Your heart pounds. You sit on a hard chair in a cramped closet of a packed waiting room. Twelve pages of thick dialogue swirl around inside your head. Each inhale sucks in the stew of nerves and fear simmering all around you. You’re up next. Your heart pounds faster. Sweat beads. As your moment approaches, your preparation, the dialogue, your own name, all begin to leak from your brain. The casting associate emerges—the executioner summoning you to the gallows. Your heart pounds faster. Sweat pours. She speaks your name. Like electrified taser teeth penetrating your skin, every molecule in your body tenses rock hard all at once. You push out a smile, say something you don’t mean, and walk into the room, leaving your heart and your head in the waiting room. You won’t book this job. You’ll forget your lines, and you won’t even notice the reader, let alone have a human experience with her. You won’t be called back in for the next one. Your talent was defeated by audition nerves.
While your nerves can seem like the enemy the Moriarty to your Holmes, using cunning and guile to sabotage any forward motion, the first step towards managing the nerves is to understand that they are the source of your power. Being nervous means both that you’re a human being with real feelings who is emotionally triggered by what’s going on around you, and that you are emotionally invested in what you’re doing. It means you’re sensitive and you care. And both are essential for an actor. So, it’s not about killing the nerves but, rather, managing them and using them to your advantage. Here are four ways to manage audition nerves:
1. Know and accept who you are. It requires patience and time, but if you have a full sense of who you are and accept yourself, the fear of someone telling you you’re not good enough doesn’t exist. So, if you’ve done the work of knowing yourself—all your strengths, all the things you’re working to change—no one has the power to dramatically affect your self-worth. The fear of that unknown criticism is minimized.
What are you worried about when you sit in the waiting room? Typically, you fear the disconnection that comes with being told you’re not talented, not funny, not attractive enough, etc. If, on a fundamental level, you know and accept that you’re talented, someone telling you otherwise is like someone saying you’re wearing a red shirt when in fact you’re wearing a blue one. So, how can you know and accept yourself? Some people practice meditation, Qi Gong, yoga, therapy, etc., and taking a fierce inventory of what it is that makes them tick, celebrating the strengths, and working on the things they’d like to change. They write them all down, then actively celebrate the strengths, and work on the challenges. For some people, it’s about getting to know one’s self by going through a wide range of life experiences—discovering things about themselves by traveling, jumping out of a plane, or writing and shooting their own feature. Others derive self-esteem by performing esteem-able acts—consistent volunteer work, or doing something selfless everyday, thereby creating a positive self-identity. Whatever it is for you, look inside, explore the depths of your soul, work at changing what you’d like to change, and accept yourself. Your life and your acting career will benefit greatly.
2. Make choices that are more important than your nerves.
If what you want from the reader is more important than your nerves, your fear, your desire to protect your heart, etc, the nerves will not get in your way. To the contrary, they’ll be a wonderful color in your audition. So, you’re auditioning for the role of a cop who’s interrogating a woman accused of killing her kid. In the scene, she’s denying it and you’re trying to get her to confess. You’re in the waiting room and you’re so nervous that you’re going to pee your pants. It’s not in the script, but you make the choice that the reader (the woman who killed her kid) has said that she wants to kill again. In fact, you decide that there’s a particular kid that she’s targeting. You make that kid specific. That kid is meaningful to you. So, fine, you’re really nervous, but you have a job to do. You desperately need a confession from the reader so that you can put her away and get her off the streets. Now your nerves are part of a deeper need. So whatever those choices are for you, make choices that are bigger than your nerves. It works!
3. Have a full, creative life. If the audition is the only meaningful event on your weekly calendar, you’ll probably start to obsess about it, think through every potential outcome, and allow the nerves to get out of hand. Hyper-focus allows your head to take over and causes you wallow in the fear of the possible negative outcome. If, however, you’ve got a play rehearsal Monday morning, a performance that night, you’re volunteering at a women’s shelter Tuesday morning, going to a writing session with a friend Tuesday afternoon, work Tuesday night, attend acting class Wednesday night, have the audition Thursday morning, and a student film shoot Thursday night, the audition will be part of your life, not the center of it. A full like keeps you in the practice of the work and distributes the pressure more equally.
4. Apply Navy SEAL training. Sometimes the nerves are so big that you can’t even function. Some anxiety is clinical and needs to be treated. When the nerves are so huge that you can’t speak, the Navy SEALs offer some help that doesn’t involve a prescription. From SEAL training to the stresses of their work in the field, Seals employ Goal Setting (focus on what you’d like to do in the room), Mental Rehearsal (visualize what you’ll do so your mind feels like it’s already been there and done it, and might be more comfortable when it actually happens), Self-Talk (“I’m trained, I’ve done my work, I’m talented. I can do this.”), and Arousal Control (slow, deliberate breathing—inhale for four seconds, exhale for four seconds). So, before your audition set a goal (“I will be present,” not “I will book this job”), visualize yourself in the room achieving the goal, tell yourself you deserve to reach that goal, and slow your breathing as you wait.
Dame Judi said, “I’m always fearful. Fear in you generates a huge energy. You can use it. When I feel that mounting fear, I think, ‘Oh yes, there it is.’ It’s like petrol.” Like all your feelings, nerves are the source of your power as an actor. They’re a unique part of who you are, your truthful expression of them within the scene is essential. You must bring them to the audition with you. And with practice, the nerves that arise as a result of an audition can become one of the tools you use to emotionally affect a casting director. With practice, you can use the nerves even when you’re supposed to be calm and confident in the scene. You’ll be full, alive, and deeply engaging.