Written by Allie Ingalls
I've been training as an actor for about six years via universities, and it can be grueling to emotionally and physically connect, engage, and share yourself to extremes on a daily basis. Upon learning I had been offered a place to train, I had just gone through my worst phase of anxiety, and felt the pressure to make the most of the opportunity I’d been given despite hurdles of health challenges caused my brain.
If you’ve gone through a hard time mentally, or are still going through the mess of it, and an opportunity comes along, I won’t be the person who tells you not to take it.
Some will say “listen to your gut” or “do what’s right for you” or “self-care first”, which are all smart bits of advice. However, if you’re stubborn and driven like most artists I know (myself included), we both know you’re probably going to take the opportunity anyway.
In the case that you do, here are all the things I wish I had known about training as an actor while maintaining mental wellness.
1) Your training helps you be a better human – not just performer.
Movement and Voice classes are there to ground you, so use what you learn for your benefit. In the same way a yoga class uses breathing, I found the more I connect my breath to what I’m doing in an exercise, the less panic I feel even on a particularly bad mental health day. Positions like child’s pose, downward dog, spinal twists, and cat/cow really help me calm down when my brain takes over my body. Notice what happens when you do a spinal roll down (classic theatre person moment), or any other instruction given by your teachers/directors. If you need to roll down your spine while sat doing a read through to loosen up your anxious neck – do it. If you need to open your eyes during a particular imaginative exercise because panic symptoms are rising – stay connected to the guidance you’re given with eyes open. If you need to sit during a voice warm up, sit. If you need to stretch, stretch. Stay in the experience as much as you can, and stay in the room as long as you can. It’s worth it to get to the other side.
2) Build your toolkit.
Write down what works in class, and what sets you off. Be ready to alter something when you’re in a voice class stood up in a neutral position for two hours breathing deeply, intensely, humming, articulating and other means of voice work. When I remember what sets me off, i.e.: too much sharp, consistent breath similar to hyperventilating, I engage my diaphragm in another way that’s still muscular. You have options – be diligent with yourself, observe yourself like a hawk and honestly you’ll become a better performer (and human!) because of it. I wrote down how massaging my tongue into my jaw muscles helps feelings of nausea when I’m panicky, all from an articulation class where we did a lengthy warm up a couple years ago. Keep notes of your personal tricks.
3) Be brave with your peers and teachers.
Opening up to my teachers allowed them to be accommodating in finding alternatives when I needed them. Also – having a buddy in your ensemble who’s aware of your mental health situation, whatever you feel is enough for them to know, is incredibly useful. Your work will evolve with your mental health, so having someone else who sees you on a day to day basis, who understands changes that occur in you during imaginative work or in certain roles/exercises/workshops that may be deeply personal, in the the sense that they take a lot out of you, is really grounding. If something sets you off, see if you can use it in the work. If not, use what you know helps you get through it and try again. We’re all learning.
4) Preparation is key.
This is the most important bit because if I had known that consistency would heal my brain more than anything, I would have saved so much time, energy, and tears. Doing everything I can beforehand to prioritize being as healthy-minded as possible before I go into a rehearsal or workshop is key for me, and carrying out this preparation every single time. If I’m as prepared as possible, then I especially don't blame myself if something sets me off because I did my best.
My quick list:
Water water water
Good night's sleep (SO KEY, also helps memory) Meditation (actors are loud – get quiet time in)
Exercise to burn off the anxiety packed into my muscles
Bring snacks that nourish my body
Pack scripts/material the night before
Secret tip – bring bits in my bag that make me feel good like mini-deodorant, moisturizer, colourful pens, lip balm, tea bags, fun sunglasses, magazine, a lacrosse ball (amazing for massaging yourself). Preparation sets so much of my mind at ease. I’m rehearsing an ensemble show now and those bits have really saved me when I’ve felt low in my head. Write a list of your own and have fun packing your kit for the day.
5) This isn’t foolproof.
Mental illness means I can have a panic attack out of the blue sometimes. For you it might mean suddenly finding yourself in that pit you hate yourself for, or you’ll notice you’re scratching again, or those self-destructive thoughts come back – even if you’ve done everything to prevent it.
Instead of punishing yourself for it, know that you did everything you could, you are not alone, you are human, and it will pass.
I've found the theatre community to be 100% the most accepting community on the planet. My struggles have been understood and empathized with when they crop up - so I wouldn't worry too much about paranoia of people judging you.
This industry kicks you while you’re down, so the less you do it to yourself, and choose to be prepared for whatever comes your way, the better off you’ll be no matter what is thrown at you. Don’t let fear of your illness hold you back, go for it in whatever is set before you – if you’ve paid money to train in whatever capacity, you must love what you do. Why not give it all you’ve got?