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TBA Online: News & Features: Top News

The Business of Showbiz: Self Care

Wednesday, August 2, 2017   (3 Comments)
Posted by: TBA Staff
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by Velina Brown

Q: I’m not a professional actor but I would like to be one someday. But recently I had an experience that made me wonder if this is the business for me. I was in rehearsal for a show while recovering from a knee injury. I was on crutches but was sure I’d be better by the time the show opened. During rehearsal another of my cast mates injured his knee, so for a few days both of us were on crutches. The show was a farce, and we were both struggling around the stage when the director suddenly shouted “I don’t want to see anymore crutches during rehearsal!” I was still very injured, but I took the director at his word and stopped using my crutches. Things worked out, the show went great, but I felt confused. I always thought theatre was the place we cared about each other, but suddenly I realized that my pain and injury meant nothing to my director—or anyone. For them it was all about the show. Is this what it’s like in the pros: Nobody cares, the show must go on?  

Actor and career consultant Velina Brown.

A: In our field a high premium is placed on a willingness to try anything, overcoming any obstacle to make a show happen. Passion, dedication, and "can-do spirit" are wonderful qualities, but If you’re asked to do something that feels unsafe remember: you only have one body. If you’re hurt you will have to live with the ramifications. If you had given up your crutches and sustained long term damage to your knee the director may have apologized for his/her outrageous demand, but you’d be the one left with a jacked up knee. Does no one care about your health and well being in the professional theatre world? I wouldn’t say nobody cares. Actor’s Equity Association has standards for a safe and sanitary work environment but there are no explicit rules against a director saying, “No crutches during rehearsal.” There are no industry wide standards for how things such as illness, injury, or personal tragedy are handled. Quite a bit is still left up to the humanity of a given company’s leadership. Many a director, stage manager or producer can seem completely detached from the reality that injury, illness, and tragedy represent if they see those things as a threat to the production. But I think the broader context needs to be taken into consideration. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that an increasingly uncaring society has seen a dramatic rise in the term “self-care.” Care for each other has in many instances is being replaced with a cold expectation of an unrealistic self-sufficiency.

The day my father unexpectedly passed away was the first day of tech rehearsal for what had already been the most difficult show I’d ever worked on.

Comforting my mother, and dealing with the disposition of my father’s body, I texted the director what had happened. He replied with his condolences, then asked, “When may we expect you for rehearsal today?”

An hour later, on my way to rehearsal, someone rear-ended me. I was taken to the hospital in an ambulance, examined, given a prescription for physical therapy and pain medication, and told I should not got to work for at least a week. Then I went to rehearsal.

In retrospect I realize two things: firstly that I was waiting for encouragement from the director to take care of myself, and that secondly without that permission I placed the production before my well-being.

I did the tech rehearsals. I did the run of the show. My cast mate was great. Together we performed the show to critical success. I guess I looked fine, even good on the outside but on the inside I felt like a zombie meat puppet.

When a person is hurting physically or emotionally it helps to have more to lean on than one’s own “self-care”.  Crutches exist for a reason, the custom of sitting shiva exists for a reason. In the modern age there is still a need for boundaries, rituals, manners, and customs. If in the midst of someone’s life altering event we demand that they behave as if the event didn’t happen what’s the right word for that? Insensitive? Callous? Abusive? And how does one accomplish the pretense that nothing painful has occurred?

I’ve known actors that hid serious injuries they sustained during productions for fear it would make them seem “weak,” and that perhaps that theatre or director wouldn’t cast them again. Add to that a dash of shame and we’ve got the perfect recipe for diseases and behaviors of despair: alcoholism, drug abuse, eating disorders, violence against self and others, etc. It’s how an actor can break down on stage in front of an audience, how a famous musician can give a great concert then go hang himself in his hotel room. It’s how massive talents are lost to substance abuse. These things don’t just happen out of the blue or just because someone is “so unprofessional”. They happen because there was emotional and/or physical pain that hadn’t been properly treated. There was no support for admitting that there was pain because to do so would inconvenience too many people. 

So, yes, take care of yourself but also be a support to others. I can’t promise all your encounters in “the pros” will be with caring people but many are very kind and caring, and only you can decide whether this field is for you whether it would be best for you to move on.  But whatever you decide I hope that you will do so knowing you have a right to look out for your safety and well being. I hope also you will be a person in the room who will participate in supporting the care of others. A critical mass of us need to be practicing self-care as well as the care of and speaking up for the well-being of others in order to create an industry wide culture of humanity care. 

Velina Brown is an actor and career consultant. Send her your questions at velina@businessofshowbiz.com.

Comments...

Velina Brown says...
Posted Thursday, August 3, 2017
Thanks Phoebe and Marjorie! You both make a good point about talking with the director if you are not already too traumatized by your situation to do so. I totally agree it's worth a try. As a director I would want an actor to talk to me about what's going on for them. Thank you!
Phoebe Moyer says...
Posted Thursday, August 3, 2017
Many lessons here. I agree with Marjorie. Sometimes a director needs help in understanding the real situation. It's worth a try. Another lesson: choose not to work with said director ever again and let him/her know why.
Marjorie B. Crump-Shears says...
Posted Wednesday, August 2, 2017
Valina ~ Beautifully written article!!! Thank you! I would add one point ~ there are those times when we need to sit down with our director and let h/her know privately what is going on with us. Can't guarantee that that will work but it is definitely worth a try. It's interesting how one's needing to appear "in charge and confident" relaxes a bit in private. ;-) Marjorie Crump-Shears