As you memorize your lines and rehearse the play, you will begin developing your "character". Your character of course is the part you are playing. Keep in mind that when you are in a play, you are in a character. You are Hamlet not Joe Schmo. You will get a feeling for your character when you put on your costume and make up. Yes guys, you will have to wear make up. The reason for this is that under the bright lights of the stage, your face washes out into a faded blur of nothingness. You will wear a "base" or "foundation" make up that gives your face a richer tone of color and removes the faded blur look. Also you may wear eye liner to define your eyes on your face. Many rock stars use eye liner. If you are playing an old character, you will be given wrinkles and gray tinted hair spray to age you.
You will look less and less like the real you. Under make up, you will begin feeling like someone else and that person is your character. Your costume will also add to the "someone else" feeling. If the play is set in a different time period like the 1800's or 1920's, you will be wearing older style clothes. Just wearing those clothes will make you feel different. And that is the point of playing a character, it is someone different.
Although you know the person on the stage is only you in a costume and make-up, it is not supposed to be you. The words you are speaking are not your own words, nor is the play a representation of your life. I have known actors who get confused by this fact.
Example: I was in a play with a girl who absolutely refused to wear her costume. When the director asked her "why?" she replied. "I would never wear colors like that! They don't even match!" He replied, "You aren't wearing those colors! Your character is!"
Get used to the idea that you are playing a character and not yourself. Your character may say or do things you would never say nor do. One of the joys of acting is expanding and exploring your mind. You may be playing a deranged ax murderer, a Druid Ninja or a mutant Oak Tree - where else can you become these characters without being arrested or committed to an institution? Once you free "yourself" from your character, it will aid all the choices you make on stage and you will not worry that wearing green pants with a maroon sweater and white shoes is a fashion train wreck you would never personally wear. A character is nothing personal.
The point of making a distinction between you and the character you are playing helps with the issue of nerves. Granted, the very first time I set foot on a stage in front of a live audience, I was very nervous. But once I said my first line, my nervousness dropped a few notches. As I spoke my second line, it dropped even more. Many experienced actors will tell you the same thing - as soon as you speak your first line, you forget all about being nervous.
The Nerve Barrier
I read an article concerning "public speaking" and the reality of being "nervous" in front of people. Essentially, "public speaking" is you facing a roomful of people and talking about something. You are not playing a character, you are being yourself. The article went on to say that people giving a speech or presentation, tended to feel more secure when they had an object between themselves and the audience, such as a podium or desk. Psychologically, the desk/podium was an object that represented a barrier between them and the audience. This object separated them and was in effect, protection or a security blanket. If for some bizarre reason the crowd staged an attack, the speaker could hide behind the podium. In the old days if an audience didn't like you or what you were saying, they would throw objects such as tomatoes and other assorted fruit and vegetation. Perhaps a podium was invented more as a vegetable bunker and not so much as place to hold papers.
Much in the same way a speaker has a barrier between himself and the crowd, an actor has a barrier of a "character" he or she can hide behind. Nerves usually strike when you think about people watching you and judging you for what you do and what you say. But if you keep in mind, it's the character that is doing and saying things, not you, it should take your nerves down a few notches. A character is your security blanket. Of course, the barrier of a character isn't quite as secure as a large podium to protect you from hurling objects, but audiences nowadays are a tad more forgiving.
It is very natural to be nervous right before you go on stage. Once you step foot on stage and become part of the play, your mind doesn't have time to think about how nervous you are. It's too busy recalling all of your lines and blocking that you've memorized. As you are absorbed into the flow of the play, your nerves get pushed to the back of your mind.
Comfort Food For Thought
Experience has taught me, that how nervous I am before a show - is directly proportional to how secure I am in knowing my lines. If I don't feel secure with my lines, then my nervousness is doubled. Nerves can even be effected by your fellow actors. If you have a scene with someone who has gone blank a few times in rehearsal or jumps around in the script, it's doubtful that you will feel comfortable with them on stage. The key here is comfort. You feel comfortable when you know your lines and know that other actors know their lines. Fear produces nervousness and of course, fear is bred by the unknown. You can eliminate fear by eliminating th unknown. Then you can relax.
How Can I Relax?
Many actors I have worked with have a routine to help them relax before a live performance, such as stretching out as if they are about to run a marathon and others find a dark quiet place and want to be left alone. Others turn their nervousness into insane energy and jump around like a 6 year old who just consumed a pound of sugar.
Whatever method helps you to relax, I suggest you do it. Feeling relaxed just before you go on stage will carry over onto the stage. I personally have tried many methods and now I have it down to just stretching out a little to relax the muscles and then spending some time in a quiet place to focus my thoughts. Again, feeling calm and relaxed helps brings your nervousness down to zero before you hit the stage. Believe me, there are enough things that may happen to you on stage that erase any calm relaxed feeling, so it best to start out at zero.
From Zero to 60 in One Second
There was an older actor that I had worked with on a few occasions. He was a very good actor but had a terrible time remembering all of his lines. I really enjoyed working with him but never felt comfortable with him on stage. When he couldn't remember his line, he had a bad habit of saying any line that came into is head. Sometimes the line he said was 15 pages into the second act. Problem was you were actually on page 2 of the first act.
Another funny habit this actor had was his lack of eye contact. He had a tendency to look above your head as he was speaking to you, as if there were a spot on the ceiling he was fascinated by. He never made direct eye contact, that is, unless he went blank. If you were in a scene and he looked directly at you, actually made eye contact, then you knew your were in trouble.
This actor's real issue was his nerves. Since he was so forgetful, he was extremely nervous on stage and his mind was racing a mile a second. Instead of relaxing and slowing his mind down, it was a jumbled mess of racing thoughts. Therefore, when he went blank on stage and tried to recall his line, instead of taking a second to think he would just throw anything out. Of course, 9 times out of 10, it was from the wrong scene. Sometimes it was from the wrong play.
Granted, not all actors will give you clues and not all actors will give you comfort. The best way to work toward feeling comfortable and eliminating fear on stage is running the play and the lines over and over and over until you could do it in your sleep. It's also helpful when you work with someone who tends to go blank quite a bit, is to know their lines so you can keep the flow going and on keep it on track. Feeling relaxed before you take the stage is beneficial because if you are out there "freaking out" from the start and an actor goes blank or jumps 20 pages, you may totally spaz out and run screaming from the stage. And we know screaming will upstage everyone.
But seriously, the point is that the more relaxed and comfortable you are, the easier it is for your mind to think. The faster you are able to solve whatever issue has interrupted the flow of the play. More about 'saving flow' later.
Can You See it?
As I have pointed out, rehearsals are very important to helping your memorization and also getting an idea of the flow and pace of the show. There is a technique used by famous people, especially athletes called "visualization". Before they take the field they visualize themselves in the game. A baseball pitcher may mentally see himself keeping the ball down to good hitters. A quarterback will imagine himself dropping back and throwing a perfect pass to the wide receiver. An actor can visualize themselves on stage, saying every line perfectly, conveying every emotion and getting the audience into the palm of their hand - this visualization is called rehearsals. Yes, a rehearsal is really a live visualization. The director will be visualizing each scene and performance and how it will play to an audience. The actor can use the same technique in rehearsals. I personally have used "visualizing" a few times to help me get a feeling for my character and surroundings. In college I did a play where the setting was representational, meaning the set did not actually have flats to represent walls. (Novice note: a "flat" is a large piece of fabric, canvas or other stretched over a large wooden frame. They are propped up to create the walls or other parts of a set.)
We had a bare stage and the only set pieces we had besides a few tables and a counter, was a door frame and a window frame suspended from the ceiling to represent, well... a door and a window. The rest of the stage was surrounded by black curtains.
The play was set in a old time drug store in Brooklyn and to help me get a feeling for it, I came in early before rehearsals and walked around the empty space and visualized what it would look like in reality. I imagined what the walls would look like, old and dirty, with advertisements hanging on them. I pictured the drug store shelves and what they would like stocked with all kinds of stuff. What the floor would like etc.. Just visualizing those features made me feel very comfortable on stage. And when I was comfortable on the stage, I was relaxed.