Disclaimer: I'm not a medical professional, and this essay is intended only to convey my personal experience. Please consult a medical professional if you are interested in prescription medication.
I just wanted to get that out of the way, in case you were really annoyed by the click-bait headline of this post. I didn't intend it to be click-bait-y. I think it's the absolute truth, and it really pisses me off that the Mayor of Hollywood doesn't send you a baggie of free beta-blockers when you sign your first lease in LA.
Y'see, I really wish someone had encouraged me to try these five years ago. It actually hurts my heart to think about the jobs I lost that I might have gotten if I had simply taken one tiny little pill. It drives me insane when I see otherwise charismatic, capable performers lock-up in acting classes or workshops, their nerves magically transforming them into awkward, wooden basketcases, and no one takes them aside and says "there's a fix for that."
The cynic in me suspects that there is a cottage industry built around promising fixes for that moment--yoga! meditation! breathing exercises! technique!--and even pharmaceutical companies don't make much of a profit off generic, older medications that cost less than $5/month (at least that's what I pay, with insurance). The skeptic in me thinks that the anti-med voices are just much, much louder than the voices of those performers willing to talk about their experiences taking beta-blockers (especially since a good actor is supposed to appear effortlessly brilliant always to their adoring fans). The naif in me thinks that ignorance is to blame--actors don't usually go to their doctor appointments to complain about how they can't conquer their nerves, and acting teachers can't prescribe (or be held liable for actors taking) controlled medications.
I'm over it. Over the secrecy, over the jealous guarding of any perceived advantage. I'm over watching my fellow actors agonize over a failed audition that didn't need to end so poorly--I have been there so many times and I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy (maybe an ex-boyfriend or two).
So let me tell you what beta-blockers have done for me, and you can go explore whether it's a viable option for you. I would also HIGHLY ENCOURAGE you to read this article from The Atlantic that covers the use of beta-blockers by athletes and performers. My story is just that--my story--but that article is a really good investigation of the whole issue.
I take a beta-blocker (specifically propranolol), prescribed by my primary care physician, for auditions and performances. It acts to prevent the physical manifestations of my fight-or-flight response. For me, that means my hands aren't as shaky, my voice isn't as nasally, my upper lip doesn't curl into a weird sneer, and I don't get an adrenaline dump that makes it impossible for me to take direction in the middle of an audition. This isn't "stage fright" (which is a bullshit meaningless phrase). This is my body freaking out because it knows exactly what is on the line.
Beta-blockers are NOT anti-anxiety meds or antidepressants (such as Xanax, Klonopin, Prozac, etc). They are NOT prescribed by a psychiatrist. They DO NOT have anything to do with your mental state (except, in my case, as a secondary effect--they help my mental state by controlling my physical state). They are also very very cheap--so if you don't have insurance, you may want to still look into them because it may be worth it to you to pay out-of-pocket.
I have been shamed by other actors for taking a beta-blocker. The reaction runs the gamut from "it's cheating the audience" to "it's faking craft" to "just meditate." If you don't want to take one, for whatever reason, fine. Just don't shame other people about it.
Actors are asked to respond naturally, in an emotionally truthful yet technically perfect way, in front of five suits in a conference room sitting around a coffee table covered with headshots printed off IMDb. The audition you've spent literally hours preparing is often over in less than four minutes. THERE IS NOTHING NATURAL ABOUT THIS SITUATION. So why should you be ashamed that you can't control your nerves "naturally"?
I take one 10mg pill about an hour before my audition (I weigh 100 lbs). I do not feel it kick in. I only notice what isn't happening--my heart doesn't race, my face doesn't twitch, it never sounds like I've been ducked underwater and the corners of the room don't go fuzzy. After about two hours, I start to get a little drowsy. After about three hours, I feel like I've been staring at Excel all day and I would very much like to take a nap. If I try to exercise up to four hours after I've taken a pill, my heart rate barely increases. I have never fainted, and it has never made me sick.
I have experimented with taking two pills when I really want to be in control. It's worked a couple times for dramatic auditions, but I've noticed it's more difficult for me to banter because I just feel really tired. So I never take two for comedy, and honestly I really just stick to one these days.
I would suggest you talk to your primary care doctor (that's the same doctor you go to for your annual physical) about beta-blockers if you feel like uncontrollable physical stuff is really ruining things for you. If you feel completely ready for an audition until the moment your name gets announced, then your stomach drops into the floor...you might be interested in beta-blockers. If you find yourself in the middle of an audition, and you get a big laugh on your first joke, and suddenly it's like your brain is screaming "OH MY GOD THEY REALLY LIKED THAT!!!" and your body starts dinging like a pinball machine and you lose all fine-motor skills...you should maybe do some research into beta-blockers. If you open your mouth and the first line of your very dramatic victim's monologue for "Cold Case" comes out stuck somewhere between your esophagus and your nose and you've never heard that voice before but your body decided FOR YOU to "make it a choice" and proceeds to do THE ENTIRE MONOLOGUE IN A VOICE YOU'VE NEVER BEFORE PRODUCED (while the casting director is simply staring in abject horror)...we should talk because that exact same thing happened to me and what are the odds??
And then you should Google "beta-blockers."