Image courtesy of Devajyoti Sarkar under CC BY-SA 2.0

Today, we’re delighted to welcome Jennifer R. to Theater Love. She’s a regional theater actress, singer, and an accomplished concert soloist who has struggled to figure out how to overcome stage fright for her entire career — until she discovered a trick that helped her stop freaking out when the curtain opened. Thanks, Jen, for sharing your experience!

I remember it like it was yesterday.

I was sitting alone in the center of the dark stage, getting ready to sing my opening song. On the other side of the curtain, the orchestra was playing some of the most famous notes in the entire music theater canon.

I was in the zone.

As the music swelled with the familiar strains and the curtain started to glide open, I felt that rush of joy and excitement start to rise in my chest as I slipped out of myself and into the character.

The spotlight warmed my face, and my character smiled brilliantly … and out of nowhere, an alarming thought hit me:

What is my first word?

In an instant, I was jerked out of the character and back into reality. Music theater dreamworld: gone. Joy and excitement: gone.

In their place was sheer, what-the-hell-am-I-going-to-do panic.

Suddenly, I was terrifyingly aware that it was just me, alone on stage, mere seconds from singing one of the most famous songs in the world, and I had no idea what the words were. I couldn’t remember the melody.

Oh. My. God.

Every single person in the audience knew that song.

They were waiting for it; I could feel their anticipation and collective intake of breath as the music started to speed up, crescendoing dramatically as my mind raced frantically and the smile froze on my face and the conductor was raising his baton to cue me and my eyes met his in terror and ohgodohgodohgodohgod The hills are alive…”

Friends, that moment was the scariest of my entire life.

I got through the song and the performance, but that hideous experience took something precious from me.

Prior to that, getting onstage was a haze of sheer joy and fun and confidence. Afterward, no matter how wonderful I felt in a scene, there was always that shadow at the back of my mind.

What if it happens again?

Stage fright. For the first time, I knew what it was.

The terror haunted me in every production I did after college. I’d be waiting in the wings, making jokes with everyone backstage, and the fear would wash over me. It snuck up on me while I was mid-song, mid-scene, mind-monologue, always snapping me right out of character and back into myself.

At one point, it got so bad that I looked into beta blockers. Finally, I just assumed that I was going to never going to figure out how to overcome stage fright, and I would just have to live with it for the rest of my career.

Finally, I just assumed that I was going to have to live with stage fright for the rest of my career.

An Unexpected Cure for Stage Fright

Two years ago, while playing Eliza Doolittle in a production of My Fair Lady, I stumbled upon the thing that helped me overcome stage fright for good.

During that musical, the actor playing Henry Higgins asked me to be part of his pre-scene ritual: right before we had to go onstage together, we’d run through the lines quickly.

I thought nothing of it.

That, is until the second tech rehearsal. I was waiting alone backstage, and the actor playing Freddy walked past. He made a random comment, we laughed silently, and I went back to listening for my cue.

As I walked out to center stage and opened my mouth to sing, it happened again.

The panic rose.

My smile froze.

I opened my mouth to sing, not knowing what would come out…and suddenly, the director yelled, “Wait! Men, we need to fix your positions.”

Then, it hit me…

As the crew was resetting the scene, I started thinking about how to overcome stage fright. Why had it happened right then, when I hadn’t had a problem the entire production? There was no audience, so it wasn’t the end of the world if I messed up.

In a second, it hit me:

Henry’s little ritual!

Suddenly, it was so obvious; I couldn’t believe it took me so long.

Henry’s line-reading ritual had completely changed my behavior in the minutes before a scene. After we sped through the lines, I was spending the last 30-60 seconds before going onstage in character — no laughing with the crew, no participating in the backstage fun.

Just being present in Eliza’s current reality. Feeling her emotions.

When I paused to interact with Freddy, I snapped out of Eliza and back into myself. And it was so fast that I wasn’t able to snap back in time.

I know it sounds simple, but that one realization changed my life.

How to Overcome Stage Fright: My New Strategy

Since that moment, I have completely gotten rid of my stage fright. I’ve done four musicals, countless concerts, and one Shakespeare play, and there hasn’t been a single incident. Not one.

The weight and fear are gone. (If you have stage fright, you know what I mean!)

It’s worked so well for me that I’m a relentless evangelist. If you’re struggling, these are the steps I take at in every production — I genuinely hope they help!

1. Run lines before every entrance

I speak the lines quietly and quickly as I walk to the stage or stand backstage, feeling the emotion of each one. If I have a scene partner who will do it with me, great. If not, no big deal — I just speak them to myself. (Most actors are more than willing)

2. Go through songs and choreography

If I have a song and/or dance number coming up, I sing silently to myself backstage and step through the choreography (just small movements, obviously). As a “singer who moves,” this is huge for me — it connects my brain and body and triggers muscle memory.

3. Connect emotions to physicality

In the 30-60 seconds before I go onstage, I stand by myself and focus on just existing in the character as she is in the moment before the scene starts. I allow her emotions to rise up, flood over my body, and affect my physicality. If she’s in a rage, I might start breathing harder and feel my shoulders and jaw stiffen. That’s been really helpful for me — when I step onstage, the lines or songs are simply a natural extension of my current state. No need to worry about them!

4. Ignore everyone else

This is so important. About three or four minutes before an entrance (while I’m going through lines), I disconnect completely from everyone else. I try not to make eye contact, I don’t speak to anyone except my scene partner, and I don’t engage in any backstage fun.

Note: I do not isolate myself before big, boisterous group scenes or dance numbers — those scenes need the fun group energy. 🙂

5 . Communicate what I need

Usually, other actors recognize exactly what I’m doing, and they leave me alone. If they don’t, I put them off gently — a head shake, a gesture at the script, or an apologetic smile usually gets the message across. Later, I’ll find them and explain that I like to get into character before a scene. It’s never a problem; other actors get it. Plus, they know that when I come off stage, it’s back to the fun!

And that’s it! The whole process takes 5 minutes or less, but it has 100% helped me learn how to overcome stage fright. If you’re struggling to overcome stage fright right now, I feel you. I genuinely hope these tips help — I’m rooting for you!