Welcome to our "Steal This Tip!" series on the OC Blog. This series brings you instant, immediately applicable, tried-and-true tips, used by our professional actor/training consultants, to up your communication or presentation skills game. Don't forget to share your own tips in the comments — enjoy!
When it comes to warming up, actors are as strange and ritualistic as any serial killer. There is usually a healthy dose of superstition in some of the often bewildering activities in which we participate before a curtain goes up — next time we chat about this, ask me about the two principal actors who, in front of the entire cast, simply HAD to touch tongue tips during the entr’acte. I only wish I was kidding. But as kooky as they can look and sound, most of our warm-up exercises are firmly rooted in training and technique. An actor’s warm-up routine is as individual as a fingerprint, but generally speaking, they all serve the same purpose: to prepare the voice, body, and mind for what’s about to happen on that stage for the next several hours.
One of my slightly-wacky-favorite-warm-up exercises involves deep breathing. We know from our Essential Presentation Skills that breathing is one of the pillars of combating stage fright; that breathing properly aids our volume and keeps our mind clear and focused. But the problem is that when I get nervous before a show, I fall into the trap of clavicular breathing – short, shallow breaths that do nothing to support my performance. My challenge therefore is deepening my breath, and I found that just using “The Think System” wasn’t cutting it. So I developed my own exercise to help me access my full lung capacity, and I’d like to share it with all of you!
Throughout my training, multiple teachers have encouraged my fellow students and me to visualize our inhalations penetrating various areas of our bodies: lower back, fingertips, toes… you name it, I’ve “breathed into” it. But personally, I found that just imagining that I was breathing into my pelvis wasn’t enough – I needed a physical sensation to connect to the imagery. So what I started doing was combining stretching and breathing. Not an original idea, I know, but usually this combo is presented from the physical angle – using your breath to help deepen and sustain a stretch. I simply shifted my focus to using a stretch to direct my breath, and I found that I was able to lengthen and deepen my breath immediately.
For example, when I would perform the role of Sophie in Mamma Mia, as I was standing on the stage behind the curtain while the overture was playing, I’d run over to the iron ladder rungs in the set piece, grab one, round my back, and pull! I’d feel my lower back muscles engaging and think about sending my breath to that place. Instantly I’d feel my breath moving deeper into my lungs, my breathing would slow, and my mind would calm. And (much to the chagrin of my stage managers) at the last second, I’d take my place and the curtain would rise, and I would sing the first notes of the show.
Giving a business presentation is often very stressful for many of us, and clavicular breathing is definitely a symptom of that stress. So next time you feel your breath becoming shallow and high, strike a pose! Find a stretch that engages the muscles below your sternum – a gentle side stretch, a rounded back – anything that directs your mind “Here, here! Send your breath here!” In my experience, the synergy between the mental intention and the physical sensation will serve you much better than simply thinking, “Breathe deeply!” A deeper, slower breath = a calm mind and sufficient volume — tools that will serve you well throughout the duration of your presentation.