Tips for Beating Shyness

by Ruth Kulerman

Super cute shy child

It's time to overcome your shyness and find the courage to act on stage or in front of a camera.


It's difficult not to ponder human vagaries when someone proclaims, "I am shy" then instantly adds, "I want to act." it's like hearing: "I'm afraid of heights. I want to be an astronaut." Or, "I'm afraid of water. I want to be an Olympic swimmer."

The claim to debilitating shyness automatically elicits the question: "Then why go into such a soul-revealing profession as acting?" It just doesn't make sense. Acting is a public profession. It's an almost self-evident truth that anyone who wants to act must also want to be in the spotlight--at least on stage or on a film set. Is there anything in the universe that a genuinely shy person wants less than being in the spotlight? Being that exposed would be a nightmare.

So we have a contradiction: I am shy and want to hide. I am shy and want to be in the spotlight. No, we don't expect a foolish consistency in human beings. But in order not to waste money and years in training to be a performer, at some point it is necessary to look carefully at an actor's claim to be "shy."

There are probably a million people in Manhattan--a hugely populated island--who at heart are "shy." Regarding "shyness," Manhattan is a microcosm of the rest of America. Few escape the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," which seemingly cause "shyness." So let's grant that most people have a dollop or two of "shyness."

Of course there are people who are shy and some of these people are actors. But their shyness does not invade their performing world. They do not confuse shyness with stage fright or lack of confidence or whatever other traits are standing under the umbrella of "shyness."

Yes, the quotation marks around "shyness" are deliberate--visual symbols to protest that the word is epidemically misused. In fact, in addition to claiming varying degrees of "shyness," actors also mislabel as "shyness" a backpack full of other career-damaging attitudes. But why would an actor claim shyness? Unless....

IF IT'S NOT SHYNESS, WHAT IS IT?
"Shyness" can act as a protective shield which allows us not to face--and thus prevents the pain of solving--the real problems that we have mistakenly defined as "shyness." So maybe shyness is an escape from something else? What other possibilities hide behind our claim of "shyness"?

Maybe we act or perhaps even feel "shy" because we think that it's a way to avoid being challenged/attacked/criticized/laughed at. Maybe a casting director will sympathize and cast us in spite of the shyness? That's probably not going to happen. To allow "Shyness" to interfere with an audition or a performance--well that's civil war fought on the battleground of your own performing soul.

More: Is there the slightest chance--the very whisper of a possibility--that shyness is a clever (albeit self-defeating) way of grabbing the spotlight? That shyness is the flip side of "Look at me"? That shyness in a would-be actor is a way to avoid the work and commitment which this profession demands? That shyness is a brilliant way to manipulate?

Manipulate? Yes indeed. I think it was Oscar Wilde who coined the phrase, "the tyranny of the weak." Shyness can be a form of tyranny since it forces everyone else to try to open you up, or make you feel comfortable, or take special care not to hurt your feelings. It's a subtle way to get attention without seeming to. See how clever we are at dodging those arrows of outrageous fortune which Hamlet so eloquently explores! Clever, but self-defeating. "But I really am shy. I am not a tyrant!" Nope, I just don't believe it.

Also consider the possibility that shyness which says, "I can't, woe and alas" may be the flip side of "I won't. So there!" So maybe shyness is a form of willfulness.

"I'm shy." What would happen if the person said instead, "I am manipulative, controlling, willful"? Ouch. But the recognition of the correct word might just--just might--free the person to be the actor he says he wants to be.

HOW CAN I QUIT BEING "SHY"?
Remember the jeers First Lady Nancy Reagan took for her slogan to quit drugs: "Just say NO"? Mocking slogans has become a national duty, but it's hard to deny that saying no is the way to quit drugs. And telling someone to leave the "shyness" outside the audition/performing door is in the same category: dead-center solid advice. It may be simplistic. But it is accurate.

As we have mentioned, one way to quit being "shy" is to discover a more accurate term for the behavior. Stage fright maybe. Maybe self-centeredness. Or anger squashed down so hard that it disguises itself as "shyness." Or maybe arrogance masking as shyness because arrogance isn't considered "nice." Or shyness may provide an escape from responsibility. It may be a way to evoke pity instead of criticism.

Another way to stop being shy is to discover its cause. Maybe there were parents who criticized too often. Or a religion that kept the reins very tight. If the shyness is genuine, and not merely the acceptable cover for something else, then each case has its own cause. Discovering that cause is beyond the boundary of our chats. How to get over it and what caused it are not the same topic. For now, we are looking at what it is and how to cure it. 

Yet another way to stop shyness is to recognize its damage. Shyness allows us to wrap ourselves in gauze so that we cannot let loose our creative energies. The claim to shyness allows us to shove intuition and imagination into a dark cave, while "shyness" guards its entrance. The claim to shyness allows us to be a waiter who acts, not an actor who waits.

Accurate terminology is essential. Call it what it is; give your feelings the accurate term and you are half-way to being cured. Language is precious. Use of accurate language would cure many of our problems. So do not contribute to language clutter by telling yourself you are "shy" when it just isn't so. Here's a suggested early morning, look-in-the-mirror-while-washing-your-face sentence to say to yourself: "I am _____." But fill in the blank with the truth, not with a thing mistakenly called "shyness."

Besides calling it by its right name, another cure for "shyness" is to want something else more than you want the shyness. Let that something else be an obsessive drive to perform. This is the one I personally subscribe to. It worked for me.

One curious way to face "shyness" is to get so angry that the anger propels you past the safety of shyness. Countless are the times I have stepped on stage ready to spit hot nails. Anger is a remarkable source of energy. It certainly hurtles you past the concentration on self that lies at the core of "shyness."

Another cure for "shyness" depends on acknowledging an unpleasant truth. If you have a genuine gift, then being shy and not sharing that gift is preventing the public from moments of happiness which you could bring them. Let's call that self-centeredness, not shyness.

And last, the way to overcome whatever the thing is you are calling "Shyness" is to over prepare. Oh no, not that old bromide again. Yes! Don't use shyness as an excuse not to demand perfection. Preparation and perfection are inseparable.

Battle that thing misnamed "shyness" both with the shining light of accurate language and with the joyous drive to act. Yearn to act. And then shed your shy skin and pursue auditions and roles with a single mindedness that propels you past "shy." Want to act and be seen more than you want to be shy and hidden. If 'shyness' is stronger than the drive to act, acknowledge that. Facing the truth about our feelings may be painful but it often heals.

Proper terminology, a drive to perform, recognition of the nature of "Shyness," preparation--these are a few of the weapons against the invading armies that hide behind the shield of "Shyness."

Ruth Kulerman is an actress and coach, known for "The Off Season," "A Walk in the Dark," and "Satan Hates You." Her series of articles for "Actor Tips" is copyright by Chad Gracia and ActorTips.com, Inc. All rights reserved. For more articles on acting, as well as free monologues and acting supplies, visit www.actortips.com.
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