Mental health Performance

Every Tuesday, over the last few months, I have been watching an episode of the American Reality TV show “Survivor” and discussing it with my co-host Karen Eisenberg and her guests. Many of these are former players committed fans and fellow podcasters. I am now on series 2.

It is always interesting to hear how players got on in the show and what they have done with their life since the show ended. I have now spoken to players from a variety of programmes including the delightful Richard hatch who won series 1; occasionally, I am worried by what I hear – specifically, that aftercare is minimal and where it exists at all, it has degenerated into pious box-ticking without much regard for the well-being of the contestant. Often, the contestants shrug about this, or giggle. Some are more resilient than others! I am afraid the same is largely true of former runners and some of the producers on these shows. (today, many backstage staff are facing Covid redundancy. What happens on stage or on screen will not do so without these many-talented people.) But, what is common is that there is an intense period of activity which is followed by a void. There are certainly some people who feel, as a recent Guardian report following the death of Michael Thalassitis, said, “exploited and spat out”. Personal relationships forged in the heat of the show are lost overnight and no one is really there ready to pick up the pieces. In some cases, there is even active nastiness.

My personal feeling is that this is largely carelessness. I do not think it is not vicious or planned. It is not intended, in other words. However, a much wiser man gave me this advice once – “Rather fear the fool  than the evil man”. You never know what damage the fool might actually do to you.

There have been a number of worrying stories recently, but the media tends to focus on the way contestants deal with fame or the loss of fame. I think this is a lesser issue but it certainly tells a story that sells newspapers. Talking to so many people, now, I think there is a second more pressing issue, which is one of manipulation, routine during filming but that often spills over from the show and continues after the show is over. Many have gone through an emotional helter-skelter on camera made all the more intense by a number of contrived stress-triggers that would actually not be out of place in a more sordid torture setting. Indeed, some of these, like sleep deprivation, bright light, continuous noise and the absence of any way to tell the time or the date, are part of a proven technique called R21. These techniques are often used to soften up prisoners and to make them more compliant. After a few nights without sleep, some prisoners will simply sing like a canary. Others respond to alcohol, meat or sugar. In the case of much reality tv, these tricks, whether used consciously or not, are used to make entertainment. Some, like the intense heat,  or the Norman Wilkinson dazzle interior design, may simply be a by-product of the lighting needed for a good tv shoot. But many people find it hard to adjust to the bizarre world of tv, and when they do it can be significantly harder to adjust back.

I have been writing a bit about the last few years- here is a paragraph:

I know that I had problems in the week’s after The Circle when I visited Hotel rooms- there, in the silent early hours at about 3 or 4am, I would apparently lie in bed, fast asleep and sing show tunes at the top of my voice.  This was what I had done routinely and consciously early in the morning in the well-insulated flat in Salford where I lived while filming the circle and somehow it stuck. As a notorious sleep-talker and sleep-walker, my sub-conscious simply could not adjust to sleeping in silence and I provided entertainment for weeks. Thank God, that has stopped now…. or I assume it has stopped!

Performers must do more than sing in the night-time of course! Many must expose their emotions in public and this can have a knock-on effect. I know from playing a clutch of villains in the past- the evil of the character can somehow seep into the soul. We need help to keep on an even keel.

If we love the arts, we must also cherish and love the performers.

Back in 2015, a report concluded that 1 in 5 people working in the performing arts had sought mental health support.

The Arts brightens our lives and makes a significant contribution to the national economy. During COVID lockdown, many families found a new focus in the TV set and TV ratings soared. It has been ironic because as ratings have gone up, film and tv production has gone down. the whole industry is under stress today.

All the arts put a strain on the mental health of performers. Schedules are unforgiving, preparation often unpaid and, for example, when the curtain goes up, or the tv camera starts to record, there is no running away. Jobs are tough, demanding, challenging and most alarmingly, insecure. Often, performers are forced to work away from home, and, sometimes, for months on end. Many are asked to take on the emotional baggage that comes with a role and it can be hard to shed that load. (to “de-role”). It is not simply the baggage of being villainous- many roles focus on serious emotional issues that actors must inhabit, understand, experience, project. To make matters worse, reviews come out and can be savage no matter how good the show, or how well-produced. Today, we can add bruising comments in social media. Luck and timing is as significant in the way a show is received as quality.

But performers are passionately committed.

And there is some support: Help Musicians UK has been active for some time now, as has ArtsMind and TALK; some tv and dance production companies lay on help: the National Theatre has its own counselling service, for example. There is also a group called Wellbeing for the Arts but these organisations are stretched and cannot fully cater to the needs of the broader industry. More than that, so much more support is needed when performers have left their job. “Resting” is not much of a rest, is it?

Job Anxiety and depression is commonplace in the arts but it is made worse by brutal decisions, harassment and bullying as well as a chipping away at union representation and professional support. Power is built into the profession as well as alot of very oppressive working habits, many seen as traditional in rehearsal but many more stemming from a belief that a good actor, like a good artist is somehow used to stress, and actively improves with struggling. Certainly, many of our performers are resilient and have learnt to cope but we do not get the best from people by placing them under stress.

There is some stress that simply is counterproductive/destructive and should never be permitted. I spent years directing and designing opera. I was appalled, therefore, when I saw the film of “Les Miserables”- what a way to destroy a voice by making performers sing for 12 hours a day and sometimes in the rain or while genuinely crying. mucus does not a good vocal performance make. Fact. It is no surprise to me that the vocal performances even from seasoned singers like Jackson were actually disappointing. Of course, I did not see all the film- I dozed off at points… as I did in Cats. Oddly, I saw “Frozen” for the first time yesterday on dvd- it is great. I was so surprised. and “Frozen II”, too. I must have slept through all of that film. Whoops.

I am not good in a passive cinema setting in the evening at all and certainly not loaded up with sugary drinks – I just drift away almost before the adverts are even over. Love going and have really missed cinema trips, though.

I applaud recent mental health initiatives, but I am concerned that, when we are repairing damage that has been done, often a slow and difficult process, we forget that, as a community, we can play a huge role in ensuring people are supported and that damage is not done in the first place. In the Arts, this means we need to look more carefully at the power structures in place and see if there are better ways of managing and devising the best entertainment possible.

What is odd is that this is a time when mental health has been highlit and one of the many recommendations for greater well-being is to take more interest in the arts. The arts bring joy, a sense of purpose and community. It is inherently creative and we are creative animals. Yes, indeed, we should take a greater interest in the Arts as a nation but if the Arts are to survive we must also take an interest in the Artists and support them through the uncertainty and complexity that goes with that career.


Author: timewilson

animator director and teacher

One thought on “Mental health Performance”

  1. Your recent articles on the effects of reality TV are quite enlightening.
    I hope more people get to see this, it’s important to peek behind the curtain and see what that wizard is upto.

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