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.