As an actor, I’ve done some shows that have dealt with some very dark subject matter. When I say dark, I mean it: the Holocaust, post-war devastation, slavery, etc. The list goes on. One such show sticks out in my mind, however, not because of its subject matter but because of what I saw it do to our leading man, or rather what he allowed it to do to him.
At the start of the rehearsal process, he was bright and energetic. By the time performances came around, that light had noticeably faded. It wasn’t hard to see why: his character was onstage almost the entire time, dealing with one truly horrifying scenario after another.
Added to that, he was an actor who subscribed to the “method” school of performance: one in which the actor strives for complete, authentic emotional connection with a part. Witnessing this, I couldn’t help but wonder: was it really all worth it, and what could possibly be the healthier option?
Unfortunately, this story isn’t unique. There are lots like it, ranging from small town community theaters all the way up to high-profile film stars. Famous actors like Danial Day-Lewis have been known to go to extreme measures for a role. Day-Lewis in particular shocked fans a few years ago when he dropped a large amount of weight for a film role, and photographs surfaced on the internet of the actor looking frail and sickly.
This combined with his numerous Academy Award nominates and wins has given a lot of young actors the idea that suffering and pushing one’s own mental and physical limits is the way to succeed in the craft. Even though challenging ourselves to be better is something we should always do, I’m here to argue that self-care is infinitely better than self-destruction.
1. Don’t be that Guy
I get it. As actors, we always want to be authentic. We always want to have as realistic an experience as possible. Making ourselves sick, mentally or otherwise, for the sake of a part, however, is not only unsustainable in the long-run, but it also leads to a very uncomfortable work environment for your cast and crew mates who must effectively watch you lose* your mind steadily over a period of time. Below are three tips that would be good for any actor or other type of artist to observe.
2. Let it Go
Start with this rule: the end of a rehearsal or a performance is the end of your work on that role for that day. No matter when your rehearsal ends, spend the rest of your waking hours for that day doing anything else. Meditate, go for a walk, take a bath.
Even vegging in front of YouTube or Netflix can be nice in moderation. The point is to give your mind and body space in between the times when you need to devote both to your craft.
The benefit of following this rule is twofold. Not only does it ensure that all of that energy and emotion stay in the rehearsal room, but it also encourages you to create a more specific rehearsal preparation schedule. Since preparing for your next rehearsal can’t be done after the previous one, you must set aside a special time for it, adding to your ability to slip in and out of “actor mode.”
3. Take Care of Your Body
As a member of the acting profession, your body is your instrument, and must be cared for as such. Think of your body as a vehicle: the kind of gas you put into it determines the kind of performance (in every sense of the word) that you’ll get out of it. “Gas,” in this case, includes good, wholesome foods like fruits, vegetables, protein, and other things, as well as a good night’s sleep.
Two many of us are accustomed lying awake in the wee hours of the morning, replaying our last rehearsal or performance, and thinking of what we could do to improve* or make it more real. In reality, no inspiration that hits you at 4:00 AM will amount to anything without proper nutrition and a good night’s sleep. You simply won’t have the energy or the clarity of mind to make it happen.
Speaking of clarity, for goodness’ sake, make sure you stay hydrated. No matter what else is going on with you, dehydration will only make it worse.
4. Put Things in Perspective
Now it’s time for some real talk. The ultimate truth of the matter is that the play you’re doing is not the absolute most important thing in the world. Turning out a perfect performance is not the absolute most important thing in the world. What is most important is your continued ability to get out on that stage and give the very best performance you can.
Thinking of it that way, I hope it becomes clear that there is absolutely no good reason to destroy yourself for the sake of one role. Presumably, you want to keep going and advancing in this wonderful and whacky career we’ve chosen. The only way you can really do that is if you put things in perspective and preserve yourself.
There seems to be this romantic ideal out there of the actor who throws his or her whole self into a role, letting it violently throw them around like an unfortunate pebble in a rushing river. This idea that suffering for one’s art is somehow noble may sound good, but in reality, it leads to mental and physical illness and a burnout rate that is far too high.
The solution is to take good care of yourself. Turn your attention to other things. Treat* your body right. Be reasonable with your perspective. Remember: the art needs you just as much as you need it. It can’t make itself, so you need to keep yourself in the best possible condition. That’s what will keep both you and the art alive and healthy.
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