The real problem with ‘ghosts’ is not having anyone believe you. But the experience of it can still be very real. And its impacts on your own mental and physical health, and your valued relationships can be severe.
I’m referring to a range of actors’ experiences – from not feeling your ‘everyday’ self after a show, to the shock/surprise of reacting as ‘the character’ to everyday life and family stresses, to being traumatised or fatigued by the emotional and physical demands of a role. Susana Bloch, Chilean psychologist and creator of the Alba Emoting technique, introduced the term ‘emotional hangover” as one way of accounting for some of these experiences. More recently, I coined the term “post-dramatic stress” as both an evocation and provocation that, like, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such experiences of actors are unique to each person and if they are not dealt with, respectfully, can lead to unhealthy repression or self-denial.
Like PTSD, many actors may experience ‘post-dramatic stress’ but no-one wants to talk about it. Concerns about mental health and wellbeing are still taboo subjects both in actor training and in the workplaces of actors. And with that lack of open conversation, it is very hard to learn from those who may have found ways to deal with these ‘ghosts’. A recent, anonymous national survey of professional actors in Australia (Actors Wellbeing Survey 2013) that I co-led, found that almost 40% of those surveyed had difficulties ‘cooling down’ or ‘shaking off’ an intense emotional and/or physical role. When asked what kinds of roles or production experiences contributed to their ill-ease, participants mentioned the following: enacting physical extremes; enacting physical or psychological ‘illnesses’; enacting physical, relational or sexual violence; enacting dysfunctional relationships and betrayals, enacting grief or loss, enacting war scenarios (e.g. holocaust survivors); and, finding personal, painful connections to a particular role.
Regrettably, other actors often scoff at their peers’ inability to deal with such roles. It even appeared in our survey comments – actors, who didn’t have issues, wrote that anyone who did have a problem should get out of the industry. Because not everyone faces these challenges, the fault is placed on the actors who do – they are either incompetent, or their acting technique is wrong, or they should just ‘get over it’! Some have suggested it should be easy to ‘shake off’ the ghost of a role or rehearsal/performance experience by metaphorically taking off the costume or ‘mask’ of the character after each show. But if actors may be wearing such intense ‘masks’ for a season, it’s not surprising (to carry the metaphor) that the mask ends up shaping the actor underneath.
The word ‘trauma’ comes from the Greek, meaning ‘a wound’, and is understood to have both physical and psychological manifestations. In his book The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy, Dr Louis Cozolino observes that for each unique individual, there is a point at which anxiety and fear cross the line into trauma. Furthermore, such trauma can cause severe disturbances in the integration of cognitive and emotional processing, though the intensity can vary from individual to individual. While it may be said that ‘time heals all wounds’ or ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’, Cozolino cautions that some trials and tribulations can also create permanent biological, neurological and psychological compromise, which can interfere with personal and interpersonal functioning.
Dr Peter Levine, who has been a pioneer in somatic (embodied) treatment of trauma, believes that persons of any age can become traumatized – even prior to birth – when their ability to respond to a perceived threat is in some way overwhelmed. The key to this definition is the notion of subjective perception. It is not simply a question of defining what is or what is not a traumatizing event, as what may be violating to one person may not be perceived and experienced as violating to another. This goes some way to explaining why trauma can be very particular to persons. In Levine’s experience, what is also significant is that the embodied, preconscious defence and response to violation is primarily some loss of sensed connection to one’s self, one’s body, one’s relationships and one’s experience of the world.
I would suggest that the ongoing practice of performance, in the case of the stage or screen actor, requires rich and fluid connection with one’s self, one’s relationships and one’s environment. Therefore, if what Levine observes about the potential loss of connection is true, it becomes crucial that the professional’s need for embodied awareness does not become dampened or disconnected through unmanaged traumatization (either direct or indirect). However, I have found that, both in training and in working practice, actors often encounter physical and emotional violation without either strategic preparation or embodied debriefing and realignment of their perceptual or sensual capacities as human beings.
I want to assert that ‘post-dramatic stress’ or ‘emotional hangover’ is a real and legitimate experience of many actors. So, how can actors deal with this? There are several practitioners who have designed workshop programs and written books on techniques to practically ‘cool down’ and re-ground ones’ self. Actress and teacher, Emmanuelle Chaulet published her book A Balancing Act offering personal tools to balance life and acting. More recently, movement specialist and Alexander teacher, Betty Polatin published a book entitled The Actor’s Secret offering actors ways to reduce performance anxiety and stress, and initiate healing and self-growth. Stephen Wang also discusses strategies to enable actors to ‘cool down’ and let go after performance in his book on physical actor training, An Acrobat of the Heart. And, in Australia, I am currently developing some online training programs, drawing upon my own workshop-based practice that I call Resilient Vulnerability. It not only engages with the actor’s personal experience but also takes account of their interpersonal relationships, as well as the more global stresses of industry demands and expectations.
The key, I believe, to dealing with ghosts is to bring them to the light of open, mutually vulnerable and courageous conversation. From that place we can become healthily interdependent in honouring each actor’s unique journey in negotiating their pre and post performance experiences. This will enable healthier actors with healthier lives and relationships.
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