The fake lino floor of my kitchen wasn’t as clean as I thought, and as I lay there in the foetal position with my script in my hand the only thing that was rattling around my head was “Why am I doing this to myself? Why didn’t I become an accountant?” The actor’s breakdown is a unique experience – we are the only group of people in the world who need to be simultaneously emotionally open and vulnerable to the work we do, and at the same time steeled for the pain of rejection from auditions and the like. It’s a volatile combination, which left unchecked can lead you to being like I was on the kitchen floor that day.
The reality is that we are always going to come up against this incredible contrast of emotions. It’s the grind, right? But we can make it a little easier, here are my top five tips for avoiding an actors breakdown.
Obviously right? It’s tip 7 in our 107 Acting Tips. But here’s the thing, so often an actor’s breakdown is born from anxiety, from a fear of failure and controlling your breathing is an excellent way to calm down and take control of your emotions. For me on the kitchen floor that day, I was preparing for the Larry Moss workshop in Melbourne. I had 20 pages of dialogue to learn in a New York accent, and I was terrified of making an idiot of myself, of being called out by Larry in front of a room of industry professionals. My absolute nightmare.
In the army, they talk about tactical breathing: in for four counts, holding for four counts and out for four counts. I figured if it was good enough for people in the heat of battle it will probably work for me learning a monologue. I took a minute, breathed and started to calm down.
This is so key, and it has changed my life. At the risk of sounding like the cliched ending to a Disney movie, you have had the magic in you all along. But seriously, it is phenomenal how much difference a bit of belief in yourself will make. If you are telling yourself you cannot do something, you’re going to find it very hard to do that thing. On my kitchen floor, I was telling myself that I was going to fail. That to even try was pointless, that I should quit and do something else.
What changed me was the thought that this is what makes me happy, that I function at my highest level and with the most joy when I’m on-stage in front of an audience. And furthermore my value is not defined by what other people think of me, my value is defined by the hard work I do to improve my craft. Not to perfect anything, that’s impossible but to have a body of work behind me so when I get up on stage I can rely on that and enjoy the experience of acting.
Not sure what work to do? Or how to do it? Check out StageMilk Scene Club.
Lying there, on the lino, contemplating my existence was interrupted by a voice:
“You right there mate?”
My housemate Tom, he’d only just moved in that week, (what a great introduction to a house right? Finding your flatmate curled up in a ball on the kitchen floor!) And look, he could’ve responded in a million ways, but what he did was put the kettle on, sit me down and talk to me about what was going on.
What he got was a 20-minute rant from me on how difficult the industry is, the lack of roles for ginger men in their early thirties and how scared I was of being judged in front of my peers. Tom calmly listened to me, got me a tea and at the end of my rant said “But Pat, you love it and you’re good at it. What else are you going to do?” Do the work that’s what.
The best day I had working on this script was when my girlfriend got me out of the house, to work on my lines at the beach. A change of scene can do tonnes for your mental state. A dip in the ocean on a cold, clear Sydney day, lying on the beach and running lines with someone who cares about you and wants you to do well. It’s a winning combination.
This one cannot be overstated. More often than not, the reason I get anxious or scared about a role is that I haven’t done enough work yet. I haven’t nutted it out and learned the pants out of my lines, learned about the context of the character, the playwright, the world of the work, I haven’t created a character that is a unique, living breathing thing. The more work you do, the better you will feel.
It was a real low point for me, having that actors breakdown. The expectations I put on myself, the poor self-talk and the laziness that had crept into my process had a detrimental effect on me. But thanks to the people around me, my self-belief and a few other positive changes I was able to get off the lino and the work I did at the Larry Moss workshop is a real point of pride for me today. Our mental health is really important, and if you or people around you are struggling it’s really worth reaching out for help. Beyond Blue, Headspace and Lifeline all have qualified people to talk to if you need them.
In the meantime, keep working and stay off the kitchen floor!