Handling Nerves - An Actor's Perspective
It's exam day. You've worked hard all year. You know your stuff. Only one thing stands between you and a knock-out performance... Nerves.
A serious attack of nerves can be a real hindrance when it comes to achieving your best.
So how can kids and teenagers handle exam nerves? And how can we help them to feel as confident as possible?
I used to be an actress, so I feel I'm quite practiced when it comes to settling butterflies in the stomach. I remember countless times when I stood in the wings - in a professional theatre, or during my training at RADA - and inwardly cursed myself for putting myself in such a scary situation. I'm told that many of the most highly acclaimed actors in the business are still jibbering wrecks before each and every performance. But they also know how to overcome those nerves, and therein lies their success.
Here are a few techniques that I learnt from the theatre about quelling nerves. I think they may also be handy for those entering the exam room.
Actors are taught to breathe at great length, and with enormous seriousness. That's partly because good breathing is a crucial way for keeping anxiety at bay. So, when nerves creep up on you (perhaps in that tense moment when you first turn over your exam paper), take a deep breath. Take three. Proper breathing will slow you down and will oxygenate your brain: both essential for clear thinking.
No actor would perform to an audience until they'd done a full run-through in the privacy of the rehearsal room. I advise doing the same with an exam. Simply knowing your subject isn't enough; you need to have rehearsed putting that knowledge into action. Make use of past papers. Do them to time. Get the full process of the exam - the timing, the format, the rhythm of the thing - into your muscle memory before you do it for real.
3. The Space Around You
Almost every actor I know goes into the auditorium before the house is open. They walk around the stage, look out at the balcony seats, check the pathways to entrances and exits, and probably walk around the audience's area too. It's about getting to know the space, so that they feel at home and can forget about it later. It's amazing how many pupils are thrown by the 'exam hall' setting: the size of it, the number of people, the sense of occasion. So, when you sit down to an exam, spend a few moments taking in the space. See who is sitting around you. Notice where the invigilator is, where the clock is and so on. Give yourself a chance to take it all in - then forget about it, and concentrate on the paper in front of you. If you have a chance to see the exam room before your assessments even start, all the better.
4. Check Your Props
A good performer always checks the props table before curtain up, to ensure that everything is in place. No-one wants Othello to be without the handkerchief in the key scene. Similarly, you'll feel much calmer in an exam if you know for sure that you have the ruler, rubber, cartridges etc. at the ready. Any doubt on that front can escalate into crazy worry.
5. Take a break before
In those nerve-wracking moments in the wings, one thing that was completely inadvisable was to attempt to speak through your first scene. Invariably you'd find all the lines had mysteriously exited your head. Similarly, if you try to do your times tables or recite the reactivity series in the queue for the exam room, you'll probably discover that you can't. And you might panic. So leave it out: do the work before, trust it, and try to take a break the night before, and the morning of, an exam.
6. Don't be thrown by others
In any given performance of a professional play, someone will get something wrong: a line, a word, a lighting cue, a scene-change. If the lead actor lets any of these mistakes throw them - then they might lose their cool. Similarly, in an exam, it's important not be bothered by the mistakes and idiosyncrasies of others. Is the person next to you sharpening their pencil into oblivion? Fine. Is the person diagonally across some sort of bizarre mutant who can write two pages in 5 minutes? Let them. Does the boy behind hum when he concentrates? Annoying, but whatever. Focus on your own story.
Mindfulness is a buzzword at the moment - but actors have always practiced the art of being 'in the moment'. You can't play a character successfully if you're thinking about that argument with your boyfriend, or whether or not your babysitter is doing a good job. Similarly, you can't focus on an exam if you're dwelling on yesterday's difficult paper or if you keep casting your mind ahead to what you'll do if you don't get the results you need. Spend a few minutes clearing your head of other concerns on the morning of your exam. Then focus on the now.