Performance What's On

Spotlight on…Angela Barnes Less-Stress on Stage

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“When I’m on stage I’m the version of me, I wish I was all the time”.

My stage persona is based on me, but I always say it’s a louder, more confident version of me.  It’s amazing how much confidence you have when you are the only one in the room that’s amplified. Being given permission to be the only one that speaks – that will suddenly shoot up the confidence levels. I’m not always like that, I have a shy side.

When I’m on stage I’m the version of me, I wish I was all the time. Sometimes people see me on stage and they tell me I’m… feisty is a word that gets used a lot. They meet me afterwards, I’ll quietly thank people for coming etc., and the response is: who’s this! Where’s the person I’ve just seen performing?

“Nerves are good; the adrenaline kicks in to give you the performance”.

When you start out every gig makes you nervous and it would be weird if it didn’t. You do need those feelings to drive you. The nerves are good, the adrenaline kicks in to give you the performance.

If I’m nervous before the gig then I won’t eat for about two hours before. If I am too nervous, there will be lots of pacing going on. I had a gig recently and I know that I must have been nervous because my Fitbit recorded around 20 minutes of exercise because of all the pacing I did backstage!

“The emotions of stand-up are quite extreme…you learn to live within those parameters”

How I feel after a performance will depend on how it has gone. If it has gone well, I feel a combination of the adrenaline from performing and also relief that I didn’t have a terrible gig. A great gig can feel like the best feeling in the world.

When the gig hasn’t gone well (and it happens to everyone) then I might come off stage and say: “right, I am going to quit now, and do something else entirely”.

The emotions of stand-up are quite extreme; when it goes well it feels great. And when it goes badly it feels awful. There are not many performances that leave you feeling, ‘murgh, that was just that’. It’s usually one or the other; feeling really good about the performance or feeling really bad about it. I have learnt to live within those parameters; it’s either going to be a great, or an awful night.

Sarah Millican has a concept she calls Millican’s Law. If you have a bad gig you are only allowed to feel bad about it until 11 am the next morning. Then you have to let it go, otherwise you take that bad feeling with you into the next performance. Similarly, if you have a really good gig, you are allowed to feel you’re brilliant until 11 otherwise you’ll go into the next gig feeling all complacent. We comedians all operate on Milican’s Law! As Sarah herself says, sometimes she will get up extra early to enjoy more of the good feelings before 11 o’clock comes around.

 “Even from backstage you can sense what an audience is going to be like”

The energy from the audience is so crucial to a performance. Even from backstage you can sense what an audience is going to be like. If they are sat in silence staring at the stage waiting for something to happen you know it’s going to a hard evening because there’s no buzz, no feeling of connection. Whereas if you can hear the audience chatting, sense they feel excited to be there and are looking forward to the night…that feels good. When the announcement is made that the show is about to start and they cheer; I know that we’re going to have a fun gig.

“That’s it, deep breaths, speak slowly but keep talking”

People think that the worst thing that could happen will be catastrophic, but is it really? No, the worst thing that happens is that they maybe fluff a couple of words. By tomorrow morning it’s forgotten, that’s even if it was noticed in the first place. The worst case scenario is never as bad as a person will think it is.

The main thing when performing is to remember to breathe. It sounds simple but it is amazing just how effective and calming a few deep breaths before going onstage can be. Some people say that they need a cigarette to calm down. I’d say that the cigarette isn’t actually doing anything at all; it’s the breathing that happens when sucking on the cigarette. So don’t have the cigarette do some deep breathing instead!

Always talk slowly. Most comedians starting out need to master this and on occasion I also sometimes need to focus on this. I think I’m talking at a perfectly normal pace but then listen back to a recording and hear that I was going at 100mph. Nerves make a person speak quickly, but you don’t necessarily hear that in your head in the moment of performance. It’s odd to say but speak as slowly as you can, it may sound weird in your head (and to your beating heart), but the likelihood is that it sounds just right to your audience.

I have some advice for people if they forget what they were going to say. Remember that the people in the room don’t know what you were going to say. As long as you say something it’s usually ok.  Come clean, it’s only human and you can even get a supportive laugh out of the situation. But if you just freeze and say nothing that is when the audience will get tense because they realise you have forgotten and aren’t in control/are unravelling. Keep talking and eventually your brain will kick back in. That’s it, deep breaths, speak slowly but keep talking!

 “When you aren’t feeling well the anticipation of the performance itself can make you feel better”

There are times and days when you will have to perform and you just don’t want to; it’s only natural that would happen because, well it’s a job we, as comedians are doing every day.

Like any other job you just have to pull yourself through and get on with it. The nature of performance and adrenaline helps with this…it’s like when you are feeling ill and the anticipation of the performance itself helps you feel better.

They call it ‘Doctor Theatre’, the doctor comes out to see you. You can be feeling really rough and then half an hour before your performance you feel fine to go on. Then an hour later you’re back to being ill again. It’s a weird how this something happens;

I filmed Live at the Apollo earlier in the year with Whopping Cough. I was so poorly on the day of filming but for that hour just before and just after we filmed I was so nervous and just so full of adrenaline I just forgot how ill I was because I was so focused on my performance. My voice sounded ragged from the cough, but it’s amazing what a little bit of adrenaline did to get me through. It works wonders if you are feeling a bit low, or not really in the mood.

“If you told me I’d be running regularly a year ago I would have thought you were off your rocker!”

I go through phases of being better at taking care of my physical and mental health. As I get older. I am more aware of the need to give myself time to rest. It’s very easy to just keep going and actually hard to turn down work as a freelancer. But not having a day off for three weeks straight leads to being no good to anybody, least of all oneself.

I diarise non-working days, and force myself to take holidays. This is easier due to my partner having a ‘proper’ job; he has to book his annual leave and this has made me better at planning time off in advance that fits in with him. It is hard to plan holidays and things with irregular working hours; you become terrified a great job offer will come in when you are out of the country. That’s the nature of being a freelancer, many people have that same fear I guess.

Last year I drove around 30,000 miles just touring around the UK. It’s become a lot easier to eat well on the road since they started increasing the number of healthier food options at service stations. It’s better than it has ever been and I get my salads in most of the time. Though sometimes when driving home late at night the salad has to compete with the burger. I’ve become healthier this year after deciding I needed to be more careful with my health and diet. I’ve been exercising more and there’s absolutely no doubt that regular exercise improves performance and helps with well-being generally.

I am a keen swimmer, but recently I’ve started running, something I never thought I would do.

I completed the Couch to 5k programme, which was just brilliant for me. Now I try and do the Park Runs at 9 am every Saturday morning. When I’m at home I do my local one, but I can do one of these in any city I’m in, all over the world! So it’s lovely to have done something like that before 10 o’clock on a Saturday morning; it can make me feel quite smug and virtuous! If you told me I’d be running regularly a year ago I would have thought you were off your rocker!

 “I think all comedians have a fear that they will be found out”

I can’t quite believe I’m allowed to do this job. I’m getting paid to write jokes and muck about in front of people; surely that can’t be right. I think all comedians, regardless of success or popularity, fear that someone will come along and say that there has been a terrible mistake and they will have to stop.

However, if it all ended tomorrow then I’ve had a brilliant time and got to do things that I never thought I’d be offered, or be able to do. I think all comedians have ‘impostor syndrome’; fear that they will be found out. That never leaves a comedian wherever they are in their career. It’s a good thing; it stops arrogance and complacency and drives people to work harder.

The key thing, and I suppose this could apply in any field, is not to compare oneself with others.  People have their own journeys, which move at their individual paces. People also want different things and have their own personal measures and signifiers of success. As long as you concentrate on what you want, without trying to be like everyone around you and trying to do everything available, you get out of it what you put in and life tends to work out.

“I wouldn’t be a stand-up if not for the South London Theatre.”

I lived in South East London for a long time.  The South London Theatre in West Norwood is a special London place of mine. It’s a community theatre in an old Victorian fire station that puts on around 20 productions a year. I joined its amateur theatre company when I first moved to London 15 years ago now. I met some incredible people there with whom I have remained friends. If I walked in there now I would bump into someone I knew; my equivalent of the Cheers bar. I wouldn’t be a stand-up if not for the South London Theatre; I started performing in their amateur drama productions and then they started a comedy night and I got to know the comedians who gigged there. The theatre has a real place in my heart.


Words: Anne Edwards

Photography: Adam Tiernan Thomas

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