23 Brain Hacks for Bulletproof Stage Presence

I’m fascinated by the effect of the spotlight on performers. Some of us shine, some of us choke. I perform terribly in auditions but really kill it in rehearsals. Why is that?

I recently read a book called Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most. It talks about how your brain shuts down when you’re in a situation where you desperately want or need to succeed. It also offers solutions on how to trick your brain so it doesn’t sabotage you when you need peak performance.

Tip #1: Think of pressure moments as a challenge or opportunity/fun.

Instead of feeling like your entire performance career is hanging on this one moment, try reframing the situation. You’re here to have fun. You’re here to show off. Can you do something in this performance that no one else is doing? Give yourself the freedom to take a big running cannonball into the pool. Approach your stage time with an attitude of, “Watch this!” instead of, “Please don’t hate me.”

Tip #2: This is one of many opportunities.

This is especially true of improvisation. Everyone throws up a clunker scene now and then. The trick is not letting that derail you for the next scene. As far as auditions go, you can have as many as you want. Getting an audition slot is pretty easy if you cast a wide enough net. Your next audition will never be your last audition (unless you quit). Every single famous person on the planet has been rejected. The difference is, they keep trying. Richard Nixon lost to JFK, dusted himself off and won the presidency eight years later. Nixon was so single-minded, he courted his eventual wife for two years before she agreed to date him. During that time, Nixon chauffeured her around on dates with other men. Seriously. His greatest talent seemed to be a refusal to give up.

Tip #3: Shrink the importance of pressure moments.

Your brain plays tricks on you when you tell yourself you’re in an important moment. The book says, “track sprinters have more false starts when told their time is important and will be recorded as opposed to being discarded and used for training purposes.” Whether you’re reciting lines for a play or running a race or doing your 4,000th improv scene, you’re bound to perform better if you’re not really thinking about anything. Let your brain and your body do what you’ve practiced. I can’t imagine anyone has ever solved a problem by being told to THINK HARDER. (There’s a reason UCB sells a hoodie that says, “Don’t Think” on the front.)

Tip #4: Focus on the mission.

The book words this strangely. What they really mean is, “Focus on the immediate task.” If you’re in an improv scene, you should be focused on the things that will make that scene better: listening, reacting, adding information, providing callbacks, object work, etc. If you’re in a scene thinking about whether this audition is going well, your focus is in the wrong place and you’re setting yourself up for failure. When you’re in the moment, be present. Don’t let your mind drift to the outcome.

Tip #5: Expect the unexpected.

If you’re walking into an audition, think about the worst thing that could happen. In my experience, the worst outcome is finding yourself paired with someone who’s totally awful. Before walking into an audition, think about how you would handle that. The best defense is to take care of yourself like The Annoyance Theatre suggests: give yourself a gift at the top of a scene, so even if your partner is a flailing spaz, you can wall yourself off from that craziness and regulate the scene. (The only thing worse than a drowning man is another man drowning while trying to save him. Don’t kill yourself trying to save someone hell-bent on self-destruction.)

Tip #6: Affirm your self-worth.

Researchers tested people who affirmed their self-worth before a task versus those who did not. The group that self-affirmed made fewer mistakes. The book suggests listing your values and recounting your positive traits before a pressure moment. Those will not change, regardless of the outcome of your performance. Your family will still love you. There are always more opportunities. Even if you totally crash and burn in an audition, you still have important relationships in life and goals you want to conquer.

Tip #7: Flash back to previous successes.

Tell yourself, “I’ve done it before, I can do it again.” If you’re an improviser at nearly any level, you’ve had at least one good scene. Think about the times you made people laugh or got high-fives from your classmates. Think about how you felt invincible at that moment. You are that same person. This next moment on stage could match or surpass everything that’s come before.

Tip #8: Be positive before and during high-pressure moments.

“Studies have shown that individuals’ feelings and moods respond to their actions.” Ever show up to an improv show feeling run-down and annoyed? How did that show go? How did your shows go when you arrived feeling excited to play? Give your brain a boost by thinking of all the fun you’re about to have. If you’re not having fun, why are you doing it?

Tip #9: Tune into your senses.

This is similar to Tip #4, but it’s also good acting advice. If you find your mind drifting, bring yourself back to the present by focusing on your five senses. What can you see? What can you smell? What can you touch? Worry exists when you let your mind drift to the future. Snap back to the present and deal with the future when your body arrives there.

Tip #10: Focus on what you can control.

The book talks about former MLB pitcher Greg Maddux. When asked to assess his performance after a game, he said, “73 out of 78.” That simply meant 73 of the 78 balls he pitched left his fingers as he wanted them to. Everything after that (including whether the batters made contact) was academic. You can’t control if your auditors are bored or cranky. You can’t control your scene partner. In fact, most of an audition is completely out of your control. So just do what you can do and let the results be what they will be.

Tip #11: Listen to (or sing) a favorite song.

This tip is more for people performing a muscle-memory task. The music distracts our brains well enough to let our bodies take over. This tip is not recommended for people trying to learn a new task. Think about how playing video games is easier when there’s music playing in the background. Tetris would probably be much harder without that iconic theme.

Tip #12: Use a holistic word/image “cue” to guide performance.

The book says golfers perform better when focusing on a word like “smooth” or “balanced.” What word might encompass how a good improv scene feels? “Playful?” “Joyful?” “Agree?” The book says a Chinese psychologist worked with two groups of women shooting basketballs. The group that was told to “shoot as if you’re trying to put a cookie into a cookie jar on a high shelf” made more shots after two weeks of practice. What unrelated activity does a good improv scene look like in your mind? Playing catch? Handing out Valentine’s Day cards?

Tip #13: Practice experiencing pressure.

This is perhaps more difficult for actors, since it’s hard to replicate performance pressure. The book suggests taking practice tests in less time than you’d normally be allowed. Other artificial handicaps can make performance easier when they’re removed. For an actor, this probably just means you should audition and perform a lot!

Tip #14: Squeeze a ball.

What? The book says athletes are less likely to choke when they squeezed a ball or clenched their left hand before competition. Apparently, the left hand squeeze primes the right hemisphere of the brain – the part associated with fluent, automatic and largely unconscious neural pathways controlling the skill. I’m not sure how this would apply in an improvisation situation, since it seems like you’d need both halves of the brain to be logical and process what’s coming your way. Somebody squeeze their left hand before an audition and get back to me on this one.

Tip #15: Write out your concerns about the high-pressure situation you are facing.

“Writing out your specific concerns before a high-pressure situation helps you to minimize distractive thinking, which eats up your working memory capacity.” You need a clear head to improvise well. Put those worries on the shelf by literally writing them down and leaving them off the stage.

Tip #16: Put away self-consciousness.

That alone is fantastic advice for performers. Being self-aware is key, being self-conscious is crippling. The book suggests videotaping yourself and being highly critical of your performance before you have to deliver it for real. The idea is that getting that criticism out of the way early leaves you less self-critical in the moment. That method seems more appropriate for people rehearsing a set task, rather than a fluid, improvisational scenario.

Tip #17: Meditate.

“Meditation training altered for the better the white matter that connects the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) to other structures in the brain. In other words, after meditation training, your ACC is able to regulate your thoughts, behaviors and emotions more effectively and thus help you respond more effectively in pressure moments.”

Tip #18: Create and practice a pre-routine.

Much like NBA players with their pre-free throw routines, the book suggests having something you always do before a pressure moment to signal to your body that it’s time to go to work.  The authors suggest the following…

  • The routine should be relatively short (3-5 minutes).
  • It should be done immediately prior to the high-pressure situation.
  • It should include a mental component – reviewing some positive thoughts.
  • It should include a physical component – deep breathing, stretching, striking a power pose, etc.
  • Part of the routine should deal with kinesthetic imagery – visualize yourself performing at your best.
  • Upon completion, say a mantra or use an anchor word or phrase that signals that you’re ready for showtime.

That seems like a lot to do right before a scene, but you could do that before a show or an audition. I remember seeing TJ & Dave doing the same physical warm-ups before each show at the old iO Theater on Clark Street. It wouldn’t surprise me if they ran through the rest of the list, whether consciously or not. Before shows with Whiskey Rebellion, I used to approach every member of the team individually, grab their shoulders, look them in the eye and say, “Spirit of the eagle, way of the hunter.” I have no idea if that made a difference, but I had a hell of a lot of fun in those shows.

Tip #19: Slow down your response.

Here’s where you’d encounter Jimmy Carrane’s “Art of Slow Comedy.” The idea is that slowing down reduces your arousal, which allows you to think more flexibly, creatively and attentively. Del Close used to advocate responding with your third idea, never your first. Remember that an improv scene is not a race. There are some performers like Craig Uhlir who have cultivated a high-energy, rapid-fire playing style. That’s not for everyone, and very difficult for beginners. Give yourself the space to think before responding. Time moves faster in your head than it does to the audience.

Tip #20: Regulate your breathing.

If you’re breathing weird, your body will start to freak out. If you watch beginning improvisers, some seem to forget to breathe on stage. Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman devised a breathing tactic he teaches to soldiers and police officers to use in intense combat situations.

  • Inhale through your nose, deeply, expanding your stomach for a count of four.
  • Hold that breath in for a count of four.
  • Slowly exhale through your mouth, completely, contracting your stomach for a count of four.
  • Hold the empty breath for a count of four.

The book recommends practicing this two minutes a night for a week.

Tip #21: Go first.

“Studies of World Cup soccer and the National Hockey League show that when shoot-outs determine the winner, the team (or player) that goes first has a strong statistical advantage.” This correlates with Susan Messing’s priceless advice: “The longer you wait, the more the jump rope becomes a big steel cable.” Jump in that first scene and it slays any jitters.

Tip #22: Communicate your feelings of being under pressure.

Not sure how this would apply in an audition situation, but maybe that’s where Facebook can come in handy. Posting something like, “Headed for an audition,” might result in some supportive comments from your friends. Of course, actors audition so much, that could get annoying. Remind yourself that every performer deals with jitters or nerves. Some even take drugs (legal, prescription or illegal) to cope. Being nervous is normal and you’re not alone if you feel shaky before an audition.

Final tip: Strike a power pose.

I’ve read about this in other books on the topic of pressure performance and choking. If you expand your body and raise your arms wide, your brain and body increase testosterone levels 20-25% and reduce cortisol 20-25%. (Cortisol is released in response to fear or stress by the adrenal glands as part of the fight-or-flight mechanism.) In job interviews, applicants who took a power pose beforehand were rated higher in confidence and presence. You only need to do it for two minutes to feel the effect.

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