Debate about the efficacy of various acting techniques has raged for decades but it was a panel at the Equity75 Summit that got the industry thinking about what the techniques mean for mental health. Lizzie Franks Reports.
To say sparks flew at a recent Equity panel discussion would not be overstating it. Dean Carey, NIDA’s Kristine Landon-Smith, Kim Krejus and Ian Maxwell took the stage at the Sydney Theatre Company’s Richard Wherrett Studio to, according to the summit program, “explore theories of acting”.
Debates about which acting techniques are better, and why, have been going on for decades. Stella Adler famously disagreed with Lee Strasberg about performers using their personal memories instead of imagination and actions to produce a realistic, truthful response. Adler once said: “Drawing on the emotions I experienced, for example, when my mother died to create a role is sick and schizophrenic. If that is acting, I don’t want to do it!”
These kinds of debates about technique tend to go round in circles. A more important conversation, and one that is unfortunately given little airtime until there is a tragic death within the performer community, is what impact some techniques can have on a performer’s mental health and how this should be dealt with.
Dean Carey is creative director of the Actors Centre Australia, a Sydney-based school he co-founded in 1987. He is passionately opposed to techniques that require actors to use ‘personal pain’.
“So many people approached me after the Equity panel session,” he says. One young girl from a well-known college described something that occurred just last year. Over half her class left in deep distress and trauma – again, due to unqualified and misguided people in positions of power and control completely unaware of the territory they were probing into and where they had no right to go.
“Teachers must stop using the actor’s pain, trauma, unmet needs, dysfunction, subdued shame or guilt, secret fears, unresolved issues and undischarged emotions…The actor’s pain has no place on stage or on film. Drama training and acting can be therapeutic, but it should never be seen or used as therapy.”
Kim Krejus, artistic director of the 16th Street Actors Studio in Melbourne, regularly brings well-known US acting coaches, such as Ivana Chubbuck, Larry Moss and Susan Batson, to Australia to host masterclasses for local performers.
She says she is influenced by many teachers, including Chubbuck. “We are fortunate that so many gifted teachers have provided us with myriad approaches to the craft of acting… but how an actor chooses to work is ultimately up to them.”
US acting coach Ivana Chubbuck
Robert De Niro “summed it up beautifully” at the Tribeca Film Festival, says Krejus, in his response to a question about the dangers of method acting: “I don’t know what the dangers are because I’ve never experienced that. I don’t know if you’re saying somebody gets so involved in their role that they’re going to wind up losing themselves and go crazy.
“At the end of the day, actors use whatever works for them… You think about your mother who died last week. You think about this, you think about that. You do whatever. My two things are: you don’t hurt yourself; you don’t hurt others. Everything else is okay.”
Despite having such high-profile advocates as De Niro, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Daniel Day-Lewis, method acting has come under fire in the wake of Hoffman’s death. The technique, introduced by Stanislavsky, in which the performer recalls emotions or reactions from his or her own life and uses them to identify with the character being portrayed, was the subject of an editorial in The New Yorker earlier this year.
“That modern school, which links emotional moments from a performer’s own life to that of a character, and which conceives characters in terms of complete and filled-out lives that actors imagine and inhabit, asks too much of performers,” wrote widely respected US film writer and author Richard Brody.
Tony Greco, Hoffman’s long-time acting coach who worked with him on films such as The Master and Capote, says: “Drugs killed Philip, not acting. I think, in truth, art might have helped this young man, who thought he had nowhere to turn, to express all that was in him, stay alive longer.”
Greco says fame can “do a lot to a person’s head. I think it can play with your sense of self, which ultimately destroys any kind of art. Do I think some of that began to affect Phil? Yes. How could it not?”
Award-winning Australian performer Sigrid Thornton has worked on film, TV and theatre productions for more than three decades. “I’ve chosen to create my own technique, which varies from job to job, project to project, on the basis of all different techniques I studied,” she says.
For Thornton, using personal pain is a “critical” part of her technique. “I agree with Stanislavsky, for example, that without the use of one’s own personal emotional recall, one can’t actually provide a truthful performance.”
Thornton has studied with Ivana Chubbuck and says it suits her to take a ‘deep’ approach. “I’ve found it life-enhancing to understand more about my own emotional makeup and psychological makeup through my performance work. That’s been very enlightening and very useful and often very painful.
“How do you deal with this pain afterwards? Closing the door at the end of the day has always been a difficult issue for actors.” There is a “very strong” argument for assisting actors to warm down, says Thornton.
Ian Maxwell agrees. An associate professor in the Department of Performance Studies at The University of Sydney, he is currently, along with Dr Mark Seton and Dr Marianna Szabó, leading the Equity Foundation’s Health and Wellbeing research project.
“We are seeing significant evidence of high levels of anxiety and very high levels of alcohol use among the population of actors who responded to the survey,” Maxwell says. “I don't want to pin it all necessarily on techniques, because I think there are a whole lot of other factors in actors’ lives which create stress, not least of which is economic insecurity and the availability of roles.”
He says it is concerning that many respondents have a regular warm-up process but no warm-down. “What happens when it’s over and people are thrown out into the world without any support in place? When they’re feeling isolated? What sort of strategies are we giving people to actually cope with the realities of finishing a very heavy, emotional role, getting an agent, making work for themselves, coping with the downtimes?”
Melissa Bruder co-founded the acting school Practical Aesthetics Australia, where she teaches the technique and philosophy devised by American playwright David Mamet and performer William H. Macy.
“I was doing a practical aesthetics workshop with some third-year NIDA students recently and one of them asked me, ‘Is it a safe technique?’,” she says. “The question caught me off guard because it has never really come up before. But we have lost some of our best and brightest. It’s something that is on people’s minds.
“Practical aesthetics never asks the actor to go back into their past. It doesn’t draw on painful incidents and never asks the actor to relive something that happened to them.”
According to practical aesthetics, there is no such thing as ‘becoming’ the character. “We strongly teach that it’s not possible to become the character, that the character is simply an illusion created by the writer and the intention that the actor supplies, plus costumes, set, lights. It’s an illusion that’s created in the mind of the audience. David Mamet used to say to us, ‘It’s just lines on a page’.”
Bruder, who was a founding member of the Atlantic Theatre Company in New York, says acting class should never be used as therapy. “But, as actors, I think it’s everybody’s responsibility to look after themselves, emotionally as well as physically.”
Internationally renowned acting coach Larry Moss, who has worked with Hilary Swank, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire, believes most performers use a combination of imagination and personal experience. “The idea that you have to live through something in order to act it is absurd,” he says. “If that’s true, then you could never play royalty, you could never play another nationality, a person who is a burn victim. I mean, that is ridiculous.”
Moss says he has never worked with a performer who couldn’t shake an emotionally taxing role when the production was finished. “But I’ve heard a lot of actors say they don’t want to go to therapy because they won’t have anything to use. That’s rubbish and destructive and stupid. Use your imagination. I think the great mistake is to think that personal pain is your talent. It’s not.”
Performers listen to a panel about acting methos at the Equity75 Summit
Anthony Wong started studying acting in the 1980s and he has since worked with a diverse range of coaches, from Ivana Chubbuck and Elizabeth Kemp to Philippe Gaulier and Eric Moss. He has also been teaching acting for the last 20 years in Los Angeles and at schools around Australia, including WAAPA, the Actors Centre, 16th Street and NIDA.
“No matter what the technique, there has to be a duty of care to the actors,” he says. “In my own class, I have a lot of checks and balances. Before an actor comes to study with me, I have them fill out a detailed questionnaire. One of the questions I ask is: do you suffer from any mental-health issues that could impact your wellbeing or your work?
“I teach in small groups, so I can monitor actors’ progress and regularly check in with them to see how they’re doing and feeling. At the end of every day, we debrief. I go around the group and everyone has the opportunity to talk about how the experience was for them. After the workshop, I have the actors fill out detailed feedback forms. And one of the questions I ask is: were you able to let go of any feelings that came up in the workshop after the workshop?”
Wong says his feedback has always been overwhelmingly positive. “If I was getting feedback from actors that they felt traumatised, they were having mental breakdowns, they were feeling suicidal, I would be deeply concerned. I would never do a technique that could endanger the emotional and mental health of an actor.”
Wong says in the eight years he spent at the Chubbuck studios in Los Angeles, he never saw a performer negatively affected by the technique. “I saw the opposite. I saw people reaching new heights in both their personal and professional lives.”
For Wong, who is also an experienced performer, his own process varies from role to role.“Sometimes I don’t go anywhere near my personal life to create a role and other times I tap straight into it to make the character come alive,” he says. “I think having a really wide and varied toolbox is a great way to go.”
Wong says being emotionally stable is a prerequisite to being in the acting business in a healthy way. “I always say to my students that acting is not therapy. If you have issues that are coming up for you, then you need to do work outside of this room with a therapist or a counsellor or a psychologist.”
One of the most difficult things about being a performer is “making friends with your feelings”, he says. “The difficulty about being in our business is there are a lot of feelings. Unemployment will trigger a lot of feelings, a rejection or multiple rejections from auditions trigger very strong feelings. And the roles themselves trigger feelings.
“Part of what I’m very passionate about is that actors learn to really face their demons in whichever way they can, whichever way feels right for them. And that includes the myriad of feelings which are sometimes very overwhelming.”
Meryl Streep once said: “Acting is not about being someone different. It’s finding the similarity in what is apparently different and then finding myself in there.”
Larry Moss, rightly, says that this process should be one of joy, not pain. “It’s about the joy of being able to tell stories. It’s not about pain. Pain is part of it because pain is part of life. But acting and telling stories is a joy.”