New Study Investigates Stage Fright in Elite Actors
Actor turned media psychologist perfectly poised to study stage fright
Posted Jul 25, 2011
For this entry, I interviewed Dr. Gordon Goodman, the media psychologist whose dissertation is the first psychological investigation focusing on the phenomenon of stage fright in a sample of elite actors. As a professional working actor living in LA, Gordon was in an excellent position to recruit the pool of elite actors who participated in the research. Working professional actors from Broadway, television, and film formed the 136 participants, all union members and associated with two elite professional organizations in California: the world famous Sacramento Music Circus and the Musical Theatre Guild of Los Angeles. Actors performing at the Music Circus include Tony Award winners and some of the most famous theatre, film, and TV stars in history; and the Musical Theatre Guild is comprised of elite theatre and television actors from both coasts.
Gordon also produced a video that presents this research in detail; click play, below, to watch:
KD: Gordon, what would you say is the take-away message from your dissertation?
GG: In my dissertation on elite actors and stage fright, the most interesting finding was that the things we normally think might affect stage fright simply don't. Confidence was the only predictive variable, with Neuroticism lagging far behind. Professional status, experience, success, age, or levels of Extraversion didn't seem to matter. Stage fright is still a function of each new situation and the amount of confidence they have going into that situation. Confidence allows one the luxury of focusing on the performance rather than possible negative outcomes.
KD: Can you tell me more about stage fright and its relationship with actor confidence?
The greatest danger to a performance is when the brain goes into overload because of excessive worry. Worry is caused by some imposing threat, usually the importance of the upcoming performance. Distraction ensues and overloads the actor's cognitive capacity. Confidence seems to prevent this overload, even in high arousal states.
KD: Gordon, I know you have been singing and acting professionally since you were a teenager. Can you give me any examples of professional actors and their experience with stage fright in light of your dissertation findings?
GG: The late Sherwood Schwartz, creator of Gilligan's Island, the Brady Bunch, and writer of most of the Bob Hope shows, told me that Bob would often wait in the wings nervously bouncing on his toes before entering stage. When asked if he was nervous he said, "If I'm not like this, the show won't be any good." His confidence interpreted his nervousness as a good thing. When Bob had Clark Gable as a guest, however, Clark was shaking so badly he couldn't read a page of dialogue live, standing at a microphone. His nervousness was interpreted as fear because he had no confidence in that situation.
KD: What advice would you give professional actors who are plagued by stage fright?
GG: The question is, "How does one increase confidence?" Rehearsal and habituation is only a part of that process, since actors have stage fright even after they've memorized the material. The answer depends upon levels of threat. Where no threat exists, no stage fright exists. The problem is, the threat a situation holds is dependent on one's subjective interpretation, so we're back to confidence again. To get around this catch 22, professional actors seem to whittle down the task, making it easier to manage in threatening situations, making the audition material basic enough that it doesn't need cognitive control. Walk on, say your lines and exit. No bells or whistles. As one's confidence in a situation grows, the performance can instantly balloon into something extraordinary.
KD: Thank you so much, Gordon. There aren't many psychologists who are also professional actors. You really were in a unique position to understand this subject from experience and through the lens of psychological research. I know a lot of people will be interested in your findings. Congratulations!
Gordon Goodman's biography can be found at http://www.nuwerks.com/Author.html
Gordon's dissertation chair was Dr. Jean-Pierre Isbouts. Dr. Isbouts is a film maker and media psychology professor at the Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, CA. For more on his work, see: http://www.pantheontv.com/Pantheon_Studios/Home.html