It goes without saying that being an actor can be tough. The rejection, the long stretches of unemployment, the vacillations of playing characters and then going back to your “normal” life.
A few years back a group of researchers began looking into actors’ wellbeing (to put it simply). The research was backed by MEAA and The University of Sydney and was headed up by Ian Maxwell, Marianna Szabó and Mark Seton (whom we interview at the end of this article).
The research aimed to somewhat quantify just how bad the situation had become for actors…
And guess what? The study found that actors are indeed struggling; experiencing high levels of stress, depression, and anxiety. The research also found that there are issues in the industry with bullying, sexual harassment, and alcohol and drug abuse. And it’s interesting to note that this struggle isn’t exclusive to those actors who are unemployed. Actors at all levels aren’t dealing well with the realities of being an actor.
Part of the problem stems from a lack of discussion around the issues and for many actors, a lack of education on how to deal with the lifestyle of being an actor.
We decided that it would be important, as one of the largest websites for actors in the world, to shine some light on these issues and let actors know;
A. it’s fine to have these feelings and
B. that there is a community of people out there who can help.
We have broken down some of the common problem areas for actors, and a few practical solutions for getting back on track. Enjoy!
Dealing with the Common Issues Actors Face
#1 Performance Anxiety
We’ve all been there, acting requires us to be in a relatively vulnerable state – often experiencing what would normally be private emotions in front of other people, most of whom you don’t know. Or in front of a camera, which will then capture your vulnerabilities, emotions, maybe even slivers of your soul on film forever, and ever and ever… And don’t even get us started on auditions.
Here’s what the study found:
“26% respondents reported that they had experienced debilitating performance anxiety. Of that 26%, 71.6% were trained actors. In simple terms, over a quarter of respondents reported experiencing not just mild, but ‘debilitating’ performance anxiety at some point in their career. Having trained appears to increase the likelihood of reporting such experiences.”
So, pretty much all of us experience performance anxiety, and sometimes it can be useful – it’s a motivator to prepare well, and an indication that you care. But at times it can prevent us from doing our job to the best of our ability, and enjoying it.
Chris Edmund former Head of Acting at The Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts:
“I think that mental health issues for actors have always been of great importance but only recently have been fully recognised and the issues beginning to be approached as a matter of urgency. I believe that theatre companies and film and t.v productions will soon hopefully have expert assistance available to actors as a matter of course and that actors who are suffering from depression, anxiety or any other related issues will seek help should they be struggling. There should be no stigma attached to acknowledging that the stresses of an uncertain and volatile industry can result in difficulties that require help from appropriately qualified practitioners.”
#2 Emotional Hangover
Richard Gere had used the phrase “emotional hangover” to describe actors’ experiences of the aftermath of performance. And Dr Mark Seton, has since coined it “Post-Dramatic Stress”. As actors we are inherently creative people, this often means we are naturally very open to new ideas, have an insatiable need to learn and the willingness to do ‘whatever it takes.’
Our alternate thinking patterns are fantastic (go us!) but this also leaves us wide open and vulnerable to mental illnesses.
The MEAA study concluded that “most actors reported regularly using warm-up routines; but far fewer reported applying regular techniques for cooling down after performance, particularly after performing challenging roles. Instead, high numbers of actors reported the use of alcohol as a means of unwinding. This appears to often take the form of ‘going for a drink’ with colleagues after a show.”
Go for a drink with your mates after the show, celebrate, rejoice! There’s nothing better than social interaction to calm the mind, and bring you back to the present, to being you. However it’s important to recognise when using alcohol (a depressant) becomes a habit, and a necessity.
Felicity Jurd – Actor, Voice Artist & Vocal Coach
“It is so important to stay grounded both physically and mentally before and after emotional work. Of course, it’s playing pretend, but we are often playing with very deep emotions in front of an audience that most people don’t want to face even on their own. I use music to help me disconnect and sometimes a long hot bath with salts. Sometimes that isn’t possible, so there are plenty of other things you can do. I often call a friend for a good laugh – it certainly takes your mind off the more serious and deeper topics. When actors play pretend with very deep emotions and use every ounce of physical energy for roles, we need to give back to the body with rest and to our mind with kindness. Something that works for me is to find the physical and technical precision in long running shows or difficult scenes in films. This means that you will be focused on so many details that you do not have as much time to get upset and won’t have as much difficulty coming out of it. I found my dance training to be so useful here. Remember that your body is a tool to tell a story and let the shapes do the work sometimes when it feels too much. Trust your directors – they will help you find the right story arc with your body and help you get to where you need to go. When you are doing long running theatre, you must choose approaches that are sustainable. And when you are filming in front of a large crew, you must find ways into very difficult scenes very quickly so as not to waste time. You must choose personalisations that are not so traumatic that you aren’t able to come back from them. By all means, go deep and you must always be truthful, but don’t forget that you also need to go home, feed the cat, walk the dog, put your child to bed and call your grandmother. I have learnt that I have to have a life to fuel my art, not create art to fuel my life. Spend time with your loved ones and have a balance between rehearsal, shows, filming and creating. Whilst being passionate about your art is essential and your dedication must not waver, there is no point in all of that if there is no one in your life to share it with.”
Chloe Boreham (The Killing Field, MESSiAH, The Unicorn)
I love self care! Self care is one of the most important practices you can have as part of your acting tool kit. That means everything from checking in with yourself in the morning and doing a meditation to clear any distracting thoughts, to really taking those breaks and pauses on set or in rehearsal to drop out of character and come back to you, and to really release character at the end of a day. I always book end all of my practices when I am acting/directing/or coaching with a dance meditation and a self care meditation. Without self care, you can really starve your creative energy or overwhelm it. Practicing self care has been such a transformational practice when I have coached or directed, moving from the ‘go go go creative who burns out’ to a creative that can ‘go go go and enjoy and celebrate their down time too’. Balance is everything, in life and in art. Your emotional work expands, your self-critics turns down, your imagination gets even more ignited when you practice self-care. I highly recommend it!
If you stop for a second, and think about how many roles you’ll go up for in your entire life. Hundreds, possibly thousands. It would be really strange, and physically impossible, if you got a ‘yes’ to every single one of those auditions. Guaranteed fact: there are infinitely more roles you will not get, than the ones you will get.
Emma Roberts talks to this, “I’ve had a lot of failures as well as rejection. It’s mostly rejection, but people think its success because they only see your successes, the films that were made.”
This is a tricky one, you’ve got to go into every audition believing you can book the job (otherwise don’t go in) but as soon as you leave, #forgeddaboutit. Find a way to navigate the casting process/rejection hall of fame that works for you. Whether it be a mantra you tell yourself before you go in to the room, or something as simple as organising lunch with a friend right after, so you’re not just sitting in your car listening to ‘Shadowland’ from the Lion King score, spiralling downwards from your metaphorical pride rock.
#4 Financial Instability
It can be tough managing your finances as an actor. You probably fall into one of these brackets:
Auditioning. If you’re in the audition circuit, you are probably holding down a menial, low paying job to keep you alive. These jobs can be fun, but they are usually tiring and don’t pay enough for you to gain any financial independence. In my experience they can also be stressful and inflexible when it comes to auditions. I have been fired from a number of cafe jobs for taking too much time off.
Jobbing Actor. If you’re landing gigs in film and TV you will be getting paid well, but it will be sporadic. Theatre is more consistent, but even at a major theatre company contracts are usually only for a 2 – 4 month period. If you are doing back to back theatre work you are probably only scraping together about an average salary, which is pretty depressing. The inconsistency can be tough.
- Save. Whichever bracket you fall into, you need to get organised with your finances. If you get paid a lump sum for an advert or a TV gig, set it aside. Think of it as part of a yearly income.
- Get a better job. Even if you’re “successful” you will still need something in between gigs. Try to find a flexible job. (Great jobs for actors)
- Tax. Being a performer has implications on your tax. If you’re starting to get acting gigs make sure you have a performing arts accountant.
#5 In Between Roles
There’s only piece of advice here: stay active (pun fully intended). Don’t wait for inspiration to spark motivation to create action. Action creates motivation, and inspires more action. Go forth, do, create, learn – spend your time working on things you love and are passionate about. Take control of the things you have control over, and don’t think about the rest. Check this out too: How to make your own work as an actor
There is no ‘right’ way to practice as an artist, and there are so many different ways to work and stay healthy, it would be naive of us to try and whittle it down in one article. But there’s no denying that self-management and self-care, in terms of the everyday aspects of dealing with the demands of our craft, is crucial to career longevity.
So we’ll let our far more eloquent friends tell you about their creative practice:
“MAKE UP YOUR OWN GAME. It’s way more refreshing, it’s way more authentic, and it’s way more liberating. I’ve learned the hard way believe me ! I say stick to your guns and honour the body you’ve been given through healthy practices like fitness, eating healthy, meditation, yoga, dance. It’s yours to own and we only have one life, so take care of it and feed it with healthy thoughts, and keep creating, keep making, take that mind away from what those billboards tell us.”
James Sweeny (Neighbours, Love Child, Secret Daughter)
“Watch foreign films. Going to the cinema to watch any film is not only cathartic for an actor but it also helps us remember why we do it. I find watching foreign films can separate the actor from the film and we can look at it as a purer art form. Without a solid understanding of the language, it can aid us into studying the craft sans an affected perspective. The same can be said with visual art, music and language itself. Expand your creative mind into other ways of life; it will give you insight into your own.”
“Actor training really helps to deal with all sorts of challenges in life, from working in offices and with the general public to teaching kids to having a greater understanding of human psychology. I keep gratitude lists and intention lists. I find them very helpful and very clarifying. I listen to music a lot and take note of which songs connect to my heart the most. I find staying physically active really essential when I am rehearsing. I also find good nutrition is essential. An old friend of mine told me something very simple, that I couldn’t seem to do for many years. It was that I should eat three meals a day every day, sleep every night and drink enough water. I find it fascinating that this is the advice that I have to remind myself of when I am in rehearsal, shooting or preparing an audition. Simple really, but when our basic needs go out the window, everything else suffers. The thing I always try to remember is to listen. Listen with the body as much as the ears and remember to breathe the other person in, really take them in.”