AM: Well it is hard to pinpoint as there are many things can can impact our mental wellbeing within this industry; severe self criticism, isolation, loneliness, rejection, lack of routine or stability - to name but a few! Within a rehearsal room context, there are also many factors that affect the wellbeing of the actor, from long working hours to intense schedules and the pressure to ‘succeed’, or please and impress both peers and critics. Actors can be triggered by the content of the play itself. This may be known trauma, or may be something unearthed by the process. To delve into the depths of one’s psyche when exploring a role risks pulling on the thread of greater issues, which can often be left uncontained or explored. Night after night the actor may have to reconnect with this, and this can have an impact. Having a dramatherapist in the rehearsal room or having dramatherapy alongside the rehearsal process, can provide a safe space to explore and in meeting Sarah it was clear we were on the same page and we quickly recognised that we should collaborate to explore the potential of combining our practices. I think, we live in a culture in which it’s not okay to not be okay. I see this none more so than in the acting industry. However, in my opinion this does seem to be changing, and there are now many in this field that promote the importance in wellbeing.
J: So, in both of your professional opinions, Sarah and Annemarie, is drama therapy as welcome as it should be?
AM: In recent years there have been steps taken within the performing arts industry towards addressing the wellbeing of artists; there are more conferences and workshops on the subject, and increased support for students in schools. But think about it another way: you get a sore knee, you sit out of rehearsal; only the issues you can see are the ones that are accepted. There’s are still taboos and fear around mental wellbeing and being able to ask for help or support. In drama schools, students have voiced concerns about coming forward as they feel they may look weak and unable to cope, and that this will affect their casting. There’s too much stock put into being employable. A top down shift is crucial – the inflated hierarchical structures throughout the industry needs to be challenged. Codes of practice and appropriate training need to be implemented urgently, to support not only actors, but also tutors and directors. I believe there is much that the industry can learn from dramatherapy, not just in terms of practice, tools and techniques, but particularly with regards to boundaries in all forms.
S: I agree. For me, it’s a paradox. Everyone pays lip service to the cause of good mental health in the industry – but if you bring it down to the influential individual, it might be a different story. It’s understood conceptually, not in practice. Not in money either; there’s nothing in the budget for it. I agree with Annemarie, we have to change from the ground up. It’s an odd mix of a society that is overworked and overstressed that finds itself only concerned with the superficial and as a result, ends up just box ticking. There’s a lot of energy that solely goes into if the show with go out on time. It’s scary how much responsibility is dodged.
J: Very true. To you both: what actual steps can be taken to make drama therapy a standard? Would it need to be, say, enshrined in Equity rules?
AM: There is still a stigma on therapy. My MA dissertation argued for incorporating dramatherapy into actor training as a means of supporting young artists at a particularly vulnerable time. In an ideal world, dramatherapy sessions would be integrated into the timetable of vocational actor training or within professional rehearsal schedules, with equal importance given to these sessions as would be voice sessions, stage combat, dramaturgy – in the heart of it. But applying dramatherapy in these environments are tricky waters to navigate. There’s a lot to consider: such as finding space within already intense schedules, ever decreasing budgets and funding-cuts within the arts, taboos around the word ‘therapy’ and box-ticking culture where institutes want to be seen to be tackling the rise in individuals presenting with mental health difficulties, yet they fear shaking the status quo.
S: Take dramaturgy. It’s taken twenty or so years for it to be, for want of a better word ‘accepted’ in the UK, somewhat behind its European counterparts. We still have a way to go. Meanwhile, it can still be obvious: I saw a production recently where you could tell the actress was going through something, and was distressed – and the concern that elicited totally overtook the performance for me. It’s slightly unbelievable someone thought it was ok for her to go onstage. Like Annemarie said, this is partly due to these after drama school pub outings where students compete for wild stories of suffering or negative experiences to be the most tortured artist. And personal suffering is rewarded by the society that counts most: Hollywood. Posthumous Oscars, golden figurines for surviving rough terrain and eating raw meat. How have we got here?
J: Sarah – knowing your process as I do, I know you like routine. How has it been fitting Annemarie into your directorial process?
S: Very easy! I do like to schedule and be organised, and I think because Annemarie and I get on so well, and our personalities mesh – we have found a good rhythm. I will sync my schedule to Annemarie’s and vice versa, so she can be present in the room, but I also organise personal sessions between Annemarie and the group that I know nothing about – I just set the time, and ask nothing. That’s a chance for Annemarie to assess and give guidance without me, the authority figure, present. There, they can be vulnerable, and Annemarie can help them work through blocks that prevents them from their best work. They come back into the room, relieved and in better control, and the pressure in the room, that I used to spend time trying to relieve on my own, is released. I can concentrate more on creating and guiding the show to fruition. Annemarie and I have a creative shorthand, so I can hand over to her when I need to. The benefits to both actor and director, are invaluable.
J: And for you, Annemarie, can you see the effect of the work you put in?
AM: As Sarah mentioned, our collaborations have taken various forms so far; from dramatherapy sessions alongside the rehearsals to having me present within them, holding warm-up and grounding sessions at the start and end of the day. An overarching therapeutic aim for applying dramatherapy to actors is to offer the opportunity to connect with creativity and play without the pressure to perform and be judged or critiqued. This very much parallels the way in which Sarah works artistically as a director and our two practices compliment each other. When we’re together in the rehearsal room there was a natural ‘flow’ between us. What Sarah and myself also noted was that during our pilot project the sessions were voluntary - the students didn’t have to attend. But they kept coming back. This was interesting and encouraging. In a therapeutic relationship you share a particular currency that is emotional and unique. There is something new to be learned with every individual and group, as everyone is different and unique. It is interesting to watch the actor use their craft therapeutically and it is hugely exciting to see how our collaboration can evolve and grow!
S: Yes, I wonder what would happen if we swapped partners! It seems to be about a personal mojo – something Annemarie and I share even at this point of working together a handful of times. Oddly, it’s more about us then them – if we can provide a united front, we can provide united support.
J: Great stuff guys. So, I guess to finish, the government has announced more funding for mental health on the NHS – an encouraging sign that mental health is being taken more seriously. If and when drama therapy is a beneficiary of this funding what could be an ideal future for its growth and implementation?
S: We’re all squeezed, from all areas, and in the arts especially. There’s hardly any money to go around and drama therapy as part of a rehearsal process, is not seen as a priority. With government funding it may take a while but at least in individual organisations, they are starting to see the benefit, what the results are when we put drama therapy to work. Enhance creativity and good works happen. As for the future of drama, with the country and the globe, generally, anything can happen. We have to keep going with inclusivity, responsibility, opportunity, making great work that hasn’t come at a cost to the actors and prosper, I guess!
AM: Like I mentioned before, it is encouraging to see steps being taken within this industry, and within many industries, to help and support our overall wellbeing. I see it is something more talked about, therapy in general, and slowly the stigma is being removed from it so people can really access the support they require. We still have a way to go. I agree with Sarah, the world being as it is means we need art now more than ever: as an outlet to feel, think or escape. That’s why I believe urgent support for all who work within the performing arts industry is vital. Then, there can be less on ‘getting by’ on tiny budgets.
J: Finally, a bit of a silly question perhaps for you both: what is the last thing you say to your cast before they leave the rehearsal room after a tough day of confronting issues and hard work – letting them leave it there and not taking it home?
AM: That depends on the needs of the group. I begin and end with a ritual – a collective taking of breath, three usually, at the same time to encourage a feeling of community and calm. We’re breathing together. We’ve been seen and heard. A wonderful dramatherapist tutor of mine once encouraged me to ‘breath from the place where you know you have strength’ - so I sometimes pass this on to my clients. After they leave, I like to clear the room and reflect quietly on the session.
S: Well done. Thank you. Take care of yourselves.
Not much to add to that is there?
Talk soon, much love,