THE PEFORMER AND PANIC:
A LOVE STORY
Essay on Actor Anxiety
The O’Neill Studio Free Lab is a free-of-charge workshop in which solutions to challenges associated with acting O’Neill's plays are developed and then incorporated into our Studio’s Independent Artist Track. The Track focuses on sharpening the individual actor’s instincts for self-care through a practice we call Permission Work, a toolkit that includes mindfulness, movement and music.
Permission Work is not therapy (in which the causes of anxiety are unraveled and revealed). Permission Work solely addresses the symptoms of anxiety as it inhibits the actor’s ability to give themselves permission to freely work.
Before performing or auditioning, most of us experience a simple adrenal rush, but others also experience a stronger sensation. “Nerves” go with the territory but waves of inexplicable apprehension are another matter.
Permission Work has been developed with Eugene O’Neill’s plays in mind, which require a sometimes dangerous inner connection. It can be a dangerous because in works of great tragedy performance nerves can easily become loaded with past experience and there can be “a collapse between past and present.”
As a result, the actor can end up reliving their own personal drama rather than that of the play or as O’Neill wrote in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, “the past is the present.”
He called his autobiographical masterpiece a play “written in tears and blood.” Actors love to open old wounds to get the juices flowing for his plays, but his anguished works can easily leave the actor drowning in their own tears and blood.
O’Neill made tragic gold out of the hell into which he was born as the son of a drug-addicted mother. Long Day’s Journey is such a vivid portrait of his family that it becomes about your family, too. No one gets through childhood unscathed, so making art of it healthfully can be quite an art.
As children 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 become embedded and ambush us years later when it comes time to act.
The pounce of old pain is experienced as if the original edition of it is happening all over again. And without notice.
The result can be “disorganizing,” as if you are suddenly a kid who is walking into a scary, dark room with the furniture constantly rearranging itself.
The triggered response is 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, through Permission Work, we begin the rewiring process by reestablishing the connection between breath and emotion.
I have been doing this work with actors for many years, but still recall the “lightbulb” moment” that began my exploration of the problem of the actor and anxiety.
Nina, who had been traumatized by the harshness of an acting class she took in college, was awkward in everything she did in our class. No direction or adjustment helped. Her blocks were so entrenched that 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 single moment that informed my thinking more than any other in my 20 years of teaching and opened the door to an approach that has since helped scores of actors.
Holding her breath was Nina’s way of protecting herself, as I would learn it is of many actors who tighten when triggered.
Freeing the breath calms the nervous system and 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-beings. You don’t have to be genuinely threatened for Amy to experience a genuine threat. If the original 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. When a threat is perceived, it is stored there for future reference.
The resulting hormonal rush remains in the memory bank poised to fire exactly as it did when “Amy” first encountered the perceived threat.
So, what’s the actor to do when Amy starts raging?
Permission Work, which originally focused exclusively on establishing a breath connection now deepens that connection in a process that integrates mindfulness, movement and music work into a practice that positions the actor to better respond when confronted by Hurricane Amy.
PERMISSION AND MINDFULNESS
Along with learning to slow down the breath and reconnecting it to sensation, (an acquired skill, I assure you), mindfulness can be a powerful weapon in debunking the fiction that can spring from trauma.
That’s why Permission Work includes meditation which is about experiencing a sense of the present by building an awareness of the continuous natural breath.
Why does it work?
If panic were merely a feeling, it might be more easily targeted, but physical tightness is only one symptom of trauma. The thought narratives or “stories” that go along with the trauma are equally threatening.
Once the story begins and gains traction it can completely undermine the confidence of the actor, who is especially vulnerable in high stress performing situations such as auditions or opening nights.
Developing a regular sitting meditation 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 are present, it’s easier to see a “story” for what it is, a horror movie that you find yourself watching over and over (without popcorn or a date to distract you).
Also, as you build a meditation practice, neuro-pathways that have been closed are opening and it becomes easier to be present because you have trained your mind to default to the here and now.
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, self-defeating 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.
What once was a labyrinth of cobwebs obscuring the real world in front of us now becomes a strand or two of spider webs that can be more easily brushed away.
PERMISSION AND MOVEMENT
Yoga postures are part of Permission Work because the joint areas are where we store the most emotion. Releasing them also releases the breath.
Ever notice how people who are stiff and rigid in their thinking can also be that way physically? This is true on the emotional plane as well, opening the joints unlocks creativity and inspiration.
PERMISSION WORK AND MUSIC
Permission Work also includes music because of its own power in freeing pockets of emotion because of the deep breathing that singing requires.
I first saw its impact as an apprentice director at Juilliard under my mentor Frank Corsaro, who was then also artistic director of The Actors Studio. At both places I observed that singing or humming songs with a personal connection can create a shortcut, a way of bypassing trauma because the combination of music and breath makes the actor “instrument” more malleable.
In my own application of Frank’s work, since I am also a pianist, in our sessions I accompany actors on songs with which the actor has a private association to deepen their breath and sense of expression.
Again, the actors’ secrets remain their sole knowledge in our sessions and individual privacy is considered paramount.
After each session the actors will be asked to describe their Lab experience in writing.
Our plan for the upcoming Lab is to approach monologue work through a practice that will begin with meditation and end with song. (Non-singers may prefer to only participate in a group vocal warm-up). Participants will be led in a yoga series that will take place at intervals throughout the Lab.
If you are interested in helping us evolve Permission Work, if please fill out the following survey at this link: Link
If you have any questions email me at email@example.com.
Stephen Kennedy Murphy, Artistic Director, Playwrights Theater O'Neill Studio