Behind the curtain there is a secret world of pre-show rituals, crippling insecurities and mounting debt (Photo: View Pictures/UIG via Getty Images)The life of an actor is far from glamorous.
Behind the curtain there is a secret world of pre-show rituals, crippling insecurities and mounting debt that would make any rational human being want to travel back in time and take the sage advice of their school careers adviser to follow a more ‘sensible’ path.
The world of entertainment is filled with paradox. It is occupied by the most seemingly confident, extroverted people who beneath the surface are drowning in self-doubt, anxiety and a need for acceptance at levels impossible to attain.
To look at them, you would never know it. It is their job to play a character, after all. Arguably the most difficult role for an actor to play, is themselves.
Stage fright is a b*tch. When I did my first theatre production aged 17, I got so overwhelmed with anxiety I vomited on a nightly basis in the backstage loo.
Holding my hair and stroking my back, the stage manager reassured me that apparently Judi Dench did the same before each performance and I felt comforted. Talent aside, at least I had one thing in common with her Highness Dame Judi.
Pre-show poos are a thing, too. In any theatre production there’s usually an un-discussed yet mutually agreed designated poo-toilet for nervous bowels. Affectionately code-named ‘PSP’s (industry speak), I guess it’s the body’s way of preparing you for battle come curtain-up.
An actor’s warm-up ritual is not to be messed with, and I don’t just mean having a stretch or warming up the voice. For some actors it’s as incongruous as a cigarette on the fire escape or a borderline obsessive make-up routine. For others, their routine is having strictly no routine at all.
When I did my first theatre production aged 17, I got so overwhelmed with anxiety I vomited on a nightly basis (Photo: Carla Speight/Getty Images)I have my own brief habitual ritual I have to do before each take on screen or scene on stage. I wish it was edgy. I wish it was intellectual. I wish it made sense (it doesn’t). But if I don’t do it I fear that I will fall over, forget my lines and lose my job in one fell swoop.
I undo a wedgie. Even if I don’t have one. The sound of my knicker elastic snapping against my butt has the Pavlovian effect of settling my nerves and giving me focus. Told you it was odd.
Some actors get into character by delving deep into their own lived experiences and engaging in emotional recall.
That can be pretty exhausting eight shows a week. I rely on a YouTube playlist of tear-porn to get me in the mood – pet dogs waiting loyally by their recently deceased owner’s grave, that sort of thing. I suppose technically it’s cheating but at least it protects what little is left of my sanity.
The rush of adrenaline before curtain call is addictive. As the run of a show continues, and the nerves begin to settle, I have often found myself actually longing for that first-night anxiety.
I’m sure I’m not the only actor who finds themselves leaving it a little later each night to get into costume, chasing the hit of the rush (and p*ssing off the stage manager in the process).
The sound of my knicker elastic snapping against my butt has the Pavlovian effect of settling my nerves and giving me focus.
So why do we do it to ourselves? I guess it’s the same reason people jump out of planes. The bigger the risk, the bigger the rush and the better the pay-off if it all goes to plan.
Criticism is expected in performing arts. You can’t please everyone, and thanks to Twitter we now get notified directly when you don’t. But by far the biggest critic is the one in your head.
For some, it can be a motivational driving force. For others it can prove devastatingly self-destructive. I still struggle to find a balance between the two.
At the end of each theatre show, film or TV job comes the dreaded ‘rest period’. One night you’re serving Lady Macbeth’s darkest side to a captivated audience, the next night you’re serving a burger with a side of fries to a disenchanted customer.
Come 7.25pm, your body feels weird. Unexplained anxiety washes over you and you get overwhelmed with a feeling that you’ve forgotten something. Then you remember it’s because your body is still programmed to get into fight mode.
There is a lot of shame associated with actors working ‘normal’ jobs to pay the bills, as if it signifies some sort of failure.
Unless you’ve hit the big time, there are very few acting jobs that pay well enough to cover long periods of unemployment and the only ones who get it away with it are those with outside financial support.
Sadly, this is one of the reasons why working-class actors are underrepresented on our stages and screens. They simply cannot afford to stay in the industry, especially if they want to start a family.
Working class performers need to be nurtured and supported. They have the most interesting stories to tell. Pitying those who take on ‘in-between’ jobs doesn’t help. There is no shame in working a job you hate in order to pursue a career you love.
There’s no business like show business, but not everything about it is appealing. The strains on one’s mental health and finances are evident, but show people continue to smile when they are low.
Despite the nerves, the vomit and the smell coming from the backstage loo, the show must go on.
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