PANIC!!!

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Many actors I know endure some form of mental health issue.

I once watched, during the warmup to a show, an actor I thought was the strongest, toughest person, collapse in front of us all – a shaking, breath-hitching, crying bundle on her yoga mat and had to be led away to calm down. I felt two things – absolute kinship and absolute relief that I wasn’t the only one. That I perhaps had someone to go to if that became me on that mat.

In my last blog I mentioned that I really despise the adage: THE SHOW MUST GO ON. I partly explained why but in this context it is because it is used as the perfect panacea to brush actor’s mental health issues under the carpet where we just don’t want to talk about it. Or face it. There are so many programs in place in theatres through which the awareness of mental health issues is growing. But the actual practice of care still hooks itself to – THE SHOW MUST GO. And it’s left at that.

I started having panic attacks after the break up of my first relationship. I was taking a break from acting, living in a foreign country and teaching English. One night, while watching Vin Diesel blow shit up in XXX, I had my first panic attack. Something shifts inside you when you have a panic attack. For me, inside my solar plexus. Almost imperceptible at first and then it grew and grew to a full heart-beating, sweat-poring, leg-shaking, breath-shortening hysteria. My mind latching on to everything that scared me and amped it up a thousand fold. I stood on the balcony of my apartment looking out at a foreign city thinking that I was going to die. That I would never see my home country again. My family. My two friends with me were perceptive enough and rushed me to the hospital. I remember lying in the back of the taxi, the street lights flashing by as I looked up at them. They were jagged blocks of orange light. Everything that had been solid now swam.

And it felt so lonely. To try and describe that loneliness is to fail. But if I tried, I would say that it’s like you become untethered from everyone and everything you love and know. The people around you who love you and stand by you are always only looking in, from without. They are not there with you – you are alone in that irrational hysteria. You become unravelled and untethered even from yourself. The panic is an imperative, whose job it is to separate you from your usually commanded and familiar hands, legs, feet; from your recognisable face into a gurning wide-eyed insanity; from your own unconscious heartbeat into a beating drum that thrums in your chest that, you feel acutely, will burst. This separation from all you know is a loneliness, I imagine, someone dying will feel. Every panic attack has felt like a rehearsal for death to me.

Now imagine that feeling in the middle of a show. A hundred, no a thousand pairs of strange eyes on you, who have all come to the theatre to be told a story. Not your story, the character’s story, they don’t want to be embroiled in your mental health issues. And why should they? The pressure of those eyes is intense – the show must, of course, go on. Now imagine the loneliness of standing on stage and you know you are panicking and you are trying to say your lines as the sweat runs into your eyes, stinging them and fracturing the light even more until you feel blinded and you know you must carry on BECAUSE THE SHOW MUST GO ON and maybe saying your lines will obliterate, or at least, override the panic this time, perhaps getting them out your dry, stammering mouth will anchor you to a more normal state. And maybe your shaking legs, which can barely hold you up, can be relieved if you sit in that chair that’s onstage, a metre away from you. But you can’t because that’s not what was blocked and if you do that then everyone will know something is wrong. And maybe you can run into the wings where you can just let the panic process happen away from those strange expectant eyes, but that line of yours is coming up – who will say it if you leave. You can’t do that. All the solutions in your grasp but you are allowed none of them because, you guessed it, the show goes on. IT MUST.

Imagine that fear that you are going to fuck this play up. All by yourself. Your weakness (because panic attacks bring with it the inevitable sense of failure) will be exposed. And people will KNOW. Imagine too, you feel the need to hide it because if management finds out, will they ever hire you again? An actor can feel that their entire worth is connected to THE SHOW MUST GO ON at the expense of themselves. I have been there. It’s what the industry demands of you. Blood and more blood. It makes me sad. This.

I was failed by a director twice too. Two panic attacks – two years apart. He was an ambitious man and later, I would learn, a cruel and deeply insecure one. I had a panic attack in front of him. Once in technical rehearsals, once in normal rehearsals. And both times he acted like it didn’t happen. Not one moment taken to ask if I was all right. And when people backstage realised what was happening, and I was taken to sit in a stairwell, and water plied on me, I came to learn that the lovely wardrobe assistant had them too, and she taught me a technique there and then to help my breath calm to normal. I will never forget that kindness. Just like you never forget how you were failed by, basically, your boss, as the director is often perceived. To me it was a display of the heartless cruelty, not just of the man, but the entire business as well.

In that moment I realised that many of the actors understood. That they suffered silently too. So I wrote a blog and the response to that was incredible. All actor’s responses were like they were finally able to breathe out because a secret had been shared, a painful one that perhaps they no longer had to suffer with, in silence.

I still have moments of paranoia where I think I should never have written that blog, scared that the management read the blog and decided that I was too much of a liability and made them perceive me an actor less able to cope with the pressures of being an actor. You can never know as an actor. It’s so much part of the culture of silence around these issues. I feel that the industry is often very quick to pick up the gauntlet of the next available cause, like mental health, but when push comes to shove not much changes.

THAT SHOW MUST JUST GO THE FUCK ON.

Why are you an Actor?

Sometimes the question comes with a gentle shake of the head, “Why are you an actor?” And at other times it comes with a roar of rage or a hiccough of quiet despair and frustration. Inside me, there comes an answer and it whispers a version of the truth I would like to believe is true: there is no other profession I feel so proficient in, nothing else satisfies as much as acting. It is my artistic contribution to storytelling in this life. These are all true. The rewards are immense. But also, hiding away, my fragile ego screams: this is your only form of power in the world so don’t you dare give it up!

I fell in love with a puppet theatre in nursery school. It stood against the wall in the playroom. It had red felt curtains that you had to close and open by yourself. It had a cheery farmyard backdrop. Once you stepped into the huge theatre a pile of limp puppets lay, waiting for you -the storyteller. I remember a brown lion with a golden yellow circular mane framing his face. Sitting in the dark behind the curtain, with a rush of excitement coursing through me, I knew that this was the place stories were born. I don’t know how I did. I just did. The place where I could command attention. I only had to put my tiny hand into the lion’s belly and it would twitch awake. My little hand made something live. The power! I could roar as a lion. As myself, not so much.

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That instant connection with that puppet theatre I will never fully understand. Whilst most of the boys ran past it to play with the motorbikes and scooters outside, I was caught in the dark, weaving stories with my lion.

This sense of performance grew from those moments. And it has never left me. When people say sometimes that something is in the blood what they really mean is that a little voice opened its mouth and said, “Yes! This!” “Not THAT! THIS!!”. And so, when I ask myself why I became an actor I think of that beginning and it’s clear to me. It called. I answered. But try and explain that to your father who is resisting paying loads of cash a year, for a four year Bachelor of Arts in Dramatic Art degree. Try and explain that to yourself as you feel that sucker punch of constant rejection from the industry. It’s nebulous.  

Acting also saved my life. I’m not being dramatic. This is a truth I know well.

We moved to a new town when I started high school. Most of the people that I had grown up with were staying behind whilst I moved away with my family to go to a school with a fierce reputation for discipline and excellence. 

The first year I met amazing new friends although missing everyone back ‘home’. All the usual changes happened. I grew up. I stopped being that innocent child and started to become a young man. Once the shock of moving had settled I was very happy in my new school.

It was in the second year there that it all changed. It began with a boy that was a year below me. I didn’t know him at all. He was new to the school but one day, as he passed me in the corridor between accountancy and home economics, he hit me. I had no idea why. And suddenly what I thought I knew…the story that I was telling myself about my life, began to erode. I thought I was safe. I wasn’t.

Suddenly I was reviled. The bullying began in earnest. It took the form of words spat in my direction. Horrible words that labelled me as something to fear. Something to hate. And occasionally it was physical violence. The hatred in their faces bemused me. It was intense, twisting their mouths, spittle flying. And I asked myself again and again – why?

I knew what I was, and it took me all of five seconds to accept it on the afternoon I realised. It was a truth I had known since I was three years old. I shrugged and moved on. But, I couldn’t understand why, what was so natural to me, was treated with such fear and derision by the world around me. The truth of my inner life was wonderful, but the hate I was learning existed in the world made friends turn against me and strangers judge me. Between my inner and outer life was a chasm. And I fell into it. I didn’t know how to fight that hatred. I was silenced. And then rage found a home in me. 

A director that I have worked with on many occasions always says that I act or play rage really well. I know rage. It and I used to be good friends. It was my reaction to being bullied. I invited it in. But then it turned on me. I ate and ate and ate and raged and ate some more. Eating made me feel so good. Until I looked in the mirror. Then I found a new source for my rage – myself. All I wanted was for the bullying and hate to stop. But all I did, in my ignorance, was try and kill myself with food. The rage never touched my friends. it touched my family but not my few remaining friends. They thought I was the happiest, most loving guy. But I would walk home with boys throwing stones at my back shouting their hatred and get home to my parent’s casual comments that reiterated the hatred at school. It felt like I was a huge walking problem.

But then I was cast in a production of Oliver, just the chorus. But that was enough. I realised I didn’t have to be ‘me’ anymore.

Suddenly the puppet theatre and this school hall stage held the key to my life. On stage I could safely open my mouth and speak even though I was bullied into silence in my real life. I was hiding who I was and hoping no one would notice. The lines I learnt and spoke as an actor wasn’t me but they said things I could never say. That ‘character’ that looked like me, but wasn’t me, gave me a chance to crawl out of the chasm and put that knife down – the one I was holding to my wrists.  

And I got better, quickly. An innate sense of performance developed so quickly because I was acting all the time. Trying to be strong when I was being bullied into submission. Being hated and pretending I was fine, fine, fine. Then the bullying stopped. In my final year of high school the people in power actually had come to respect me. The head athletic champion, that I was deeply in love with, put his hand on my shoulder after a lead performance in a major musical and told me that I was incredible. I’ve never known such power and pleasure. I was released from torture.

So, when I ask myself why I am an actor I always think of those two things. The puppet theatre and becoming an actor in high school. And how they both saved me from a destructive path that, I’m sure, would have killed me.

I wasn’t prepared to be part of an industry that has it’s own strange relationship with truth and bullying and silence. Even as it claims to care.