When the going gets tough: Actors on stress management

Esther McCarthy speaks to four stars who share their top tips for dealing with stress when the going gets tough STAGE acting can be a deeply rewarding career — but a highly stressful one too, with job uncertainty, irregular hours and first-night nerves all common elements.

STAGE acting can be a deeply rewarding career — but a highly stressful one too, with job uncertainty, irregular hours and first-night nerves all common elements.

Here, four successful actors talk about the resilience and life skills they’ve learned to overcome stress and thrive in their careers.

KELLY CAMPBELL

Actor Kelly Campbell, currently starring in Vikings and forthcoming movie The Other Lamb, combines a successful career on stage and screen. But experience has taught her to be mindful about potential stresses that her career brings.

“My first bout of bad stage fright was on The Wake. I did it in The Abbey in 2016. I had a fear of losing my lines. It’s just this irrational thing that comes over you. And it happens to other actors in other ways.”

On the advice of another actor, she tried hypnosis and found it helpful. “I think that there’s sort of a misconception about hypnosis that someone is taking you into an alternate state. You’re awake and conscious, you’re just going into a deep state of relaxation, where your mind is very open to the power of suggestion or you can possibly reroute emotional channels.”

She feels it’s important to identify when negative feelings are creeping in and learn to deal with them.

“I think as you get older you become more conscious of the ways in which you do that — the ways you stand in your own way. And that’s one of the biggest things for me in addressing my emotional and work state.

I think another hazard of the profession is the fact that we work through our emotions in our physical body. And in order to do good work you have to lay yourself bare to those emotions and those feelings and instincts — they are tools of your profession and your craft

“What I do know you can do, and I have done, is you can develop boundaries around your work, a way to switch off once you come home.

“How do you find a way to ground yourself or to plug yourself back into your real life? The answers can be quite simple like getting out in nature, a natural environment. And sleep is really important.”

Top tip: Be aware of personal doubts and stress triggers.

TERRY O’NEILL

Actor and stand-up comedian Terry O’Neill turns to his previous role — as a successful boxer — when it comes to managing the stresses of performing. He boxed for Ireland at amateur level before embarking on his new career. “When I was boxing I remember I used to put so much pressure on myself at 13, 14 years of age where I become almost OCD with rituals and superstitions that I have to get right or else I wouldn’t be able to perform on the night,” he remembers.

“I was too much in my own head trying to get everything right and I put so much pressure on myself. So now with acting and also comedy I obviously would feel nerves from time to time. I just try to slow everything down and take a couple of breaths. I remind myself that I’ve been here before and I’ve dealt with these kind of situations before.

I think it’s about just being comfortable in that little bit of chaos. I try and turn it inside out, and go: there’s this feeling in my stomach, butterflies, that may not be the most pleasant, but this is my body’s preparatory method for performance and I’m going to be able to think a lot quicker that I normally do

Terry MCs a lot of comedy gigs as well as doing stand up, and he feels that compliments his acting career. “Obviously the wheels come off the wagon a lot in stand-up.

“It feels like you’ve got a little bit less of a safety net. You’re actually kind of improvising and trying to get some fun out of the crowd. That’s definitely great prep for just staying relaxed, staying in the moment.”

Top tip: Have side interests so you can switch focus.

KATE GILMORE

From Fair City to a new production of Light A Penny Candle, running this week at Cork’s Everyman, Kate Gilmore is one of our busiest young actors.

When performance nerves started to creep in she knew she had to find ways to manage them. “I’m 25 now so the last few years have been really formative. As I work more I understand the responsibility of telling whoever’s story it is in a clear, concise and good way.”

At first, she didn’t really talk about the nervousness, until it became too big to ignore. “I just opened up and talked to a couple of people about it and then I realised that it’s a larger problem for a lot of people, a lot of actors. I realised most people go through either a stage or a period of nerves and being scared and feeling pressure. Speaking to other people helped.”

Returning to the stage at the height of her fears with a one-woman production she had successfully performed before also helped.

Facing it head-on in my own show was definitely helpful because I kind of felt like when I got through that I could do anything

She uses several techniques to prepare now. “I’d have it a playlist of meditative sounds, music. Then I do a physical warm up. I try to exert all that physical tension in my body by running around — all actors know that warm-ups are important before you go onstage. I’d have one cup of coffee and no more for the day. I drink a lot of water.”

Acting can be a precarious position as it’s freelance by its very nature, but being self-employed doesn’t faze Kate. “I love the freedom of it. I love not knowing what’s coming.

She never feels worried when a production ends. “I always feel a sense of hope and joy about not knowing what’s happening next.”

Top tip: Preparation is vital — be methodical.

IAN TONER

He’ll soon be appearing in George Clooney’s TV series Catch 22, but much of actor Ian Toner’s work has been on stage. Though never debilitated by stage fright, he has experienced nervousness. “I think it’s probably quite common in people in their early career. All of a sudden you’re acting and that’s how you’re paying your rent. And there are quite real-life consequences to say, doing a bad audition.

“The funny thing about it is that it’s simultaneously very rational and very irrational — it’s very rational to have a fear of standing up in front of hundreds of people. But it’s very irrational because if a play is well rehearsed and if you have experience it’s always fine.”

He never goes on stage without doing vocal and physical warm-up work. Doing a show for five weeks can be quite hard on your vocal cords so if you can do warm-ups that will make that a lot easier. I do think it’s just part of getting in the zone, it’s basically: ‘I’m here now I’m in the theatre and I’m going to perform’.”

He finds the instability of acting life can be very hard and says having other interests is important.

Just try and have a rich life outside of acting because if you can have a life that’s nice when you’re not acting that’s really useful. It’s going to make you a better actor anyway because it’s going to make you more well-rounded person

Top tip: Get in the zone before a presentation.

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