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The Big Part: On Actors' Wellbeing

I recognise writing, like therapy, and like acting, is a process of profound reckoning with self. Although furnished with examples from my own experience, the themes here are evident in my current work with actors.

I went to drama school twice, I hoped that what I was lacking could be sourced externally, it wasn’t. I was most accommodating to all criticism, and all that could be filed and used as evidence against me. All the glowing reports, high grades, big parts, and praise from others just didn’t get the same hospitality from me.

In 2017, I spoke about my drama school experiences at the Mental Health Conference for Performing Arts at the place I trained (1996-1999), Rose Bruford College. I used the analogy of my person then being a precariously self-assembled theatre set rustled together to look the part of the good acting student. My set was propped up by things that could easily be removed, because the props were external, and belonged to others. I got by on praise like a quick fix, riding the high from a bit of verbal confectionary. There always followed a crash, knowing that supply from others wasn’t guaranteed forevermore, how do you keep that coming? I described the shadowiness of what had remained back-stage in me, how it was an “authorised persons only” area but I had no authorised persons, even I only had limited access. Who would enter here? Hazardous!

In January 2018 I spoke at The Federation of Drama Schools Symposium on creating a safe space in rehearsals. So many elements within my counselling training could’ve stood me in good stead if they had been implemented as part of my actor’s training. I want to see a change in the way acting courses are formulated, where there is the same regard given to personal development that is given to professional development - with all parts being equal. My drama school experience, as wonderful as it was - was that emotional wellbeing was not acknowledged as an integral part of the drama school experience - but I am asserting that it needs to be. Things had progressed when I undertook a Masters in Acting for TV, Film & radio at East 15 Acting School (2007-2008). They had implemented the notion of self as an important resource and there was an element of reflective practice within exercises. Facilitative directors inspired learner - initiated work from me and I flourished, I had my power!

What has struck me on an experiential level are the parallels between acting and counselling. You are the course, you are your product, you equip yourself with theory and skills but ultimately it is up to you and down to you. Some tools and techniques are sourced internally, your you-ness gives your work its uniqueness and substance. You are your resource, your body, your mind, your imagination, your emotional inner-life, your history. You have to find the gift in what feels like wounding, critical feed-back to be able to capitalise on it.

Empathy is key to walk in another’s shoes, either creatively or therapeutically. You have to find your way to being non-judgemental about the client/character and work through your blocks: what stands in the way of you prizing your own, or another’s humanness. Self-awareness, physically and psychologically along with emotional accessibility are paramount in your expression and communication with your client/ audience. You need to take a long hard look at you and your relationship with you, your physical self, and your own character. You explore how you think you are viewed by others, how you cast yourself and others in your narrative. What is present in my work is how coping mechanisms have consequences that may well manifest in your working persona in an unhelpful way. If I disconnect from my physical or emotional self as a means of coping, how can I fully connect to text, story and physically inhabiting a character?

Vocational training can be a huge financial outlay. Once you qualify, there is an expectation that you will work for free and that your passion will feed you and the experience itself should be enough, after all, you are doing it for the love aren’t you? Unless you have backing through an agency or are financially resourced and wish to share the load, you are your own HR, Maintenance, PR/Marketing Manager, Front of House, Receptionist, Admin, Accountant, and Boss.

Along with taking my cue from my own sweet impulses, and soaking up the drama school experience of actors - both past and present - I have been prompted by the number of news articles illuminating a rise in student mental health issues. What I am hoping for is reform in acting training. My hope - and my quest - is that personal development alongside professional development will become an integral unit in its own right and be given the same weight and regard and be as every day as voice and movement with all parts of the artist as a person being equal.

'All education presents a variety of challenges, but for performers there is a deep, dark undercurrent of other challenges. The training is about you but does not attend to all of you.'

Drama schools have a voice department, a movement department, your body, intellect and imagination are being stimulated - but what about the rest of you? Yes, there needs to be counselling in drama schools, as much as there needs to be first aiders, but when I envisage what I am talking about, it doesn’t have to only happen confidentially down a corridor in another room, separated off from your training. What does that say to students? It happens with staff, amongst peers in the canteen, in every group, on chance meetings in the corridor, it forms the basis of every human encounter: Connection. If I’d been supported, trainers wholly concerned with all of me, I wonder how different life would’ve been. Training needs to be a launch pad not only into the profession but into the life of being an actor, the whole existence of which working is only a portion.

All education presents a variety of challenges, but for performers there is a deep, dark undercurrent of other challenges. The training is about you but does not attend to all of you.

Then you are cut adrift, navigating the transient nature of the working world with all the obstacles that presents, continually experiencing beginnings and endings of work and relationships. Being involved in intensive rehearsal periods and the establishing of immediate rapport and trust with people. Immersing yourself in a created character and inhabiting a co-created imaginative world. Then having to let go and detach from all of this and transition into whatever is next, maybe nothing.

Working with actors over the past year has given me more insight, and reminded me what it asks of someone to pursue a vocation, a passion, a love. I see heartbroken actors fretting about grades and assessment and this leaves no space for enjoying their training. Critical feedback remains with perilous permanence as if it has been seared on to their psyche with a branding iron. Their passion and capacity to access their imagination depleted, they don’t want to play anymore, they just want to pass - and get through it. The result is passive learners with little appetite or hope. There are contradictions within training, pushing yourself and suffering for your art has long been applauded. When does stepping out of your comfort zone become not working safely? Safe used to mean unadventurous, dull, unimaginative. How do I come to know what is public and what is private? Where is the boundary between personal and professional?

How much of this is me and how much of this is character? Language with confusing connotations took a mystical hold on me, rare and abstract, and that made it unreachable. Words like confidence, presence, charisma, talent, and professionalism were held aloof and left me at odds with myself. All information was construed to not challenge but reinforce my existing beliefs: I haven’t got what it takes.

I sense there is institutional anxiety and fear about mental health. Raising awareness seems to be raising alarm, honing in only on the needs of students, is as if the problem lies solely with them. Sure, it is a start, although this is not grappling with the issue in its entirety, in the wider context of the industry. I find it increasingly troubling that natural responses to adverse conditions are being pathologized as mental illness. I have to admit I’m a counsellor and I am irked by the term “mental health,” and I acknowledge how overlooked and marginalised this aspect of our being has been for so long and how it needs addressing. It is why I do what I do.

'I went into training with discord in my identity, merging into character brought about relief, I didn’t have to be me all the time. I was devastated when a play ended and I had to return to me.'

My concern is how the separating of mind from body persists. We are finding out more and more how much all our parts are inter-related. A voice teacher did not look my vocal apparatus alone but at their experience of my entire being. My GP will ask about what is going on in my life when I present with physical symptoms. When will we admit into our awareness our full experience of ourselves and each other and allow this to inform us in a holistic way? There is a quest for unity within the self, with wanting the ensemble within to be cohesive, and whole, in order to give ourselves the best possible chance. I am convinced that holistically trained, self-aware, empowered actors will in turn create rounded characters through every cell of their being.

Acting was the ex I hadn’t got over. In giving up acting I had disowned part of myself. I stopped socialising with most actors or going to the theatre in case I might bump into my first love. I had an unhealthy attachment followed by an unhealthy detachment from acting. I explore with clients the nature of their attachment. Do you and acting need couples counselling? I hear alarm bells ringing when I hear “Acting is everything to me”. Acting was the love of my life, and I was possessive and obsessive about it. I went into training with discord in my identity, merging into character brought about relief, I didn’t have to be me all the time. I was devastated when a play ended and I had to return to me. Nothing was as important as acting and that meant acting became more important than me. What are the implications of something or someone meaning everything to me? Without it I am annihilated. Being a good actor engendered a fluctuating sense of worth, dependent on high regard, demanding continual maintenance and reinforcement from others. Beyond drama school I was going to be dependent on the say- so of agents, casting directors, directors to permit me passage forevermore. Shifting sands indeed.

There is often advice to invest in a Plan B, where does that leave Plan A? Then there’s all the unhelpful connotations around acting, no wonder I didn’t tell people I was one. There still persists a troubling symbiotic link between mental suffering and creativity, who will take care of their wellbeing if it means they forsake their creativity? I know students fret under their constant awareness of assessment. I was so pleased to see a BAPAM tweet recently about the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama stopping giving first year students their academic marks to support their wellbeing. This September, I attended a conference on Mental Health and the Performer, arranged by the Labanarium in partnership with Drama Studio. Here, I saw my two worlds meet, as a new community of performance tutors and therapeutic practitioners begins to emerge, to see how much they can lend and learn from each other.

As I write I am at odds with myself, appreciating the need for evidence- based practice and appealing for a pared back, less intellectualised and more human relationship focused learning with trust in human capacity. I hear tutors say they are not therapists, and I say you don’t have to undertake therapeutic training to respond as the person you are, how has that come to be not enough?

Author's Bio


Pauline Ross is a Person-Centred therapist and clinical supervisor in private practice in Hither Green, London. In her words, "through failing to sustain myself as an actor, I have discovered my niche: I wish to invest in actors’ wellbeing. I work with actors in my private practice and in training, offering group and one to one sessions."

For more information head to the Manor Park Counselling Website or get in touch with Pauline via Facebook here

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