by Laura Bond
Photo by Nadim Merrikh on Unsplash
The belief that “great actors need to struggle and suffer for their art” is perpetuated throughout training programs and within the profession. I knew this all too well as an actor in pursuit of an MFA degree in acting/directing in my mid-twenties. Having a personality determined to get the most benefit from learning opportunities, and an inability to say, “No” when offered artistic experiences and enrichment opportunities, I fell right into the expectations of actors within this field.
The “break them down and then build them back up” approach similar to military service bootcamps is often used in actor training programs. Actors are taught to say “Yes!” in actions and full body commitment to just about everything presented to them. The word “No” is considered taboo and unproductive. Actors are told to nod and accept direction, and not question. They receive reinforcing messages throughout their training to change themselves in any way possible to “get the part” and then be a go-along-with-it ensemble member or risk being Black-Listed from future casting opportunities. If you are given the opportunity to play a role – any role – it is a gift not to be passed up. When applied to learning environments and coupled with the emotional content and demands of the art form, young student actors can feel as if they have little agency over their own identities and bodies, leading to issues with lack of self-esteem, and emotional dysregulation.
While in graduate school the nonstop hours and constant pressure of the craft were grueling and took their toll on my entire body. I suffered from chronic back and neck pain, migraine headaches, and fell ill each time a show closed. There were countless times when I needed months of physical therapy and medical attention to address the damage. These physical conditions remained in my life well into my fifties as I continued practicing theatre and teaching in education programs that endorsed this detrimental pace. By now a non-stop, push hard, and personal deprivation-based mentality was ingrained. Nowhere in my education did anyone present healthy somatic restorative practices to calm down my nervous system for post rehearsal or performance practices, nor suggest better ways for actors to address selfcare.
In addition to these training and industry demands, the actor must also prepare and play a role, taking on the life of a fictionalized character for long periods of time. Since theatre and classic story structure rely on conflict, many actors are portraying characters who are highly distraught victims, villains, and those struggling with great loss. Therefore, actors can live and relive intense emotional episodes for hours on end every single working day. For these reasons, performers are at risk for anxiety, depression, substance abuse, poor emotion regulation, identity blurring, and suicide.
Getting into character is not simply “putting on” or “taking off” a role. Some common practices for connecting with a character are the use of emotional substitutions, or tapping into personal histories to evoke the emotions required to play a role. These preparation devices are challenging to release due to personal life connections made and potential identity blurring or losing one’s self in the life of a fictionalized character or scenario. When using personal triggers to connect with their characters, actors report difficulties switching off the emotional, psychological, and physical engagements of their roles, leaving them struggling to return back to their present state of being.
If actors do not regularly take the time to separate themselves from their roles or restore-back to a calm state, emotional seepage or boundary blurring can occur, contributing to potentially damaging thoughts and behaviors. In my own practice, I could feel the character’s personality and behavior blend into my personal life with mood swings, changes in language and verbal patterns, as well as losing my ability to authentically interact with others. I saw this occur with others as well, witnessing common episodes of depression, panic attacks, and dramatic personality shifts.
Startling results of these circumstances were revealed in a groundbreaking Australian Actors’ Wellbeing Study, the largest study ever commissioned to examine the wellbeing of the acting profession. The study revealed that actors, when compared to the rest of the population, were 10 times more likely to suffer from anxiety, 5 times more prone to depression, 3 times more likely to experience sleep disorders, and have higher rates of suicidal ideation, planning, and attempts. The study also revealed that actors lacked the ability to manage the emotional, mental, and physical demands of the profession in a healthy way with admissions of 40% drinking alcohol to ‘let go’ after performing demanding roles, 80% actively using legal or illegal drugs to cope with the pressure of their roles, and 25% experiencing “debilitating performance anxiety.” Recognizing that 70 percent of actors in the study completed vocational acting training the study concluded with a call-to-action recommending greater emphasis on teaching actors various emotion coping mechanisms, including “cooling-down” techniques and healthy lifestyle choices.
Applying embodied and contemplative restorative modalities for pausing and physically letting go of the fictionalized performative realm and reconnecting with the reality of personal life can be described as de-roling, or releasing the character role, and is often used in drama therapy practices. Typical de-roling practices combine psychological methods along with physical rituals, like talking to one’s character and telling it to remain in the theatre while taking off the costume and hanging it up. Although such a ritual can help an actor depart from the fictionalized world, it may not fully calm their nervous system and release unwanted emotional states. While other theatre practitioners have used somatic strategies from different disciplines as a cool-down, the practice is not standard or widely accepted within the industry.
I instinctively knew not to perpetuate the unhealthy practices I was trained in as I began teaching acting at the university level in the late 1990s. I searched and found reliable answers within early neuroscience development on emotion research. I began my study of emotions, somatic education theory, and the evidence-based Emotional Effector Patterns (EEP) and have used this knowledge to advance my work with actors ever since. The EEPs use the foundations of neuroscience in a physical system for accessing and modulating the expression and communication of emotions, and without the use of imagination or personal substitutions. Throughout my development as a master teacher of the EEP I sought ways to enhance my knowledge of movement theory, which brought me to the Feldenkrais Method® of somatic education.
The principle theories of the Feldenkrais Method were an awakening for me in many ways. In addition to regularly practicing the lessons for my own health and wellness, they soon became embedded in my instruction of the EEPs and physical emotional regulation as a whole. Working closely with Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioners(CM) who taught the Awareness Through Movement lessons in our workshops, I saw the potential for establishing healthier practices for actors. The Feldenkrais® principle of reversibility became a core pedagogy for my instruction of the EEPs as I identified new patterns that helped learners reverse from a negative basic emotion to a positive basic emotion, and then back to neutrality. Exercises in our training became based on this reversibility theory. My continued collaboration with Feldenkrais practitioners provided additional strategies to help reinforce this principle.
The Feldenkrais idea of “Do less to find more” has been a game-changer motto for me and for many of the over-anxious, zealous, eager-to-get-results performers I teach who benefit from slowing down and developing fine-tuned somatic sensing skills. I have seen countless occasions where actors at first resist the lessons or treat them like a stretching class. Then gradually, as the teaching principles are reinforced and learners are reminded of the importance of “Do less to find more” a transformation occurs, nervous systems calm down, and deep meaningful discoveries are made. The restorative power resulting from participating in countless Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement® lessons has shown remarkable potential for the performer to calm the nervous system, discover fully embodied neutrality, and achieve a better understanding of the emotions they are regulating when acting.
These influences have also helped me develop a multi-disciplined method called the Emotional Body®. The Feldenkrais principles and practice are now a constant in my teaching and I have become an advocate for encouraging the use of somatic restorative practices, such as Awareness Through Movement lessons, in actor training programs worldwide. My respect and appreciation for the multifaceted benefits this method have brought to my life and teachings has also influenced my official registration for a Feldenkrais Method training. My hope is that other educators in actor training programs will be encouraged to adopt these practices as well. Such proactive measures could result in positively impacting the personal and professional lives of thousands of performers for many years to come.
Laura Bond is the founder and Lead Instructor of the Emotional Body® method and a full professor of Drama & Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of North Carolina, Asheville.