc. If you can push yourself beyond your limits a little more in these spaces, when others aren't watching or the pressure is low, then you'll be able to experience whatever it is your afraid of. Maybe you will cry, fall, look wonderfully ghastly with snot dripping off your face, but you'll have the opportunity to take the zing out of the fear. You may discover it isn't so scary after all.
Lean In Harder
That's right. Throw yourself into it head first. It seems counter-intuitive to what you might want to do when you scared, but that is just the point. You can't be scared and committed at the same time. For the longest time I thought that I had the fear of being vulnerable onstage, but I've come to realize that it isn't the vulnerability which frightens me at all. It's the going halfway that horrifies me. I'm afraid of the mediocrity that happens onstage when I want to be doing something emotionally poignant, but I'm not able to pull it off. True emotional vulnerability onstage is riveting. Take a step back, shrink from it in any way, and it melts into tepid melodrama and self-judgement. Audiences are smart - they feel the difference. There is no way around it, no tool to fix it, no mask to wear - authenticity is simply commitment. Commitment to the movement in front of you. To the story you are telling. Commitment to being right here right now.
Ultimately, your vulnerable authentic self is all there is to see. This article is meant to give you tools to soothe your anxiety, but the idea that you have control is a bit of an illusion. Once you get up onstage it is all about trusting yourself fully. If you are lucky you might actually fall all the way in and really "lose" yourself to something bigger. If you're lucky.