You’ve heard horror stories—maybe you have some of your own—of dreaded moments on stage when your memory bank goes awol; even though you thoroughly learned the material, you can’t remember the next line even if your life depended on it. Whether you’re a newbie or an acting veteran, if you have a human brain, you’re at risk of this happening at some point, unfortunately. 

According to educator Elizabeth Cox, this forgetful phenomenon has a distinct evolutionary function: to protect you from danger. Say you’re having a great time camping, and suddenly a massive grizzly bear emerges from the nearby forest and starts rushing towards you in a threatening manner. It’s that forgetful function of your mind that allows for the fight, flight, or freeze response to overrule the slower, more logical thought process that accesses stored information in your memory bank. This important task in the brain has certainly saved countless lives throughout the course of history. 

Unfortunately, sometimes it overreacts. The anxiety associated with performing before audiences is stressful, but it’s certainly no grizzly bear. In all fairness, it might feel like your entire career depends on the success of one performance, and in these instances, performing can take on a truly threatening significance. But this function can interrupt your flow even when far less is at stake.

As nerve-wracking as it is to lose focus on stage, please take heart in knowing just how common, some might say inevitable, it is to experience this at some point when faced with an audience. In addition to affecting actors, it causes singers to forget their next lines; it stumps business people giving a big presentation to clients; it rudely interrupts professionals while speaking at seminars; and freezes students’ minds during final exams. 

The Irishman actor Al Pacino knows what it feels like to forget his lines. In this clip, he recounts the moment he forgot his lines on stage while performing Shakespeare. “And I said, ‘My lords, so-and-so-and-so …’ and I realized that I went into another Shakespeare play. And I thought (*#@%)! I’m in ‘Hamlet.’ So I’m doing it, and then I thought, “Well, how do I get out of this?”  he said. Listen here as he tells a Shakespearean trick for instances like these.

Likewise, The Theory of Everything actor Eddie Redmayne recounted one of his worst memories as a performer on PeopleTV. He’d long feared the idea of finding himself on stage, struggling to find his next line, but he never really thought it would happen to him. Listen to him describe a dreaded moment while performing in London years ago.

To reduce stress levels and make such episodes less likely, Elizabeth Cox encourages people to exercise regularly, do breathing exercises, and practice their material in a way that matches the kinds of stresses they’ll experience at the critical moment. For example, actors might consider practicing their lines before bright lights or in front of people they don’t know. 

While uncomfortable, life and careers do go on after brain freezes. Certainly, Pacino didn’t allow his Shakespearean snag stop him; indeed, he’s one of the few performers to have earned the Triple Crown of Acting. And Redmayne, of course, went on to win an Academy Award. Now those memories are reduced to war stories. Have you ever forgotten your lines on stage? Please share.

Watch this comedian lose his concentration during his stand-up routine on stage. It’s his big moment to impress the judges before a live audience. Fortunately for him, the host of the program graciously invites him to start his routine again. Everyone should be so lucky!