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  • Sonya Cooke

Letting Go - A Diatribe on Performance Anxiety

Wanna make God laugh?? Tell him your plans.

Of all the steps and stages in an actor’s craft, nothing is more difficult than the final one of letting go. Actors craft and craft and craft, and rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. And then, lights up, curtain up, roll camera, and it’s off to the races. What do you use in performance and what do you release? How do you prepare letting go? In other words, how do you ready yourself for the inimitable moment of public performance? All of these quandaries rushed to my awareness as I returned to the stage in the Swine Palace’s production of Gloria.

It was back in the fall when I performed in Gloria by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by Femi Euba. It was a thrilling and challenging experience, as all productions are. In this particular instance, the role of “Gloria” was a behemoth, not in the size of the role but in the degree of challenge it demanded. And the ten-minute monologue for "Nan" in act two was not light fare either. I poured myself into both roles, struggling to balance rehearsal, teaching, and baby schedules with my artistic goals and standards for my preparation. Come opening, I felt ready as I was ever going to be, but what came next surprised me.

I struggled to let go. I felt the familiar and unpleasant grip of fear come over me, and despite all my preparation, I had doubt that I was ready for performance. I think other actors are far better at this than me, and that’s always been the case. It also doesn’t help that my day-to-day involves analyzing and building performances, so the final stroke of creativity, the sweet “fuck it,” does not come naturally or easily. There was a period in my career when I suffered debilitating stage fright, and at times, cruel mantras from that period of my life still echo in my mind. Connected to it are ancient fears of inadequacy, a particularly feminine self-loathing that leaves me never good enough. If I didn’t know that I was not alone in these feelings, it would be too much to share this now. The ghosts haven’t fully withdrawn.

After opening, it was my husband whose kind and encouraging words came to my rescue. Thankfully, he is a fellow actor and teacher, plus a masterful improvisor, and he knew just what to say to me. “Sonya, you’ve hauled the ball up the hill, and now that it’s at the top, it’s time to let it roll.” He went on, “You can’t hold the ball as it releases down the slope. You’ve set everything in motion; the dominos are stacked. All that is left is a flick of the finger.” Hard to tell a workhorse that, but I heard it, and eventually I eased into the play. Equipped with my husband’s guidance, I recalled the technique that I have heard myself teach my students so many times. With them now seated in the audience, I owed it to them to put my money where my mouth was. Here is what I used to help exorcise the nasty demons of fear:

1) Endowment. If I, personally, am afraid, then I wager my characters are, too. In fact, I bet they have even better reason to be feeling trepidation and anxiety. As a rule, I endow and justify whatever I am going through into the life of my character. Doing so inevitably dilutes and diffuses whatever emotion I experience.

2) Faucet Breath and Previous Circumstances. I can drown out my own voice if I make my character even louder. By “faucet breathing” my character’s previous circumstance, I immerse in her world. Like a turned-up white noise app, the life of the character creates a static that allows me float away undetected from fearful thinking.

3) Contact. If I’ve done my work, then I am ready to entrust my performance in my partners. They are the ping to my pong, the zip to my zap. By leaning on my fellow actors, I feel any remaining tension in my body subside. Listening to someone else is an age-old approach to surrendering a narrow point-of-view, and that philosophy applies beautifully to acting.

4) Acceptance. Yes, you will likely spot someone you know in the audience, or you will feel overly aware of the camera. Accept that. In the role, there is room enough for you. You can get distracted, you can catch a glimpse of the clock, or observe the line flub. Accept the change and make room for the imperfections that always come.

5) Intentionally Fuck It Up. In my training, I learned, while discreetly hidden behind the stage curtain, how to flick off everyone in the audience, particularly those I feared judgement from the most. It’s called the “fuck it adjustment,” and it goes a long way. But, going even further, if I allow myself to fuck up, meaning get something wrong, or even try something new, then fear becomes a game. It teaches you that you are good enough, dare I say, great enough to take some risks. In the face of fear, that’s a powerful message.

6) Lastly, Two Cups Joy. This is a term given me by my first coach, Jo Spiller. You are acting, isn’t that amazing? You are simultaneously in this story and in front of an audience, isn’t that transcendent? You are living through life or death scenarios in one moment, and checking your IG ten minutes later, isn’t that a gas? Embrace the contradiction performance always brings. Truly, it is a joy to bring this work to an audience that wants to, maybe even needs to, hear your words.

These may not read as formal techniques, but acting is never formal. The final stage of performance, letting go, is impossible to practice in a rehearsal or classroom, as it is reserved only for that thrilling “lights, camera, action” moment. But you can activate these techniques in advance of performance time, so as to ready your instrument for surrender. When all else fails, let go of the, at times, unreachable standard of letting go in performance. Acting is a very generous artform. There is always room for your authentic experience, no matter what shape it takes.

Plus, I want to normalize the still stigmatizing experience of performance anxiety. Robots do not act, humans do, and humans cannot execute anything perfectly. Yet, the scrutiny of tens or millions can be hard to bare. Let the journey of letting go in your acting guide you to the conversations we all can afford to have regarding perfectionism, workaholism, and stress. And take it from me who has been over the river and through the woods regarding performance fears: if I kiss the monster it doesn’t look so ugly.

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