SECRET SIDE EFFECTS OF ACTING
You may not know it, but as actors, you are a very important part of an ancient sacred process of healing. You study, practice, keep your body fit and work hard to get an agent so that you can ultimately take words from a piece of paper and breathe life into them. As you do this–through film, television, theatre or radio– you become part of a human creative experience in which you are using your heart and soul to tell a story. But, it doesn’t end there. The complete experience encompasses a receiver having their heart and mind touched by you, and maybe experiencing a catharsis. Aristotle describes catharsis as an “emotional cleansing” whereby an extreme change in emotion occurs as the result of experiencing strong feelings (such as sorrow, fear, or even laughter). Aristotle believed that experiencing a catharsis while watching a play can restore balance to one’s heart.
He was not alone in his belief of the significant benefits of experiencing a catharsis. In psychology, Freud believed in the process of bringing to the surface repressed emotions, complexes, and feelings in an effort to identify and relieve them. Watching a film or play can help people symbolically relive their own painful emotional experiences thereby achieving relief or resolution. When personal suffering is stirred up in a socially appropriate environment, such as theatre, emotional experiences are not too overwhelming because people are under the impression that they are crying about the character, not about themselves. This cleansing can create a healing effect through the release of some mental or physical burden, which may have been repressed for many years. Audiences can also feel a sense of satisfaction in seeing a similar difficulty come to a conclusion, thereby instilling in them a feeling of hope.
You are a vital presence in this healing process. But, being able to generate a catharsis on stage or in film means that you must have access to your full range of emotions without getting lost in them. Every week, I am referred acting students by teachers who are concerned that while performing a scene, a student tapped into deep emotions, which may be the result of unresolved psychological issues from the past. These feelings can be frightening for the student because of their powerful lingering effects. I am grateful to the teachers who understand the importance of having these students receive the professional care and attention they need in order to work through their issues towards healing these deep wounds. I remember many years ago being appalled by an acting teacher who while working with an actress, had her open up and recall abuse she had endured in her childhood. After accessing painful feelings for the scene, this young woman was left open and vulnerable and alone once again with her feelings of helplessness. When class was over, she was left to her own devices because the acting teacher was more interested in the performance than the person. It is important as actors to recognize that it is your responsibility to protect and take care of your mental health . If you are working on a scene that requires lots of emotion and want to use a painful event from your past to tap into strong feelings, ask yourself this question:
- Do I have enough control, distance and understanding of this painful experience from my past to revisit it for my scene without getting lost in my emotions? Are you in control of your emotions or are they in control of you?
As actors, it is important to continuously do your inner work and strive for self-awareness. When you can achieve these two important tasks, you will be more in charge of yourself, your emotions and your performances. When training to become a psychotherapist, it was not only required by my graduate school to be in my own personal therapy simultaneously, but it was also required for licensing by the Board of Behavioral Sciences. They want to make sure that the therapist is of sound mind and has both feet on the ground when taking on the responsibility of dealing with powerful, vulnerable feelings. Along those same lines, directors need to know that their actors are capable of achieving emotional depths and incredible heights during their performance without losing themselves in the process.
There is a magical magnificence in knowing that through one’s performance they can create the powerful healing effect of a catharsis. Robin Williams experienced it when he commented to the L.A. Times on his Broadway performance in the Pulitzer Prize-nominated play “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” by Jajiv Joseph . He was saying how difficult memories were triggered during a scene: “Last night, when I did it, this woman in the front row burst out crying,” Williams says. “I had to make it through that scene with her just sobbing the whole time.” He lets out a long, slow breath. “That was rough. It was rough for me too. But we got through it.”
Being an actor means that you are an important part of healing the world we live in. Through your performances you are able to portray recognizable struggles and dilemmas that people experience in their daily lives. Recognition brings relief in knowing that we are not alone in our suffering and we are all connected. This knowledge helps us to accept our weaknesses and our strengths. Protect your emotions like crown jewels and give them the understanding and care they need. In turn, they will take good care of you. The next time you bump into a fellow actor on a set or in an audition, bow to each other knowing that you are part of an ancient sacred process of healing the world.
Best of luck on your journey.
Bonnie Katz is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice. One of her specialties is working with artists in the Entertainment Industry. Her skills and training as a psychotherapist and mindful meditator enable her to work with clients in an atmosphere of warmth and understanding. For more information on Bonnie’s psychotherapy practice,visit her website.Follow her on Twitter and Facebook
Conscious Actor articles are not a substitution for professional psychotherapy.