Developing an Onstage Persona

Do you adopt an onstage persona or do you perform as yourself? It’s an interesting question. It may depend on your level of self-efficacy or how introverted vs extraverted you are or perhaps you want to keep a piece of yourself away from the public eye? 

To the best of my knowledge no one has investigated the reasons behind this choice but what is well known is that many performing artists adopt an onstage persona to enhance their performance confidence and bravery. Perhaps the most well known being Beyonce’s onstage persona “Sasha Fierce” which she adopted as a younger artist to overcome shyness when performing, a persona she no longer claims to need as she has grown in her performance confidence.

One of the ways professional performing artists and elite athletes maintain strong performances is by consistently using a pattern of thoughts and behaviours prior to performance that assist them to get in their Performance Mindset be that an Onstage Persona or a Peak Performance version of themselves. 

This pattern is called a Pre-Performance Routine and enables artists and athletes to find their flow state and get in the zone

Pre-Performance Routines help manage anxiety, gain focused, engage a strong mind/body connection, cue memory recall and transition to a performance mindset. 

Because every artist thinks differently, no two people’s pre-performance routines are the same which makes them difficult to teach. Traditionally routines have developed through trial and error, working out what tools work best to manage their energy levels, feelings of anxiety and garner required focus. However these days in sport they are taught by sports psychologists and coaches.

Some artists take as little as 10 minutes and others have a 2 day routine but most routines appear to take about 2 hours.

So what is a Pre-Performance Routine and how do I teach one?

Pre-performance routines are made up of cognitive tools, behavioural tools, memory cues and transition rituals. I’ll go through each type but most artists only use a selection of these, usually 6 or 7 components from across all 4 lists. It’s important to remember that there is no “one size fits all”.

Cognitive Tools 

Cognitive tools are thought patterns that facilitate a change in mindset. 

For example, thought stopping – when negative thoughts cross your consciousness – putting up a mental STOP sign and replacing it with a positive thought that facilitates strong performance.

e.g. I hope I don’t trip over in these shoes! STOP! I’ve practised in these shoes and I know how to walk!

Using images, trigger words or music to create a mood that mentally prepares you for performance. For some performers their triggers are calming such as images of the ocean or a walk in a forest but for others the triggers are emotively charged and serve to pump the artist up such as music with a strong rhythmic drive.

Positive self-talk, having a loop of thoughts that encourage you to perform your best is the most common tool used. These thoughts are typically unique and reflective of the performers’ personality so they can vary enormously. However what is key is they need to be written down or well memorised otherwise the artist won’t remember them when the stress hormones kick in.

Behavioural Tools

Behavioural tools are physical actions performers use to warm up their bodies, engage their mind/body connection and manage stress hormone levels. 

Almost everyone uses some kind of physical warm ups prior to performance but there are a range of other behavioural tools also employed. 

Some performers get rid of excess adrenalin through exercise whilst others calm themselves down using meditation or other relaxation techniques. 

Tai Chi, Yoga or Alexander Technique are also commonly employed. 

Some performers require time alone whilst others need the energy of others around them. Take a second to think about this, which one are you? Do you perform your best when surrounded by others backstage or do you require time alone?

Distraction is a well used tool as a means of stopping overthinking or becoming too anxious before a performance. Books, jigsaws, puzzles and games (digital or physical) can all be useful tools to keep adrenalin levels at manageable levels.  

I know a professional pianist who plays games on his phone until literally seconds before he has to walk on and play. It wouldn’t work for me but this technique helps him to keep his anxiety at bay.

Superstitious rituals are also rife amongst performers. Many are nonsensical to others but for the artist they create a sense of control and cue an optimal performance mindset. 

My favourite superstitious ritual is by a male dancer who prior to every performance wants to leave the theatre and go home but then he takes a minute to sit down, have a cappuccino and a chocolate muffin. Then he was good to go! LOL

Memory Cues

Let’s be honest, performing artists usually have to memorise a lot of material so behaviours that cue memory recall are integral in many pre-performance routines. 

Most common are mental rehearsal, listening to the score and reviewing scripts. For others, the donning  of a costume, a particular perfume or make-up can act as memory enhancers. 

I read about a principal artist in a ballet company who wore a specific perfume for every role she performed so even years later when reviving a role she would wear that role’s specific scent and it would cue her memories of her previous performances as that character. 

Transition Rituals

Finally, Transition Rituals allow performers to take on an onstage persona. To don a character that is braver, more confident and outgoing than their regular self, allowing them to shed their self-consciousness as they perform in front of others. Common transition rituals involve costumes, make-up and shoes (particularly for dancers) and sometimes superstitious rituals specific to the artist. 

Personally speaking I have found a transition rituals to be empowering. I had a particular teenager who had significant challenges at home and a physique she was not yet proud of. She was consistently bottom of her performance class until she began to create a transition ritual to adopt and develop an onstage persona. Prior to each performance she would take herself to the gym and shower, re-apply make-up, re-do her hair and put her school clothes back on. This time alone working on shedding her school persona allowed her to shift her headspace into a performance mindset. The consequences of this change lifted her performance from bottom of the class to the top, gained her the performance prize for her graduating year and a place in a selective performing arts degree.

Creating a pre-performance routine that reliably creates an optimal performance mindset takes time, self awareness and experimentation. It is important for the student to make decisions that are based on the research and then responding with what they intuitively think will help them most. Do they need to calm down or rev up prior to a performance. What tools will help them do that? Do they need to become more confident and forthright? What tools do they respond to. 

How would you go about introducing your students to Pre-Performance Routines? How could you help them develop a routine that worked uniquely for them?

Perhaps you could share your ideas in the chat below?

If you’d like to learn more about how to develop performance confidence in your students, head over to the performingartspd website to check out our Promoting Performance Excellence course.

I’m Sarah Marshall thanks for listening today! Next week’s topic is an interview with me, to find out a little more about the work I do with performers to manage anxiety and what you can do to help your students. To ensure you don’t miss it, hit the subscribe button now!

I hope you have a great week helping your students to Bring out their Best!

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  1. I wish a cappuccino and a chocolate muffin were all it takes to walk to the stage confidently (LOL). I was definitely the type that required alone time while waiting for my turn to perform. I hated whenever my friends were around and cheered, “You got this!” Or, “You’re going to be great.” Because all I heard was, “If you don’t perform well, then you’re not what we expected.” They meant well, but it’s more of a ‘me’ kind of problem. I knew a Violist who eats bananas to calm his nerves down. And I had a student who felt much better watching other performers while waiting for her turn. It’s interesting to see various takes on pre-performance routines. And you’re right. There’s no such thing as one size fits all. That’s why it’s best to try out different methods for yourself and your students! Thanks for sharing, Sarah. I enjoyed listening to your podcast! :-)

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