Performance artists confront anxiety

by Hallie Huffaker | 4/6/14 3:33pm

At Dartmouth, where short, busy terms create a fast-paced environment and the theater community on campus is small and intimate, performance artists often suffer from nerves just as much as audience members. Actors, musicians and singers grapple with anxiety that ranges from “butterflies” before auditions and performances to trembling and nausea. The mental rigors of a production do not end after the final curtain. The dramatic highs and abrupt end to shows can leave performance artists with a feeling of emptiness or post-show blues.

Auditions anxiety

The house lights dim and the audience members quickly settle into their seats. The orchestra cues up, instruments raise and bows poise to strike the song’s first chords.

Dartmouth artists report different levels of anxiety before auditions and final shows. Some performers like Sophia Gish ’16, who performed in “Big Love” in the fall, say they look forward to auditions. Others like Camille Van Putten ’14, a member of the Dartmouth Rude Mechanicals, say they feel more stressed before auditions than final performances.

“The only thing I have found that has helped me so far in my career is practice,” Van Putten said. “Practicing the thing that you are going to be performing, or if it’s a cold read, try[ing] to familiarize yourself with the play and the character.”

Much of the anxiety from auditions comes from the fear of a tiny, two-letter word — “no.” At some point, a performer will have to face rejection, said Chris Gallerani ’15, who performed in “Big Love” and “Spring Awakening.”

Though it can hit hard, the key is not to take rejection personally, he said.

“Rarely is it ‘I don’t like you,’ or ‘you’re not talented,’” Gallerani said. “It’s just that the person casting the show has certain ideas about the characters, often things that you can’t change, so it’s important to pick yourself up and move onto the next project.”

In a tight-knit theater community like Dartmouth’s, social dynamics related to rejection can be especially challenging. An actor may be friends with the person who earned the part that he or she had wanted, or vice versa.

Max Gottschall ’15, who played Melchior in “Spring Awakening” this winter, called these social dynamics the most difficult aspect of auditions. In the fall, Gottschall was not cast in “Big Love,” though many of his friends were tapped for roles.

“I remember the day that I got the email about the cast list, and I was sitting next to my buddy who had got it,” he said. “I’m sure our faces were hilarious opposites. But really, you have just got to take it outside the friend relationship.”

Theater professor Jamie Horton said that he tries to communicate to actors that there are sometimes factors outside of their control that influence casting decisions.

With much experience on the other side of the audition process in his time as a professional actor, Horton said he knows firsthand how crushing rejection can feel.

“I have been really impressed at Dartmouth by the number of people who write [to me] and say, ‘Thank you, and what can I do better given another shot?’” he said. “That’s a respectable approach.”

A day or two after being passed over for a role or receiving a less than satisfactory part, an actor needs to move on, Gottschall said. Last fall, Gottschall’s rejection from “Big Love” turned into an opportunity to direct another play, “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

“The important thing is not to burn any bridges,” he said. “It’s so hard, but you have to be gracious and compassionate.

Stepping onstage

In a study of 136 professional actors conducted by Gordon Goodman, a performer turned researcher, Goodman found that 84 percent of actors had experienced stage fright at some point in their careers. Analyzing these results, Goodman found no correlation between anxiety and an actor’s age or anxiety and the size of an audience. However, he did find evidence that the audience’s composition affected anxiety levels.

Some performers say, however, that some level of nerves can be helpful, adding to an artist’s energy and alertness. Ben Edlin ’14, who performed in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” described the feeling as a mix of emotions, mostly positive, before the show.

“I didn’t really have room to be nervous because I was just so excited for it,” he said. “I just enjoy it so much that all day leading up to the shows I was chomping on the bit to go out and do it.”

Horton agreed, noting that “a certain amount of nerves,” or the “butterfly phenomenon,” can sharpen a performer’s attention.

Theater major Diane Chen ’14 said her nervousness before shows dissipates when she steps onstage, leaving her fully alert and consumed by her role. While performing in “Angels in America” last fall, for example, she played her character pain-free even though she was suffering from a broken collarbone at the time, she said.

“The butterflies are the worst feeling, but that’s why you do it, you feel so energetic,” she said. “As soon as the lights go down and you step onstage, everything goes away.”

After the show

When a rigorous daily schedule of line readings, scene blockings, dance practices and full-blown productions comes to an abrupt end, some performers have described feeling post-show blues, or in the more extreme, post-performance depression.

Whether reflective of an actor’s connection to his or her character or closeness to the rest of the cast, symptoms include denial that the show is over, anger at the lack of new auditions and rehearsals and feelings of depression.

Horton said he can often discern when a show has been extra special for its actors. After “Spring Awakening,” he made a point to speak to some of the actors about how to grapple with moving on.

“As a professional actor, I have definitely struggled with being at peace afterwards if I have gotten attached to the character that I played,” Horton said. “It is a testament to how deeply you have gone into that character, so really I do not mind that feeling because it is an indication of something done thoroughly.”

Gottschall said post-show blues affected him when he directed the music to “Cabaret” last year. He said he felt especially attached to the production because he felt a sense of ownership over the material.

“It led to a tremendous void in my life for a couple of weeks — it was almost like it was my baby,” he said. “[Theater] builds to this insane climax, and you can feel the ramp-up happening, but then it immediately just ends, and the next day the set is gone. You almost wonder, ‘Did the show even happen?’”

Edlin, too, described reluctance to move on after the conclusion of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” where weeks of rehearsals culminated in just three final shows over one weekend.

Gallerani described feeling gloomiest taking down the set to the “Spring Awakening” production, while Van Putten recalled feeling post-show blues in the dressing room after a show.

“Sometimes it’s a wanted purge, but there can be that feeling of almost meaninglessness, like now what do I have?” Van Putten said.

Chen, who hopes to pursue theater professionally, said she rarely experiences post-show blues and tries to avoid focusing on past productions. She has felt “rocky,” however, during terms when she was not involved in a theater production.

“It’s hard not to look back and reminisce about the glory days, when I wore a beard [in a production] and it was uncomfortable and I loved it, and think, ‘When I will I get to do that again?’” she said. “I have to be in that world of performing or I feel unmotivated.”

Music professor Robert Duff, who directs the Dartmouth Handel Society, said he usually feels satisfied at a show’s conclusion. He described approaching a new score as means of investigating the human expression of the composer and celebrating that work.

“After a performance, it’s like having had a long visit with an old friend — you are grateful for the opportunity and ready to meet someone new,” he said.

When there is not another show on the horizon, Edlin said his preferred tactic is to stay busy. Luckily, he said, the end to a term’s major theater production typically coincides with the beginning of exams period.

Gottschall said that many casts have post-show celebrations to keep the spirit alive a little longer.

“You can do funny things like sing each other’s songs and make fun of each other,” he said. “That can be a nice kind of memorial to put the show to bed.”