THE PEFORMER AND PANIC:
A LOVE STORY
Essay on Trauma and The Actor
The O’Neill Studio Lab is a free workshop in which challenges associated with acting O’Neill are developed and then incorporated into our ongoing work.
Our next Lab will explore what is commonly known as performance anxiety. If you’ve never experienced it, congratulations. If you have, read on.
So...The bad news is that you had a traumatic childhood. The good news is that you are an actor and sometimes that comes in handy.
Nobel Prize-winning dramatist, Eugene O’Neill made tragic gold out of the hell into which he was born as the son of a drug-addicted mother. His autobiographical Long Day’s Journey Into Night is such a graphic portrait of his family that it becomes about your family, too.
O’Neill called Long Day’s Journey a play “written in tears and blood.” Actors love to open old wounds to get the juices flowing for his plays, but they can easily leave the actor drowning in their own tears and blood.
No one gets through childhood unscathed, so making art of it can be quite an art.
We begin open and fearless, but any ego-crushing event, be it from a maxed-out parent, a toxic sibling or a bone-headed classmate, can ambush us years later when it comes time to face the public.
The pounce of old trauma is experienced as “a collapse between the past and the present” that makes us feel as if the original edition of the pain is happening again.
And without notice.
The result is “disorganizing,” as if you are suddenly a kid again who is walking into scary, dark room with the furniture constantly rearranging itself.
The triggered response is, well, the body remembering the initial blow that first scrambled the nervous system and crossed its wires.
When you are triggered, more likely than not, your breath is constricted. So, in one part of my work with actors on O'Neill's plays, which I call “Permission Work,” we begin the rewiring process by reestablishing the connection between breath and emotion.
I have been doing this work for many years, but still recall the “lightbulb” moment”
Nina was awkward in everything she did in our class. No direction or adjustment helped. Her blocks were so entrenched she was ready to give up acting entirely, so I had to find an approach geared toward relaxing her reflex for resistance.
I asked her to slow down and take a conscious, visible breath before each sentence of her monologue. It was then that I noticed that she held her breath just before she spoke.
Once we found a way to keep her breathing as she worked, the emotion came (and how).
It was a moment that informed my thinking as much as any other in my 20 years of teaching.
Holding her breath was Nina’s way of protecting herself, as I would learn it is of many actors who have been traumatized by their training. (Acting training sometimes includes drawing on a painful event for its emotional benefit to the scene but sometimes at the expense of the actor's mental health).
The breath slows naturally when the nervous system is calm, and slowing the breath intentionally dials down the brain’s supply of stress hormone, cortisol, which is regulated by the brain’s control center, the amygdala.
I think of the amygdala as “Hurricane Amy” for the sheer force of power She has over our well-being. And you don’t have to be genuinely threatened for Amy to experience a genuine threat. If the initial threat caused a strong enough shock to the nervous system, it will take little to revive it.
Trauma is nerve damage caused by an overload of Amy’s receptors in response to her “fight or flight” instinct being engaged. It is stored there for future reference.
The resulting hormone rush remains in the memory bank poised to fire exactly as it did when “Amy” first encountered the perceived threat.
So, what’s the performer to do when Amy starts in raging?
Well, along with learning to slow down the breath and reconnecting it to sensation, (an acquired skill, I assure you), meditation can be a powerful weapon in battling the fiction that results from trauma.
In that “mindfulness” is about experiencing a sense of the present by reconnecting to the natural breath, developing a regular practice can teach you to quiet the hormonal tsunamis that rage from Hurricane Amy.
That’s cause the time you spend meditating is a touchstone to being present, which comes in handy when the stories begin playing out on the big screen of your mind.
When you have a steady meditation practice, it’s easier to see a “story” for what it is, a horror film that you find yourself watching over and over (without popcorn or a date to distract you). Also, when you build a meditation practice, neuro pathways that have been closed are opening.
When we return from our mind-movie to the current sensation of the breath, we are less likely to buy into the fiction. As our sense of the present becomes stronger, the stories sound less like fact and more like the dark fantasies they are and thus lose their grip on us so we can more easily shake them off.
Beyond meditation, which is discussed in our Lab, we our have developed a few other tools to help tame Amy. Among them in one geared restoring a sense of pleasure in the actor, something that usually flies out the window when the breath is constricted.
It is hard to enjoy anything when you can’t freely breathe.
Another lightbulb moment came from working with Caroline, a hostile young actress who was blocked onstage and off. The emotion just wouldn’t come when she needed it. From her lack of humor and a chip on her shoulder I observed that she was essentially at odds with enjoyment.
I couldn’t help but notice that she dressed as if she were hiding. Fatigues, baggy sweatshirts and thick-lens glasses hid a vibrant and talented person. My sense was that she was at odds with pleasure in that she took none in her acting. Still, she was determined to act.
I asked her to take 15 minutes a day to experience pleasure, one sense at a time. She chose her favorite chocolate for taste, a painting she loved for sight, velvet for touch, special music for hearing and a scented candle for smell. This gave way to opening her breath which led to her changing her body language. With her new embrace of herself came the emotional flexibility she had lost in her work.
There are many ways of calming Hurricane Amy, as many ways as there are actors because each actor has to find it for themselves which is why we are devoting our next O’Neill Studio Lab to refine Permission Work, that is how an inhibited actor can learn to give themselves permission to work.
Permission Work includes music. Singing, humming or listening to songs with an personal connection to a scene or monologue can create a shortcut, a way of bypassing trauma because the combination of music and breath makes the triggered response more mailable.
So, for those who have not been traumatized by singing experiences, since I am also a pianist, we use familiar songs with which the actor has a positive association to reestablish the actor’s sense of expression.
Yoga postures can be a valuable part of one's Permission Work because the joint areas are where we store the most emotion.
Therapy, (in which the backstories of your wounds are revealed) is about understanding your traumas and learning to live with them. Permission Work, (in which those stories are not revealed to anyone), is about dealing with the symptoms of trauma that inhibit performance.
Practically nothing in our lives is designed to free our sense of expression so The O’Neill Studio seeks to develop our approach to performance trauma through our free Lab. If you are interested being a part of this process please fill out the following survey: CLICK
Stephen Kennedy Murphy