“Whether you think you can or you think you can’t… chances are you’re right” by Rebecca Fixemer

At the end of the first term, the actors of the IAB had a great opportunity to participate in an accent training workshop, followed by a stage fright workshop.

We were all very impressed when Liam O’Sullivan, the workshop leader, suddenly started reciting Shakespeare and songs such as “The Greatest Love of All”, in a variety of accents including Italian, German, Redneck, Jamaican, Various Irish Accents, and even the Homeboy accent. It was inspiring to listen to him jump from one to the next on command and made for a very exciting beginning to a fruitful few hours.

The accent technique we learnt was a simple, yet effective one. All it takes is listening in your own accent, then writing it out the way you hear it, and finally reading it out loud and sounding like the accent you are trying to master. Then it’s up to you to add details such as intonation patterns, once the vowel sounds come easily. For example, we learnt the Irish national anthem. When the first line was read out loud, I in my English accent wrote out the sounds like this:

“SHEENA FEENA FAHL”

Now, I have no idea how you would actually spell these words, but when I read those words in my accent, it sounded Irish. We continued this process until we had the whole group singing the Irish national anthem, and it was fantastic to hear.

After the accent workshop, we moved on to the stage fright workshop, which was equally intriguing to me. Liam began by explaining how this workshop could change our lives, not necessarily in form of a major epiphany, but with a ripple effect like a pebble dropped into water: A small change, an incremental shift in people’s perception, can grow and send you on a completely different path in the long term. Then he told us we would be tested on the workshop, and I could already feel myself get nervous. Lucky for us there was no test, but our reaction was already an example of a change in emotion; a fear, or performance anxiety.

He then explained how stage fright happens: When we get scared or emotionally hijacked, our instinct takes us into the Fight, Flight or Freeze mode, and it becomes biologically impossible to think properly, because our brains go into survival mode. This primitive instinct was meant to keep us alive, but some situations, such as being on stage, trigger this instinct at an inconvenient time. 

In these situations, we get an adrenaline rush. This overload can be your best friend or your worst enemy. If it becomes too much: you can’t think and you panic, but if you use it well, it can give you a rush of energy which you can channel into your work on stage, keeping you alert, present and concentrated.
There are four stages of learning, as exemplified by learning to drive:

1.Unconscious Incompetence – When your parents drive and you just sit there.
2.Conscious Incompetence – When you take your first lesson and you have no idea what you are doing.
3.Conscious Competence – When you have learnt everything and are ready to drive but are still concentrating on not making mistakes.
4.Unconscious Incompetence – When you are experienced and you no longer need to think about what you are doing, and you just do it naturally.

When you are afraid, you go on stage and switch from stage 4, to stage 3, and because you overthink you look like you are unsure, even though you know what you are doing. Trust that you know your craft in these moments.

Are you a Coward or a Hero? Liam asked us. Then he went on to suggest that it is the people who are afraid but never give up, and keep trying, they are the true heroes. Everyone who ever had stage fright but was still fighting for their dream was asked to get up and we clapped for them. The actor Henry Fonda threw up backstage before every show from fear, but never gave up. Madonna said: 

“Sometimes I own the world, sometimes it feels like people are stealing my oxygen.” 

Liam told us that if we were at the bottom of the class, it was the best place to be in order to grow. You have the most to learn and people around to motivate, inspire and help you. The level is high and you progress faster. Those that are already at the top struggle the most, because they have nowhere to go.

Finally, he gave us some advice on calming ourselves during a moment of fear. 

– A particular smell with a positive association, will override a thought. If you breathe in a nice smell before a show, this is called a smell anchor, and it can calm your fear.
– 7-11 breathing is a tactic that stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, and fools the brain into thinking “all good here”. You breathe in for 7 counts, and out for 11. This means counts, not seconds, count aloud in your head (this breaks the cycle of your thoughts) and keep your tongue towards the roof of your mouth without touching it. The more you drill it, and repeat this exercise, the better your body will remember it, and you can train yourself to calm down every time you do this.
– Concentrate on your peripheral vision. When we get scared the brain jumps into foveal vision, where we focus on one point. If we focus on the things we can see from the corner of our eye, we won’t be scared or anxious. Hold your hands in front of you at arm’s length, then open them up slowly until you can barely see each hand from the corner of each eye. This is your peripheral vision.
– The final exercise is to ask for a pizza at McDonalds. It might sound silly, but to make yourself look like a fool voluntarily as an adult, you feel the fear in anticipation, but then when it’s over you think; “For What?” You come to realize that it’s not a big deal, and when you go through that you learn what it’s all about. We build up fear in anticipation of something that turns out to be alright in the end.

Overall I felt that these few hours with Liam were very inspiring, and it gave me a lot of food for thought. I personally really liked the quotation: 

“Whether you think you can or you think you can’t… chances are you’re right”

I often worry that I can’t do something, and maybe the key to improving is simply to believe in myself and my abilities and not be afraid of failure: or rather accept the fear but not let it override me, and allow the adrenaline to be something great. This, and many other things that were said, really spoke to me, and inspired me to take some things less seriously, be more playful and curious, and hopefully I will feel the ripple effect in my own work in the future, as I do sometimes get stumped by my own nerves when performing, particularly during assessments. I look forward to testing these techniques, and I thoroughly enjoyed the exciting presentation filled with inspiring examples and motivating stories.

Written by Rebecca Fixemer