I’m writing this after seeing Birdman, an astonishing movie about an actor and his theatre production and all that comes with it…such investment in a show is something I think some people may not necessarily understand… we get to see the backstage of Broadway,the tensions between actors, directors, producers and we get to see inside the head of the producer/writer/actor/director of the play… Look up Birdman:
What it has done for me is given me permission to reflect on why we choose theatre in the first place. It makes me think of the difference between celebrity and artist (a primary theme in the film) and how most of us do not fall into the first category, rather we bumble along creating work that not too many people see and then we move on to another show…and another…and another and wake up one day and wonder what it is all about. what was palpable about Birdman was the glaring evidence of fragility and edginess of the artists. No one seemed to know too much about who they were becoming. The Health of the Actor. Something that is very topical right now.
I could not attend Australian Theatre Forum this year, the first one I have missed. It was, on all accounts (tweets, Facebook and friends) a great gathering. They held a session that I wished I could have attended, about health and the artist: Keeping theatre makers safe. Richard Watts, who edits/writes for Arts Hub wrote a terrific piece about it:
In 2013, a nationwide study of actors’ wellbeing was conducted, surveying 782 of the 8000 actors working in Australia. The results of that study… were frightening… the study revealed dangerously high levels of alcohol abuse throughout the sector.
‘When our psychologist colleague came to report on those findings she actually looked quite shocked. She basically said to us, “this population is basically drinking itself to death.” The level of alcohol use among actors is not just significant, it’s very significant,’
‘We also asked actors about their warm-up routine and every actor has a warm-up routine, but what do you do to warm down? And the overwhelming answer was “we go out for a drink”.’
Actors, it seems, drink themselves to death, evidenced in Birdman and evidenced after most shows we either create or attend. Alcohol seems to have become a currency of sorts, a ‘warm down’ ritual and that seems to work for a while but as the actor ages so does tolerance to alcohol…the more is not necessarily the merrier.
How do actors stay safe? I think Birdman has awoken in me the dangers we all face each time we step on and off the stage, and how we deny the effect that our characters have on us, both mentally and physically.
I am spending half my time in Sydney now, gently growing 4change coaching here in Forest Lodge, a quaint part of the inner west of Sydney, walking distance to everywhere and hundreds of dogs. I wonder how actors afford to live in Sydney? It’s hard enough in Brisbane. But when I see shows like “The Crucible” produced by Sport by Jove, a Sydney theatre company that produces classics often staged out doors…(The Crucible was set in the Everglades in Leura, an hour and a half out of Sydney in the Blue Mountains), I understand the attraction. Not only was it a stunning environment in which to watch such a brilliant classic, it was a sensitive and transformative experience for the audience.
I wonder why we don’t do more outdoor theatre in Brisbane? I know we have a couple of companies performing outside (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble perform in Roma Street Parkland and the first Shakespearean company Grin And Tonic performed outside for decades) but I would love to see more. Thank goodness for festivals like Anywhere Festival! And sometimes the Brisbane Festival.
I wonder if actors feel healthier playing out of doors? I know I do. Nature heals both audience and actor perhaps. After spending several hours sitting on hard chairs in an environment that can be described as nothing short of stunning, watching the actors use the last rays of sunshine before the electrical lights came on, hearing the birds apparently responding, the wind, the smells. Everyone was so friendly, generous. The actors related warmly to their audience as they sold their raffle tickets and helped us find our seats.
So maybe the answer to health for the actor is to work outside more, drink a little less and chat with their audience. Without the audience, there is no show.