You know the image of a patient as he lies down on the therapists couch and the doctor asks, ‘Comfortable?’ as if it’s a signal to begin? I can’t say I’ve actually laid on too many doctors couches, but I do know that moment of discomfort in a place where I’ve been asked if I am comfortable.
My experiences on the stage can range from comfortable to discomfort. This often depends on the characters needs and the type of show it is, but, often, I’m guaranteed before I go in front of someone on stage or for a presentation, I am feeling some form of discomfort that has nothing to do with these things, it only has to do with me. I’ve heard phrases that ‘this means you’re ready’ or my all-time favourite question before going on stage – ‘nervous?’ Well, if I wasn’t before, I am now, just cause you asked and are forcing me to look at it?!
So what is really behind that discomfort and how am I dealing with that inner dialogue when I’m in my discomfort?
Well, firstly, I think it’s great to name the discomfort, as then, it’s not so vague and it’s easier to come to terms with what you can and cannot do about it. So, name the emotion or is it just a physical thing, like you have something poking into the side of you which doesn’t need to be there? Either way, it’s gonna be easier to pluck it out, if you know what you are talking about. Yet, it can be hard to name an emotion and be OK with saying that to others. Why is that?
Well, that leads nicely to the inner dialogue or as can be called the ego, inner critic or negative thoughts or whatever. I go for inner critic, as that is what sits with me. Who ever said it was wrong to say I’m feeling scared or angry or jealous? I can’t recall anyone who ever said,’You can’t say you are afraid.’ Might of heard it in a movie once? It was far more subtle for me. It was a behaviour thing, that my inner critic helped me find: ‘Look over there! Joey doesn’t seem to be having a problem with that, so why are you being such a fraidy cat?’ or ‘It’s easy for them, what’s wrong with you?’ There is one thing my inner critic is good at its something like this to grab onto and use for a lifetime of ‘no wonder you aren’t getting anywhere, you are such a fraidy cat.’
I know it doesn’t help that I, literally, got a degree to learn how to critic well. That was a lot of what training is about – being able to look at what you or others do and find ways to do it ‘better’, which of course, in the arts, is hardly quantifiable. I’m someone who likes to do well at what I do, so, in a way, by learning how to critic well, at an A-level standard, I was learning how to judge and not always nicely or usefully and that can be spectacularly wrong! So when it’s used to review your work, I don’t think it’s too bad, but when it gets out of hand and becomes the monster inside or as I affectionately call it, the ‘monkey on my back’.
How am I going to bring it back to reviewing, rather than destroying my confidence?
I’ve had some great, unsolicited advice on how to deal with it and I do my best to do this. Whatever is happening around me or in front of me – say for instance, my fellow actor – they are a gift. There is much to keep me occupied by keeping my attention on them and ignoring my inner critic. So when my inner head dialogue starts, things like, ‘Does the director really know what they are doing?’ or ‘This actor isn’t doing what they should’ or ‘this isn’t working for me’ or ‘What’s my motivation?’ or ‘there’s such a cute guy in the front row, how can I get his attention?’.
For me, it’s all about changing the harsh judgement to just noticing. For example: ‘The director can see things I’m not seeing, leave him to do his job.’ Or ‘the actor blinked’ or ‘how can I find a way to make this work for me?’ ‘Trust, I know what I am doing, even if I can’t see it right now.’ ‘There’s a cute guy in the front row.’ Basically, stick to the facts as I know them and leave my talents to work the rest out either later or not at all, cause, I’ve just figured it out by getting through it and, quite possibly, discover something new that I never knew I could do!
How do I do this before I go on stage?
So, how does this work, when I’m not even on stage or, as I’ve often experienced, you are on stage, but the lights aren’t up yet, but my head can be racing. Here is where I really learn to distract myself with the facts of what is, as I see it. Scott Williams, my acting teacher, gave me the advice to accept all that is at the moment and use it. So how does this look, well, here’s an example, one time, I was waiting on stage, I could see the audience, who were only a few feet away and someone was on their mobile in the darkness, they weren’t turning it off, they were actually sitting there using it right in front of me and it was quite clear they didn’t care that the show was about to begin and the announcement to turn off your phone was not for them. Great ground for my inner critic to have a heyday! So what did I do, I got pissed off, I said to myself, ‘Fine, I’m pissed off that someone cares so little to be here and I’m OK with that and Scott said to use it and be OK with it.’ (I have to be honest, my language was not so polite, but as this is on the internet, I’m having to censor myself.) Bam, the lights went up and I was straight into the scene and engaged with my fellow actors. My inner critic didn’t have a chance!
Or another is:
Before I go onstage, I’ll try and push the solid brick wall of the stage over. Impossible I know, but making something physical and distracting myself in this manner, really helps me to literally push out the unhelpful thoughts or feelings I maybe having before walking on stage or that distracting person, who maybe asking me the dreaded question, ‘ Am I nervous?’
Another golden nugget for me to talk to my inner critic is to say, ‘I’ll talk to you later. Right now I have a show to do.’ Then I make sure I do, so I have a kinda debrief, not immediately after, but the next day or whenever a good length of time after the event is, but, always giving myself a day. What I’ve found when I’ve done this, is a I get a much more useful debrief because I’m not ignoring that part of myself and it’s coming from a less heighten place, but I’ve had time to get through whatever ‘discomfort’ I maybe having and am finding my comfort.
Where is your comfort zone?