Performance Anxiety: Constantin Stanislavski's Concept of Public Solitude
HYSTERIUM: I'm calm, I'm calm,
I'm perfectly calm,
I'm utterly under control.
I haven't a worry—
Where others would hurry,
(HE runs frantically around the stage.)
I'm calm, I'm cool,
A gibbering fool
Is something I never become!
When thunder is rumbling
And others are crumbling,
(HE tries to hum; it becomes a stifled scream.)
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum1
In a circle of light on the stage in the midst of darkness,
you have the sensation of being entirely alone. [. . .] This is
called solitude in public. [. . .] During a performance, before an audience of
thousands, you can always enclose yourself in this circle,
like a snail in its shell. [. . .] You can carry it with you wherever you go.
Constantin Stanislavski, An Actor's Handbook2
Most major university libraries contain a minimum of 50 books about, by, or inspired by Constantin Stanislavski (1863-1938). An actor, director, producer, and founder of the Moscow Art Theatre, Stanislavski is best known for his innovative "method" system of acting. His highly influential trilogy, An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, and Creating a Role, and the teachings contained therein have been the basis for the teachings of the top acting pedagogues of the twentieth century, including Elia Kazan, Sanford Meisner, and Uta Hagen. Lee Strasberg of the Actor's Studio in New York said of Stanislavski, "Probably no other name—besides Shakespeare's—is heard so often in the theatre."3 As a musician and actor, I have found that many of the acting techniques taught by Stanislavski have helped immeasurably in my own performances and in the teaching of my students. Stanislavski's concepts have become a very important part of my pedagogy. In my experience, two of his techniques have proven particularly helpful in dealing with performance anxiety. This article is by no means an attempt to declare these techniques the only possibilities for managing stage fright, but is intended to add to the many techniques already in use by musicians.
Performance anxiety, also referred to as stage fright or "nerves," affects most performers. One reason for this is a lack of preparation on the part of the performer. However, even when performers are well prepared for a performance, there are still numerous causes for stage fright. Actors worry about forgetting a line, executing the wrong blocking, or missing a cue. They worry about the size of the audience or imagine they are being judged negatively on their appearance or acting skills. They feel far more comfortable in the rehearsal hall than on stage. Some actors try to convince themselves that the audience is not even present in order to help them calm down. Stanislavski explained that actors should not ignore the audience completely in an attempt to avoid stage fright, but that they may achieve a sense of solitude, while remaining in the public eye.
Stanislavski recounted an experience he had with stage fright. He arrived at the theater for a performance feeling perfectly calm and confident, but the moment he entered his dressing room his heart rate increased and he began to feel less certain of his ability to complete the performance.4 As he stood in the wings, his fear intensified because of the solemnity and silence of the general theatrical atmosphere. As he walked onto the stage, the spotlights blinded him, which helped him to feel alone; he felt calm and able to perform. The lights created a protective curtain between him and the audience. As his eyes adjusted gradually to the light and he could discern the presence of an audience, the calm departed, replaced by all the earlier nervous tension and anxiety. He felt empty inside and was unable to communicate the desired performance. As his frustration at the situation grew, it turned into anger. He channeled his anger into the performance, which gave it life and vibrancy. This affected the other performers, infusing their performances with more vitality. During these moments on stage, he felt all fear leave him.5 He later determined, however, that allowing his emotions to carry him away was not the best solution to stage fright. At all times, he taught, actors must be in control of their emotions.6
On another occasion, during a rehearsal, Stanislavski saw a man drop some nails on the stage. As he helped the man gather up the nails, he realized that he was no longer concerned about being on stage, but focused entirely on the task. He said, "I realized that from the very moment I concentrated on something behind the footlights, I cease [sic] to think about what was going on in front of them."7 Whether it was picking up nails or allowing his anger to take over, concentrating on something on stage rather than in the audience allowed him to forget his fear and self-consciousness. He could perform successfully. "An actor must have a point of attention," he said, "and this point of attention must not be in the auditorium."8 Another benefit of maintaining focus on a point of attention on stage is that such focus draws the audience in by making them interested in what is holding the actor's attention.9
In order to help actors focus their attention, Stanislavski helped his students create a sense of public solitude on stage by turning all the lights off except for one spotlight on a solitary student in the center of the stage. The student could see nothing except what was in the circle. As in Stanislavski's experience of walking on stage, blinded by the lights, the student felt protected by the light; he or she felt at home and comfortable. Stanislavski then instructed the student to take note immediately of his or her mood. The student was in public because other people were observing the whole process, but he or she was in solitude because the small circle of attention created a barrier from everyone else. Thus, during a performance before an audience of thousands, the student can always enclose himself or herself within the circle like a snail in its shell.
Stanislavski then increased the size of the spotlight to make a medium circle that included other actors and some props. After the actor felt "at home and comfortable" in the medium circle, Stanislavski made a large circle, which included the whole stage. Stanislavski explained that as the circle expands, the actor must be able to visualize the border at all times. If at any point the border begins to waver, the actor must back up into a smaller circle. He then repeated the exercise of the three circles but without any help from spotlights. All the house and stage lights were turned back on, and the students worked through the routine again, starting with the smallest circle. They had to imagine the outline created previously by the spotlight. As they became able to imagine the different sized circles without the help of the spotlight, they gained the ability to create their own comfort zone in front of an audience.10
Musicians are affected by performance anxiety for many of the same reasons. Sometimes, performance anxiety occurs simply because there are other people in the room. Musicians, like actors, are also worried about what the audience is thinking of them or are overwhelmed by the number of people in the room. They are afraid of being judged, not only on their musical skill, but also on their appearance, choice of repertoire, accompanist, etc. Unlike actors, musicians have to also worry about their instrument. As clarinetist Jack Brymer wrote,
There is certainly plenty to be pessimistic about; if one were to consider all the tiny springs, pads, corks, and gadgets upon which one has to rely for a performance, it would seem unlikely ever to take place. And of course—the reed!11
Most students say that in the practice room they feel fine and do not shake or perspire, but the minute they get in front of people the nervousness and anxiety begin. Some students even experience stage fright during private lessons when the only other person present is the teacher.
Don Greene, a sports trainer who has worked with, among many others, the US Olympic Diving Team, Golf Digest, Vail Ski School, and the New World, Houston, and St. Louis Symphonies, recognized similar problems in both musicians and athletes when it comes to "nerves":
And yet it's amazing how many people, in times of stress, fall back on their weaknesses rather than on their strengths. Without a clear strategy to deal with fear, most people will just shut down. They'll get constricted and the tension will choke away all the raw playing talent. You start playing carefully and cautiously, and that takes away from the sparkle and energy. In the sports world, there's a big difference between playing not to lose and playing to win.12
"Playing not to lose" for a musician may involve a performance without wrong notes, squawks or squeaks (which is certainly fine), but if the focus is only on the technical aspects, musicality will suffer. The reverse is also true—if the focus is only on musicality, the technical aspects will suffer. Musicians should be "playing to win," meaning that they should expect the best and do everything they can to present an interesting and expressive performance.
Pamela Weston asserts that it is imperative that musicians either avoid becoming nervous through preparation or appear calm, but she does not offer much advice beyond that.13 She even proclaims, "if [the musician] . . . goes to pieces with nerves then he should probably keep off the concert platform"—a less-than-satisfactory solution.14 David Pino offers practical advice in addition to preparation, relaxation, and "acting" confident. He suggests avoiding huge meals before performing, because once the "butterflies" start, the musician will be glad they are not being crowded by a lot of undigested food. He also suggests sharing a recital with another performer to lessen the amount of pressure.15
In attempts to overcome stage fright, many musicians resort to taking tranquilizers or alcohol. These drugs help calm a rapid heartbeat as well as muscles that are shaking. Many musicians will not perform without them, despite the fact that it often lessens their ability to play as expressively as they would like. Also, according to a medical journal, there may be other negative side effects, such as lower blood pressure, weakness, fatigue, mental confusion and upset stomach—each a condition not conducive to optimal performance. Other performers take "beta blockers," such as Propranolol (a drug used to treat angina and hypertension), which help reduce nervousness and shaking without affecting the mental processes involved in performing.16
Another technique musicians use to help overcome performance anxiety is to close their eyes while performing, to shut the audience out. This can result in the audience feeling detached from the performer, and can, in turn, cause the audience to be less interested in the performance overall. Others rely on adrenalin to help them through a performance, just as Stanislavski found that his anger and frustration carried him through a scene. The trouble with this, as Stanislavski has pointed out, is that adrenalin, strong emotions, and bursts of inspiration are often fleeting and may not be there when the performer needs them most.
Musicians afflicted with stage fright can combat it in a completely new way by calling on Stanislavski's idea of "public solitude" to overcome their performance fears. Musicians could go through the same "circle" exercise as Stanislavski did with his students, with appropriate variations. The smallest circle contains only the musician; the medium circle includes the pianist, page-turner, or chamber musicians; the larger circle is the entire stage; even larger circles can expand to include the audience, depending on the comfort level of the musician. Using an actual spotlight would be very helpful, but if this is not possible, musicians can use their imagination to create the different circles. This technique is not intended to block out the audience, even though that is the initial purpose of the smaller circles. The hope is that as the musician expands the circle gradually, he or she can draw more and more people into the "at home and comfortable" zone.
The Fourth Wall
JOHN: Is anybody there?
Does anybody care?
Does anybody see what I see?
When, by aid of the required technique, you learn how to put an object in its right place, when you understand the relation of vision to distance, then it will be safe for you to look toward the auditorium.
Constantin Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares18
One radical difference between acting on a stage and performing music on a stage is the existence of "the fourth wall." It exists for actors but not for most musicians, since the latter have rarely heard of it. The concept is simple: the actors do not acknowledge the audience overtly. The audience is looking at the action of the play through an imaginary fourth wall.19 The rear of the stage is one wall, the wings on either side of the stage are two more walls, and the front of the stage is the fourth wall. When actors look directly at the audience, they are said to be "breaking the fourth wall." Though sometimes playwrights instruct actors to break the fourth wall for artistic reasons, such as soliloquies, actors are told not to look directly at the audience. They may look at the fourth wall itself, but not at the audience.
An exercise Stanislavski uses for actors is one in which he has students create mentally and describe verbally the fourth wall, and then interact with something on it. If the object they are envisioning is a mirror, they should look at themselves in the mirror; if a painting needs straightening, they should straighten it. To accomplish either of these tasks, it is required that they know exactly how large the objects are, where they are located on the wall, and then, if they look away from the object, they must be able to look back at it from anywhere on the stage and still see it in its original place.20
Some musicians create a harmful version of the fourth wall with their music stands. They bury their faces in the music, blocking their view of the audience entirely. Others create a fourth wall with their eyelids. In other words, they memorize their music and keep their eyes closed in order to block out the audience. As noted, this distances them from the audience even more than a music stand, because with a music stand the audience can at least see the performer's eyeballs.
Musicians can, and at times should, break the fourth wall to include the audience in their performances. Stanislavski held that the audience is an important co-creator of the performance.21 By definition, the fourth wall causes problems with communing with the audience and including them in the performance. However, if musicians need help overcoming stage fright, they could adapt Stanislavski's techniques by using the fourth wall. With practice, they could imagine a nice wall in front of them with various framed landscape paintings, a table up against the wall with a vase of flowers on it, a telephone or a door. Then, even if they are performing memorized, they can look right at the audience without seeing them. Instead, the musicians are seeing a Monet painting, or an ornate tapestry. Musicians can look from picture to picture, from floor to ceiling, giving the audience the impression that they are focusing on and communing with them. Expanding further on Stanislavski's technique, there could even be a door in the fourth wall, or windows, through which musicians could look at the audience but still feel protected by the wall. The window or door could even be placed so that the musicians could focus on friends or family who would be less likely to increase nervousness. The goal would then be to make the wall contain more and more windows until the wall is made completely of glass, and then be gone altogether.
Through the concept of public solitude and the techniques associated with the fourth wall, musicians can shut the audience out initially, making it possible for them to perform without nervousness. Then, as they grow confident in the small circle or behind a fairly solid fourth wall, they can expand the circle or put some windows in the wall, and bring the audience gradually into their comfort zone. Through expanding the circle continually or diminishing the size and scope of the fourth wall, musicians can feel confident in front of any size audience.
Aaron, Stephen. Stage Fright: Its Role in Acting. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986.
Brantigan, Charles O., Thomas A. Brantigan, and Neil Joseph. "The Effect of Beta Blockade on Stage Fright." Rocky Mountain Medical Journal 76, (1979): 227-32.
Brymer, Jack. Clarinet. Revised ed. London: Kahn & Averill, 1990.
Moore, Sonia. The Stanislavski System: The Professional Training of an Actor. 2nd revised ed. New York: Viking Press, 1965.
Pino, David. The Clarinet and Clarinet Playing. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1998.
Shevelove, Burt, Larry Gelbart and Stephen Sondheim. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: A Musical Comedy Based on the Plays of Plautus. New York: Dodd & Mead, 1963.
Smith, Ken. "No Fear: Sports Trainer Don Greene Demystifies the Stage Jitters." Strings 14 (2000): 65.
Stanislavski, Constantin. An Actor Prepares. Translated by Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1989.
Stanislavski, Constantin. An Actor's Handbook: An Alphabetical Arrangement of Concise Statements on Aspects of Acting. Edited and translated by Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1963.
Stanislavsky, Constantin. My Life in Art. Translated by J. J. Robbins. Boston: Little & Brown, 1924.
Stone, Peter and Sherman Edwards. 1776: A Musical Play. New York: Viking, 1972.
Strasberg, Lee. A Dream of Passion: The Development of the Method. Boston: Little & Brown, 1987.
Weston, Pamela. The Clarinet Teacher's Companion. Plymouth, England: Clarke, Doble & Brendon, 1976.
1Shevelove, Gelbart, and Sondheim, A Funny Thing, 58.
2Stanislavski, Actor's Handbook, 115.
3Strasberg, Dream of Passion, 42.
4This experience is actually attributed to the fictional character, Kostya, in Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares. However, since the character of Kostya is based on Stanislavski's own experiences, Stanislavski's name will be used in place of Kostya's throughout the article.
5Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares, 10-11.
9Stanislavsky, My Life in Art, 464.
10Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares, 82-85.
11Brymer, Clarinet, 203.
12Smith, "No Fear," 65.
13Weston, Clarinet Teacher's Companion, 113.
15Pino, Clarinet, 187-9.
16Brantigan, Brantigan, and Joseph, "The Effect," 227-32.
17Stone and Edwards, 1776, 127.
18Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares, 91.
19Aaron, Stage Fright, 18.
20Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares, 75-81, 90-91.
21Moore, Stanislavski System, 30.