Stage fright – both the dread and the actuality of it – looms very large in the lives of many, if not most, actors. And occasionally it becomes headline news. Remember Stephen Fry and Cell Mates or, more recently, Lenny Henry in Educating Rita at Chichester last year? And it was probably stage fright that lay at the base of Laurence Fox’s recent angry outburst in The Patriotic Traitor at the Park Theatre. That’s the trouble. When something goes wrong for an actor, it’s very public. Hence the terror.
Bella Merlin’s book, a nice blend of hard evidence, fact and anecdote, acknowledges just how real the fear is but contends that the more you understand and face it the better able you will be to deal with it. “It takes courage to be an actor. It takes even more courage to admit how terrifying it can be. Yet the very act of admitting it can be transformative” she asserts, adding that fear manifests itself both physiologically (dry mouth, clammy hands, tremor etc) and psychologically. Did you know, for example, that the word “anxiety” derives from the French anguere, which means to choke, constrict, strangle or cut off an airway?
“It takes courage to be an actor. It takes even more courage to admit how terrifying it can be. Yet the very act of admitting it can be transformative”
A major part of an actor’s fear is forgetting lines – the very thing for which the public admires them. Merlin is strong on the different ways that lines can be learned while making it clear that forgetting them is commonplace even after hundreds of faultless performances. She quotes Derek Jacobi: “I was catatonic, gripped by sheer terror. I had done the play 376 times, but my mind went completely blank.”
I enjoyed Merlin’s detailed but very accessible account of what causes fear and how it works in the brain. The science is fascinating. It’s also a practical book. Having led the reader to accept that fear is part of life for everyone and that actors need to be much more open about it than many of them are, she then moves on to the practicalities of dealing with it. The secret is to take as much control as possible. That means tending to the physical (avoid caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and recreational drugs) and psychophysical (breathing, meditation, yoga) needs of “our instrument” which for an actor is the body. Then she explains, among many other useful things, how to develop good rehearsal and performance techniques.
This is an important book because I don’t recall anyone writing in such depth and with such honesty about stage fright before. Too often this fear is the ignored elephant in the room and it shouldn’t be. I hope tutors recommend this book to all performance students and that actors, however experienced, will read it and feel strengthened.
Merlin, who is British and grew up near Stratford-upon-Avon has worked as an actor extensively in Britain, including at National Theatre and with Max Stafford-Clark’s Out of Joint, and the US. She is now Professor of Acting and Directing at University of California, Riverside. This is her fifth book.
Facing the Fear: An Actor’s Guide to Overcoming Stage Fright by Bella Merlin is published by Nick Hern Books on 24 March 2016, RRP £12.99 and can also be purchased online. Merlin will be speaking about the book at the National Theatre on 7 June.