Guest Blog: Coming to terms with my niche form of stage fright
In the latest of our guest blog pieces, actress and writer Izzie Price reveals how she came to terms with a very particular kind of anxiety
Back in 2015, I was playing Anna in a university production of Harold Pinter's Old Times. I was positioned onstage as the audience came in and took their seats, 'looking out of the window' (facing the back wall). I'd willingly agreed to this as I knew it would make a great opening vignette, a striking visual image for the audience as soon as they entered the performance space.
What I hadn't considered was that I'd be spending those terrifying 30 minutes between 7pm and 7.30pm alone with my thoughts. It was only when I was actually standing there, full of my usual stage fright but this time unable to move or talk to anyone, that my brain introduced a terrifying new thought: 'What if I open my mouth and don't actually say my line? What if I say something totally different?'
I know this sounds ridiculous. It sounds like a thought easily dismissed; something to laugh about in the dressing room afterwards. But for some reason, I couldn't dismiss it. The thought stayed with me when I eventually turned round and delivered my first line. It stayed with me throughout the play and every time I got a laugh, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief that I was sticking to the script, that I hadn't - yet - gone off-piste.
It stayed with me into my remaining university shows and through an Edinburgh Fringe show later that year, no matter how much I tried to ignore it. Sometimes the thought was stronger - when I was in a show with lengthy speeches, for example - and sometimes it was barely there; it wasn't as bad when I was doing scenes with pacy, quickfire dialogue. But it was always present, casting an ugly shadow over one of the greatest joys of my life.
"My brain had simply invented something for me to fret over"
I still don't know what originally brought it on; why - of all the scary thoughts it could have conjured - my brain chose that bizarre, absurd fear over all the others. The director of Old Times put forward an explanation that rang true. She suggested that when your brain knows there's nothing to worry about, it will invent something, just so that you have something to fret over. And it's true that on that show, I had no actual concerns. I was confident in the knowledge that a) It was a brilliant show, b) We were all word-perfect and c) There were no complicated prop manoeuvres to pull off.
In the absence of any of these usual worries ('What if the show's not good?'/'What if people don't like it?'/'What if I/we forget my/our lines?'/'What if the [eg] blood pack doesn't work?'), my brain had simply invented something for me to obsess and fret over.
Is this a form of stage fright? I suppose it is, in that it's a fear associated with the stage and with performing in front of others. But it's a niche form of stage fright. I'm never nervous about the reality of actually being on stage in front of people, I'm never afraid of forgetting my lines and I always have faith in the show I'm doing (otherwise I wouldn't be doing it!).
It's not a fear that's easy to discuss. It's not your regular stage fright that all actors have experienced at some point, and that everyone can understand and relate to. And for this reason, I've barely articulated it to anyone. When I do try to articulate it, I don't phrase it correctly - I don't think I've even expressed it properly here, although I think the above outline is about as close as I can come to describing it.
The reason I'm writing about this here is because I suffer from generalised anxiety and I have been so immensely comforted whenever I've read blog posts or articles by people who are going through the exact same thing. Just knowing that someone understands and that I don't have some incredibly rare unique condition is enough to give me an overwhelming surge of encouragement and a huge confidence boost.
So if anyone reading this has experienced a form of stage fright similar to the one I've expressed above, you're not alone! The brain can do bizarre things and will play all sorts of tricks on you. The good news is: it doesn't have to defeat you. I still act, and I still love it.
I'm gradually beginning to be more honest and open with my directors and fellow actors and to tentatively express how I'm feeling to them. I don't always explain it right, and it doesn't always take the fear away. But regardless, I've never been met with anything but kindness, understanding and support. I've never come away from those conversations feeling anything but uplifted, comforted and reassured.
Stage fright is a beast, in all its forms. It can end acting careers once and for all; many actors feel, understandably, that they just can't continue putting themselves through such psychological distress. I stopped acting for nearly two years because of it. But it doesn't always have to win in the end.
Izzie Price is an actor and freelance writer based in London. She most recently played Desdemona in Othello at Baron's Court Theatre. She has her own blog dedicated to sharing personal experiences of anxiety (It Really Is Time To Talk) and will be starting an MA in Arts & Lifestyle Journalism at University of the Arts London this September.
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Topics: Guest Blog