We Need to Support the Actor’s Well Being in Emotionally Distressing Roles
I’m an Actor Care Specialist
I am not a therapist. My job is not to heal but to provide a safe and containing space to guide actors in creating solid boundaries between themselves and the characters they portray. I do this by expanding their self-awareness. The vehicle is the actor’s artistic expression. Without question their personal development is wrapped up inside that. If there is personal work to be done outside the work of character creation, I set the boundary and always sign post the actor.
My responsibility as I see it, and why, on top of my directing career, I trained for years in psychotherapy and experiential techniques is to support the actor’s wellbeing before, during and after they dive deep into the characters they are embodying. This involves the ability and willingness to help reflect with the actor while they embody their characters. It’s very personal and creative work but necessary for the serious, health-conscious actor who wants to grow with every role they perform, become emotionally stronger, more self-aware, and resilient in their craft.
My connection with actors started in the 1980’s when I was an actor myself. In 2005 I turned to directing and started what has become a 16-year collaboration with the Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children at Western University in London, Ontario Canada. I’ve directed hundreds of trauma-based dramatizations for their educational toolkits with an equal number of professional actors. It’s the intersection of my five years of psychotherapy training with clinical supervision and directing actors in trauma-based narratives that created the seedbed for Actualizing Characters by Expanding Self-awareness (ACES) - which I stress is not therapy. It’s character development for trauma-based narratives. This post is an epiphany, an ‘aha’ moment that has taken years to arrive at and only after collaborating with actors as a director, acting instructor and an actor myself.
What I Could Never Figure Out…until now
It started almost 40 years ago when I was taking acting classes. There were actors who were full of themselves and there I was trying hard to be authentic against a wall of falseness or what I thought was insincerity from the occasional scene partner. If I could just tell them what the crux of the scene was, they would be able to act it. On occasion I could not hold back my frustration and my impatience got the best of me. I would blurt out what their character was going through emotionally and what they needed to do to make the scene work. They listened intently but still could not hit the emotional notes that I could feel inside myself and, funnily enough, also struggled to release in my own character work.
Twenty years later, when I started directing, I came up against the same kind of actor when casting projects. I never hired them. I wanted authenticity and that required a certain amount of baring one’s soul. I needed to be emotionally engaged watching them – not only from a director’s perspective but from an audience perspective as well. If I didn’t believe what they were saying, the message of the narrative will not be taken to heart by an audience.
When I began teaching acting, I thought “I now have the perfect opportunity to dig into the actors process and tell them what’s what!”. To my surprise, I found that not every actor wants to dig deep into their soul and pour themselves into their characters. It takes a certain type of actor to want to do that. Those are the actors I praised while the other ones I did my best to work with but felt that I failed them - not to mention how they must have felt with me prying into their personal space and pressuring them to get emotional. It was a shameful act and I apologise to all the actors who had that experience with me. No acting instructor or director or anyone collaborating with actors should disrespect those boundaries.
To my point, about five years ago I had an actor in one of my workshops. He was rather good. A talented, good looking young man. He seemed to hit all the right notes in his monologue, was interesting to watch but he had no emotional connection to the material. I did not feel anything from him. We went through a series of ‘hot seating’ questions that was designed to get him in touch with his character’s emotional world. After a time, I could tell he was getting in touch with something in his own life. I had him recite some of the lines from the monologue. It was different. Not as gimmicky and more honest even if it was void of emotion. At least it wasn’t gimmicky. When I asked him to start the monologue from the top, he went back to the way he was performing it before. The work I did with him changed nothing. After that night he never returned to the workshop. Then there was the incredibly emotional actor who poured her heart out in the ‘hot seating’ exercise and when I asked her to use it in her monologue she froze. Her emotions ‘locked up’ and she desperately wanted to free them. Though I tried, I was at a loss of how I could help. Interestingly, the monologue was about rejection and feelings of inadequacy around being an artist and performing in public. Based on these and many similar experiences over the years, I jotted down a half-baked theory about the fear actors have of using their true self in their characterizations:
The experience of emotionally connecting to oneself feels foreign, strange, uncomfortable, even unreal. They prefer to produce tears and use visual gimmicks rather than connect to their own internal emotional life. They have drawn no emotional parallel from their own lives to fulfil the character. They have a preconceived idea of what the character should be and strive to meet that idea which disconnects them from their own emotional life in the process. The result is a desensitised representation of a person. They act in a vacuum and cannot connect to the other actors let alone themselves.
What I did not realise at the time, and what I understand now after being on the frontlines as a psychotherapist in training, is that I described the effect of trauma on human functioning. It’s quite possible, though I couldn’t prove it then, that these actors were protecting themselves from their own past trauma through the fight, flight or freeze responses. As much as they may have wanted to use themselves in the role they were blocked by their own defences. Five years on and four psychotherapy certificates later, I figured out I can help actors by increasing their capacity for resilience and by managing their defences. This in turn provides increased capacity to embody emotional experiences which in turn increases their courage to create robust characterizations.
Trauma Based Narratives & the Actor If we consider all the trauma-based stories that are being told on stage, film, and TV and how it impacts us, the viewer, then we must take time to consider how it is impacting the actor who is embodying those roles in which the fictional trauma is happening.
“Trauma, by definition, is unbearable and intolerable. Most rape victims, combat soldiers, and children who have been molested become so upset when they think about what they experienced that they tried to push it out of their minds, trying to act as if nothing happened, and move on. It takes tremendous energy to keep functioning while carrying the memory of terror and the shame of utter weakness and vulnerability” (Van Der Kolk 2014)
Sometimes, not until after the role has been embodied does the actor even become aware of the impact it has on them. Burgoyne, Poulin, Rearden (1999) conducted a study that surprisingly found that student actors were unaware of any emotional implications of roles until such a distressing experience actually happened to them. Mandell (2017:39) also noted “…It is something that is mostly ignored in actor training in the United States and that’s a problem for actors… it affects their health.” When we talk about embodying characters and the complex management of boundaries and defences, acting is not only about the journey of actualizing the character “but also the return” to self (Schechner 1983, 97). As Panoutsos (2021) suggests, “The lack of ‘return’ processes taught/ practiced, indicates the requirement for the re-consideration of the performance cycle by training environments, where the warm-up, the performance and the cool-down will be seen as inseparable”. Burgoyne, Poulin, Rearden (1999) also noted that one student in their study, who attended several theatre programs, felt that the impact of acting on the student’s mental health “are not addressed systematically in actor training.”
The evidence is out there, in a multitude of articles and videos all over the internet, that show mainstream actors and their struggles, after the fact, with certain roles and the major impact it has had on their mental health. As Szlawieniec-Haw (2020) concludes, an actor’s self-awareness is a vital component to their health and wellness. As directors, producers, agents, managers, coaches, and acting instructors and anyone else who associates with actors professionally and personally we have a responsibility to ourselves and to those actors. We need to support their wellbeing by checking in with them, being sensitive to the potential retraumatizing and/or mental health risks their roles may expose them to. We should never assume that they will be okay when portraying a role with a trauma-based narrative.
About the Author
Alan Powell is a film director, Actor-Care Specialist, and certified experiential specialist (level 1). He has earned multiple international awards for his film directing. Through the Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children in London, Canada he’s directed hundreds of trauma-based dramatizations for educational purposes with an equal number of professional actors. He has taught on-camera acting in Canada and the UK. Prior to this he was a talent agent for 10 years having founded PN Agency. Prior to that he was a struggling actor. He holds certificates in humanistic integrative counselling, psychodynamic integrative counselling, psychodrama, and the Therapeutic Spiral Model (Level 1). His three years as a placement therapist under clinical supervision enabled him to work with clients with complex PTSD, anxiety and depression. The intersection of his five years of psychotherapy training and directing trauma-based narratives created the seedbed for ACES (Actualizing Characters by Expanding Self-awareness). He is also the co-host and creator of Artists in Depth https://www.artistsindepth.com/
Alan is registered with the International Society of Experiential Professionals (ISEP), is a member of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) and Actors Equity UK.
Burgoyne,S., Poulin, K., Rearden, A. (1999), The Impact of Acting on Student Actors: Boundary Blurring, Growth, and Emotional Distress, Johns Hopkins University Press Volume 9, Number 2, September 1999
Mandell. J. 2017. “Cooling Down: How Actors Unwind after Taxing Performances.” American Theatre A Publication of Theatre Communications Group. Accessed 27 October 2018. https://www.americantheatre.org/2017/04/05/cooling-down-howactors-unwind-after-taxing-performances
Panoutsos, C., (2021): The absence of the cool-down for actors following a theatre performance; the discussion is on-going but the gap remains, Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, DOI: 10.1080/19443927.2021.1915860 https://doi.org/10.1080/19443927.2021.1915860
Schechner, R. 1983. Performative Circumstances: From the Avant Guard to Ramlila. Culcutta: Seagull Books
Szlawieniec-Haw, D. (2020) Fiction’s Truth, Routledge, New York, NY.
Van Der Kolk, B. (2014) The Body Keeps the Score, Penguin Random House, UK