I firmly believe artists bring their whole selves to the theatre – their lives, their experiences, journeys and traumas. And in this space of extreme vulnerability, to ensure longevity and stability of performers and crew alike, it is imperative to talk about mental health in the rehearsal room. The work of bringing characters to life is demanding, the schedules are unpredictable, and these aspects can take tolls on mental health.
As a theatre maker who has battled anxiety for all my performing career, this essay consists of my reflections, and some ideas for what we, as theatre makers, can do to support each other and look after ourselves in the rehearsal process. As Nicole Acquah writes in Exeunt Magazine, an excellent feature on Emotional Safety in the Rehearsal Room: “there’s a difference between self-care and emotional safety. The first is personal and the latter is a shared responsibility”.
I feel the director has a responsibility to create environments that are safe for actors. How can one do this? The first step is knowledge, and a culture of kindness. We must, most importantly, be aware of the different kinds of mental health challenges that people might be living with, and the ways in which mental health issues are aggravated by systemic discrimination. Only then can we build processes that allow people to flourish as they are. If you are completely unfamiliar, here is a long list of terms and usages.
On the first day of rehearsal, the director can set up rules of engagement – no bullying, harassment or discrimination of any kind. This can be particularly challenging in theatre institutions that have years of legacy, but this is a director’s work in creating a safe space. It will ensure that actors will be able to contribute more freely. Having a therapist on call for your production and making their contact information available to the actors could be a great step in the effort to make the space safer. (I have included a list of therapists at the end of this document)
Furthermore, directors can have check-in and check-out circles. Check-in circles are very popular in community building spaces, where everyone in the team can share briefly how the day is going before and after the rehearsal. You can read more about check-in circles here.
Another way for directors to support cast and crew living with mental health conditions is to ask the question: ‘Is there a way I can support you right now?’ All these steps may not be sufficient with a new team, or for people living with chronic mental health conditions, but they are beginnings to a journey of making the rehearsal room easier for neurodiverse people.
Directors can model cultures of listening and caring for their cast and crew. As a director, one can encourage actors to take time to wind down between breaks. Having ten minutes of quiet time, or music, at the end of the day can help build small rituals that support actor well-being. Our attitude of ‘the show must go on’ regardless of its costs to the physical or mental health of the cast and crew is a toxic mindset, and we, as theatre makers and directors, have the opportunity to change that.
If a play involves sexual intimacy, kissing, or portrayals of violence, another mental health best practice is to bring on board an intimacy coordinator. These are slowly becoming popular in India, and if you’d like more information you can reach out to Aastha Khanna or Neha Vyas. If you run a theatre company, having a workshop or training on simulated intimacy could be a best practice for your troupe.
The second part of the work of protecting mental health in the rehearsal room falls to the actors. While we bandy around the world ‘self-care’, I’ve outlined below some clear things that actors can do to not be overwhelmed by the work.
- Have a clear process of entering and stepping out of character: I have found that a ritual before the rehearsal and one after helps me tremendously. Else I find myself carrying the emotional charge of the rehearsal home. It can be as simple as ten deep breaths to signal to your body that the rehearsal is beginning or is over. A director I worked with offered me a powerful visualisation to imagine the character returning out of my body and back to the text. I cannot stress how important this step has been to my wellbeing as an actor, particularly for demanding characters/plays. You can also find meditations like this one or on Insight Timer, a free meditation app. I have found these invaluable in my journey.
- Ask for the time you need: If you’re feeling overwhelmed in a scene, or it’s too emotionally charged, remember your safety is a priority. Ask for a minute off, and take a short walk. Have a bar of chocolate or some fruit at hand for sugars. It might feel silly, or like you are wasting other people’s time, but it becomes imperative as an actor to protect your longer commitment to the show. If a one-minute break allows you to bring your full self to rehearsal more often, then you can view it as an investment.
- Look after yourself between projects: My anxiety flare ups as an actor would be worst when I was not in the rehearsal room. The acute competition, a fear of work running out, wondering how you’ll pay the bills – all of these often take a toll on the actor, and prevent you from returning to shows with a sense of confidence, or picking your projects with discretion. Try to keep your practice ongoing even when there is no rehearsal – whether that is body training, vocal training or script analysis. I have found that meditating every day, and planning appointments with a therapist after shows can help cope with the crash that happens after show day.
For self-care, knowing yourself and what you need is the most important step to keeping yourself safe and well in the rehearsal room.
But I’m not an actor or director!
It is easy to overlook the specific mental health requirements of everyone else involved in the process of production. Especially crew, who often work under tremendous pressure and have lesser recovery time than actors. For other roles, here are some ways to take care of mental health:
Production Manager/Stage Managers: Give yourself more time than you think you will need, especially if you are working in a production with many moving parts. Often, standing up for a longer timeline is critical to not burning out right after the show. Take breaks as often as you can, and schedule your breaks, especially if you are working on multiple projects at the same time. At the end of the project, give yourself time off and spend it doing something you love.
Playwrights: As a playwright myself, the biggest thing that has helped me is a sense of routine. Don’t beat yourself up if the ideas are not arriving, just commit to sitting in front of your computer/notebook at a certain time every day. Writing of all kinds, and particularly plays, is lonely work. Try and find a writing group, or set up one of your own.
In conclusion, if there’s anything the last few years have taught us, it is that all we have is our communities, and our voice. If self-doubt, anxiety or depression are holding you back in the rehearsal room, please get professional assistance. Some affordable options are here Affordable Therapy and Trustworthy Therapy
Old notions of hierarchies in the rehearsal room might aggravate certain mental health conditions. Working together, directors, production teams, cast and crew can change the way we look at mental health in the rehearsal room.