For many people, the life of an actor is one that appears glamorous and exciting, but there is often a fear that inhibits people from pursuing this lifestyle. This fear is, unfortunately, one that cannot be avoided by an actor as simply as a claustrophobe might avoid small spaces. Performance anxiety is a very real and very limiting fear that often confronts people and deters them from following their passion for performing. Though it can be incredibly fun and cathartic to perform, it can also be very hard at times for actors to overcome the anxiety that comes with bearing one’s emotions and actions to an audience. Thankfully though, there is a way to work through this roadblock. By spending enough time warming up before a performance, actors may soothe their anxiety enough for them to put on a show. The physicality and social aspects of acting warm-ups make warm-ups a well-suited weapon for combating performance anxiety and thus putting on a better show.
Performance anxiety, also known as “stage fright,” can affect anyone that has to perform or do something in front of other people. While it is very common among actors, it can also affect singers, musicians, comedians, and even athletes. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, as much as 40% of the population gets anxiety over public speaking (another form of stage fright). This is a very real phobia that many people have to confront every day, whether it be for getting up on a stage to put on a show or simply to make a work phone call. However, when performing is your calling, this is a fear that must be overcome in order to lead a fulfilling life. One way in which actors and performers work through their nerves and anxiety is by doing a variety of warm-ups prior to a performance.
Warm-ups can take many forms depending on what is being warmed up for. Singers that are in the habit of warming up their voices before a performance so that their voices can reach their full range will use vocal warm-ups, whereas athletes about to enter a match or play a game must warm up their muscles to ensure they don’t suffer an injury while playing. The body and voice are both tools of the actor, and so it is important for them to warm up. This might mean repeating tongue twisters over and over again to aid with annunciation, shaking out their arms and legs to loosen the body, and even playing a game with fellow actors to improve things like reaction time and cast bonding.
While acting warm-ups may look and sound silly, the means that make them look silly are precisely what make them well-suited for relieving stress and anxiety. First and foremost, the mere physicality of acting warm-ups can help actors leaps and bounds with reducing anxiety. If you’ve ever had a bouncing leg or tapped your toes before doing something you were nervous about, then you have experience with using motion to relieve anxiety. While we may think of anxiety as something that only plagues the mind, this is far from the truth. Anxiety can also have a physical toll on the body; everything from an upset stomach (butterflies) to muscle tension and even headaches can be caused by anxiety. According to the American Psychological Association, “When the body is stressed, muscles tense up. Muscle tension is almost a reflex reaction to stress—the body’s way of guarding against injury and pain.” Muscle tension is one of the most problematic physical manifestations of anxiety for actors because of just how negatively it can impact performance. Tight muscles can make the body sore and cause tension headaches; an actor that is in pain will be more distracted and preoccupied with the physical sensations caused by their anxieties, and this can take them out of the moment when on stage performing. Furthermore, muscle tension means that the actor’s range of motion is minimized, and their performances will reflect this. While this could be helpful for an actor portraying a character that is angry and stressed out, it just as easily undercuts the performance of an actor trying to portray a character that is happy, relaxed or any other emotion or form of articulation. Warm-ups can reduce muscle tension by helping to shake out the tension and, consequently, shaking off the nerves. By moving the body around, the actor’s body can relax and thus articulate a wider range of emotions on stage. Not to mention, an actor that is more physically comfortable will be able to focus more on staying in the moment and the emotions they are trying to channel for a convincing performance.
Comfort isn’t just for the body, though. Being comfortable with the people one works with can make leaps and bounds for an actor’s anxiety levels. Many warm-ups offer actors a chance to socialize and interact with one another before performing. This serves as a form of team bonding and can be really beneficial for actors that are getting to know each other. When we are more comfortable with the people we spend time with, we will be more comfortable expressing our emotions with them, and the ability to express emotions is the very core of acting.
Despite their often silly nature, warm-ups play a very serious role when it comes to putting on a good performance. Their ability to relax actors’ nerves through physicality and socialization makes them an essential element in giving a good performance.