Backstage secrets: Performers reveal how they ready themselves for the spotlight
Headstands, wrestling, cups of tea... Five professional performers reveal the backstage rituals they swear by.
Saturday 18 December 2010
Greg Hicks, 57
Actor, Royal Shakespeare Company
I've been acting for over 30 years and the kind of material I've worked on – Greek plays, Pinter, Chekhov, Beckett – I've been very lucky, I've fed off the classics. Lear is the most fearsome. It's like the Grand Canyon of plays. These King Lear, The Winter's Tale, Julius Caesar are great pieces of work, they deserve a little bit of awe. So I never go into a performance without doing something to get my body a little bit more electric – and my mind certainly more electric – and my heart open.
I use a number of Jonathan Monks' yoga techniques – he taught me a system of tripartite breathing in order to further open the chest area out. I do a bit of simple qigong.
But really, at the centre of all that, is my passion for capoeira, which I came across about 13 years ago. A lot of it is played upside down; I like to put myself literally upside down. There's a joke about me at the RSC: "Where's Greg?" "He's standing on his head somewhere".
If I'm feeling nervous or afraid, I'll go out to the front of the stage and do the capoeira moves to empty seats. It puts my body in a state where the music is inside me before I even start – even as Lear you will find, underneath all my robes, I'm using the basic steps.
I don't do voice warm-ups with other people, I've got a funny thing about it. I have to understand how my own voice is reverberating in the space.
My routine is also about clearing the canvas. I don't like to think about what I'm going to do. Within my sensory system is a clear intention to meet that play as if I've never met it before. And that's one of the great challenges of theatre – you've got to do it over and over again, and every time it has to be an event.
And then, well, this is not easy, because it's slightly personal, but I do have a prayer which I say and it helps me. I'm not a Christian or a Muslim or a Buddhist, but I'm not an atheist either – I'm one of these 21st-century people who hedges their bets. What I'm trying to do here is get out of my own way, to become some kind of channel for something bigger than me. And it doesn't always work – some people would say it never works. But it's about reminding me that, whatever I do – even at my best – it's not me doing it.
Greg Hicks plays Leontes ('The Winter's Tale', to 1 Jan), King Lear (to 4 Feb) and Julius Caesar (to 5 Feb) at The Roundhouse as part of the RSC's London season
Simone Messmer, 26
Soloist, American Ballet Theatre
On the day of a performance, we rehearse till 5.45pm. Then I'll go outside and get a coffee and fresh air. Depending on the theatre, the soloists are two or three to a room, or in a room all together. I'm quiet backstage, I don't hold many serious conversations, but there's a group energy that everyone adds to – you're in it together.
I always come back two hours before a show, and get everything ready: I make sure my costume is there, and my headpiece and make-up laid out. I definitely like to have my own little cubby hole. I have a signed Georgina Parkinson picture, which is always in my dressing room spot, and I have a little jewellery box I carry with me.
My lucky charm is an earring, from the first pair of stage earrings my mother gave me when I was 10 or 11. I only have one now, I lost the other. If I'm really nervous, I'll wear it on my costume.
When I'm getting ready, I always start with my hair. I have very short hair, so I have to have extra fake hair, and it's a battle getting it in shape! Then I do my make-up. I do it quickly, so I have an hour and half before going onstage for my physical warm-up. If I'm in a character role, I like someone else to do my make-up – it helps the transformation. I love having elaborate costume and make-up.
I always make sure to be onstage before they close the curtain, so I have time to try things that haven't been going well, and just get used to the stage. Because I'm there so early, I usually have it to myself. For me, to be alone onstage, to have that solitude, is very important – it's like the calm before the storm. It's a tradition for me, I've done it ever since I joined the company in 2003.
How I prepare really depends on the role, but I try to put myself into the character space half an hour before the show; I walk around how she'd walk – not necessarily the steps, but just moving how she'd move.
Often, I'll have an emergency shoe moment – a moment of panic where I start sewing new ribbons on my shoes or change my shoes about 30 seconds before I go on! I think it's the subconscious panic coming out.
I also do breathing exercises. As long as you do the things before the show that make you better, you know your performance will be the best it can be. If you don't, you can ask yourself, "Could it have been better?" and I don't like to ask that question.
Simone Messmer will perform with the American Ballet Theatre at Sadler's Wells, London EC1, 1-6 February
Johnny Flynn, 27
Singer-songwriter and musician
I have a habit of sabotaging any routine in my life that emerges, so I do something different every night. If you have rituals, you can blame them if things go wrong and I think that's an unhealthy mindset.
But generally, I try to stay physically relaxed. You're trying to tap into the natural energy flow of your body – performing is about sharing energy with your audience. If you're sensitive to the energy in your own body, then it can be much more special. I don't want to ever go onstage and not feel like something quite special is happening.
What I do depends if I'm with the band or by myself. With the band, we quite often do something together – like a rugby scrum, we tackle each other or roll around. Two of the band don't really like to be touched, which makes me want to tease them. One time, before a gig in Bristol, we actually had a big ruckus – I told Dave the drummer I was going to tickle his balls, and he got really freaked out, which just encouraged me. We went onstage quite pumped up, but slightly out of breath.
If I'm left on my own I'll do some meditation or yoga or qigong, something to level myself out and ground my breath. And I start making weird noises with my voice, just to hear it and make sure it works. But I'm dipping in and out of it from early on in the day – 20 minutes before going onstage isn't long enough.
Most days I get to the venue at five o'clock. Solo, I've not got very much gear, but with the band it's a huge operation to do the load in and an hour's sound check. There's a certain satisfaction in carrying your own stuff, and we're all quite particular about how we want it set up.
While we're setting up, I'm usually having a jam with the instruments, the guitars and violins. I actually need to practise much more than I do! Particularly the trumpet – my lips are out of shape – but we travel all day in the back of a van and I'd be the most hated person in the van if I started playing there.
If I try to remember lyrics, I'll forget them. Running through them offstage is like death, basically.
I don't usually get nervous in front of a crowd, I get nervous in one-to-one conversations in private. So if I do get butterflies, that's actually good – it can sharpen your mind and make you feel really present.
Johnny Flynn's latest album, 'Been Listening', is out now on Transgressive
Laura Dockrill, 24
I trained at the Brit School [the UK's only free performing arts school], and for any show we had to do an hour and a half voice work – so I'm the only poet on the scene who'll you'll catch backstage doing a warm-up. I go through the vowels, do tongue twisters, and line learning.
I'm a little bit OCD now: I feel if I don't run through all the lines, it'll go badly. Often, I'll go for a walk to practice and so as not to look like a weirdo I'll carry my phone around, turn it off, and do my poems into it.
Some of the rock-star poets you go on tour with drink before they go onstage but I never do – I think I'm the only one who doesn't get absolutely sloshed out of my mind. I just drink lots of water.
I don't do a physical warm-up. I've got a lot of tension in my shoulders from carrying too many bags, but I actually like saving it up, boiling it, and then just exploding onstage. That, for me, is the release.
My mood and my tempo need to be sky high, so people will remember me. My mum always said, "Not everyone's going to like you, but at least if you're mad they'll remember you."
Clothes are important. I've got a giant pair of red sparkly Dorothy shoes which are like my best friends. I got them from a joke shop in Peterborough. When I wear them I feel really confident: they're big and clompy and I can stomp around in them.
Then I've got this dress that's basically a long velvet sock, that's every colour of the rainbow and comes up to my neck. And I've got a dress I love that's black and heart-shaped with all these fluffy coloured pillows around the skirt.
If I'm nervous, I do go super, super fast, a thousand miles an hour. But forgetting words or being nervous can save your show – I've had gigs where cocking something up has actually made an audience warm to me more.
Performance poetry is all about confidence. I take what I do really seriously – if I'm not in love with what I'm doing, how the hell is anyone else going to fall in love with poetry? So I want to be buzzing about every word that comes from my mouth, and I need that nervous energy to thrive on: it's my fuel.
Laura Dockrill's latest poetry collection, 'Echoes', is out now, published by HarperCollins
Piotr Anderszewski, 41
I used to have lots of things I needed to do to prepare on the day of a concert, but nowadays I try to do as little as possible. I like a good lunch and a good nap. I would have a glass of wine – or sake in Japan. Then, ideally, I sleep as long as possible: an hour and a half is fantastic. I wake up and feel completely new and fresh. Sleep does something to your brain, it cleans it. If I don't enjoy my lunch, or I eat very quickly, then that means already I am worried. It is very, very hard to tame nerves.
What time I arrive at a concert hall varies a lot – it depends if there is a piano backstage, how comfortable the dressing room is, and if I can make my tea. Tea is crucial for me. I drink puerh tea, or a good Japanese green tea.
I do breathing exercises backstage; sometimes it can really help, sometimes not at all. I also get cold hands, and I have gloves with me, not that they help tremendously. I used to regularly soak my hands in hot water – but if I need to do that now, it's a bad sign.
Before, I would never even consider doing a concert without a flask of hot soup; it was all about this idea of keeping warm. I also used to pray.
Then I realised, all these mechanisms, you do them out of fear. But they're not going to make the fear smaller. Seventeen or 18 years ago, I played a prestigious concert in a big hall, and I had done all my preparations – all the soup and tea and praying – and I was still very nervous. Two days later, I played a concert in a tiny place, I forgot it all and I played so much better.
There are so many elements that make a good concert – it's impossible to control. It's better to just go with the flow. This is what I try to do: to feel, "I am who I am at this moment, in this hall, with this piano". I want to try to accept that reality.
Sometimes I run through a piece – but that's not a good sign. An incredible amount of work has to happen before a concert: 30 minutes of music takes me months and I am far from mastering it. So on the day, it's just too late.
It's not even a question of being calm, it's a question of not thinking of what I'm going to do or how I'm going to play. The less I mentally prepare, the better the concert is.
Piotr Anderszewski performs Szymanovski's 'Myths' and Beethoven's 'Spring Sonata' with Frank Peter Zimmermann at the Barbican, London EC2, in April
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