Every night I had to kill myself,” declares actor Daniel N. Durant with an exasperated shrug.
Durant made his Broadway debut in the recent revival of Spring Awakening as Moritz, a young man who commits suicide in a climactic moment. It wasn’t easy. “Most of my day was spent getting into character, and then I had to go through those emotions every night,” Durant recounts. After the performance, most of his night was spent trying to reverse the process: “I played video games to get out of it. My favorite was Call of Duty, a high-energy game that I confess I’m addicted to.”
Austin P. McKenzie, Durant’s castmate in the musical, portrayed Moritz’s close friend, Melchior. He had a more old-fashioned method of recuperating from the emotional pressures of performance. “The professional answer would be to do a ‘warm-down,’ or that kind of stuff, but what I really like to do is have a drink!” McKenzie says with a grin. “That’s what works for me. Maybe a cigarette.”
The two actors, picking up their Theatre World Awards at Circle in the Square Theatre last year for impressive New York City stage debuts, were among several current and past winners in attendance to whom I posed a straightforward question: How do you wind down after a performance? How do you regain psychic stability after throwing yourself deeply into a role?
Recouping reality can be a challenge, it turns out. Phillip Boykin’s fierce portrayal of the menacing Crown in Porgy and Bess earned him a 2012 Tony nod, but building up to such intensity eight times a week left Boykin unsure how to climb down from the emotional peak the role required. “A vodka with cranberry always helps,” Boykin offers cheerfully. “But even with that, I wound up laying on the bed or sitting on the couch, mindlessly watching television—eventually I’m able to feel the energy subside, and I’m able to rest.”
And at the end of the run? “You should ask my wife about this,” Boykin advises with a roll of the eyes. “She will remind me quickly that I’m not that character anymore! It’s hard to let go, though. Eventually it wears off; I would say it takes anywhere from three weeks to a month.”
Like most trained actors, Ben Whishaw, a graduate of Britain’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, was taught how to prepare for his roles in meticulous detail, an education that has helped him portray a variety of forceful and passionate characters, from Hamlet to a teenage Holocaust survivor to John Proctor in The Crucible on Broadway. But he says he received no instructions on how to shed all that intensity.
“Sadly, they don’t teach you such things at drama school—I wish they did,” says Whishaw. “It’s something I’m still learning. I haven’t quite mastered it yet. I find that the shower I take after the show is a moment when I tend to let the whole thing go, as the water rushes off my body.”
These answers don’t surprise director Erin B. Mee, but few of them make her happy. The co-artistic director of an avant-garde troupe called This Is Not a Theatre Company and a professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Mee has launched something of a campaign to convince actors, acting teachers, artistic directors, and theatre organizations to see cooling down as an integral part of the artistic process. Her campaign is starting small: This spring she’ll teach a workshop at Tisch on ways to effectively recuperate from the mental strain of role-playing onstage.
“It is something that is mostly ignored in actor training in the United States,” Mee observes, “and that’s a problem for actors. It affects their health. It may also affect the quality of their acting—if you are afraid you may never be able to get out of character, or let go of the character, you may resist getting fully into character. I think we do our actors a disservice if we don’t train them to cool down as much as we train them to warm up.”
Actually, those who study the psychology of acting are less than definitive about how—or even whether—the work required to give a good performance affects an actor’s well-being.
“There’s been very little scientific research about acting in the U.S. because none of the players that control funding, like the National Institutes of Health and major foundations, care enough about the well-being of actors to investigate it,” asserts theatre historian Bruce McConachie, emeritus professor of theatre arts at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of several books investigating the intersection of theatre and cognitive science. His most recent work is called Evolution, Cognition, and Performance (2015).
“Germany, on the other hand, which has a stronger tradition of public support for the arts, has poured some government funding into this kind of research,” McConachie continues. The effort is just in its beginning stages, however. “The Germans are looking at what actors and dancers actually do, cognitively and physically, to transform themselves when they perform onstage. The next step will be to do some longitudinal studies—on topics such as stage acting, dancing, and singing—to discover how this work alters the brains of performers.
“There’s no doubt that actors’ brains differ in important ways from the brains of accountants, cab drivers, and neurosurgeons,” McConachie elaborates, “but exactly how and why, no one knows yet. Is this a good thing, or is it psychologically harmful? I suppose it depends on your point of view. I think we can safely say that most actors do not become serial killers, notwithstanding the occasional John Wilkes Booth,” he jokes. At the same time, McConachie says, “It’s not hard to imagine that some characters could draw actors into situations, thoughts, and emotions that could be temporarily dangerous and even harmful to them over the long term.”
Dutch psychologist Elly Konijn has argued that the emotions of good actors onstage are not the same as the emotions of their characters; in fact, she reports that her studies have indicated instead that actors’ emotions are heightened because of the stress of performing live before an audience, a stress comparable to that experienced by drivers involved in a minor car crash.
“Theories that acting can be harmful go back to the Romans and Cicero,” confirms Thalia Goldstein, a former professional actress and dancer who now studies the psychology of acting as a professor of psychology at Pace University, and writes a blog for the magazine Psychology Today called “The Mind on Stage.” “I think it’s implicit in a lot of discussion around the psychology of acting that you have to figure out a way to separate.”
Certainly, actors talk openly about the need to escape the stress of an intense performance. In a discussion moderated by The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg among last year’s Tony-nominated actresses, Lupita Nyong’o described her difficulty in portraying a nameless Liberian teenager who is turned into a wartime sex slave in Eclipsed, a play by Danai Gurira.
“When we were at the Public [Off-Broadway], this play was very, very, very taxing on my soul, and I couldn’t face people afterwards. It took time to build the stamina, and just the stamina for my heart,” Nyong’o said. “After the show, I would head home and just keep to myself.”
When the show moved to Broadway, Nyong’o said, she saw the play more as “a test drive, and now I’m able to come off of it sooner. But it’s the same thing—I’ll go through these rituals, and then God help all my friends and the people in my life, because I don’t know when [all that emotion is] going to come out, what’s going to trigger [it].”
The sense that acting is an emotionally risky craft is arguably exacerbated by the modern Western approach to it. As psychologist Goldstein has pointed out, it was only in the 20th century that professional acting stopped being highly stylized and actors began to work at giving realistic performances. While well-respected performers like Laurence Olivier have insisted that one can achieve such realism without becoming emotionally involved, most American stage performers seem convinced of the need to master some form of Method acting, an approach that emphasizes the importance of conjuring real emotions in imaginary circumstances.
“In Stanislavsky’s writing, there’s a great deal of attention to becoming the character,” Mee points out. “But there’s no attention to becoming yourself again.”
Mee first began exploring methods of cooling down in 1991 during her first trip to Kerala in South India, where she observed Theyyattam, a Hindu possession ritual that lasts all night and has two climactic moments: The first, some hours into the ceremony, takes place when the shaman becomes possessed by the deity; the second is the moment when the shaman visibly comes back to being himself (Mee explains that the ritual is always performed by men). This equivalent of “warmup” and “cooldown” is performed in front of spectators, Mee says, and both are given equal weight.
Over the years, she has developed exercises, many derived from yoga, to give the actors and student-actors she directs “a way of re-becoming themselves that does not depend on alcohol and cigarettes.” The exercises have names like the Sun Salutation, the Silent Disco (“free dancing to music of the actor’s choice”), and Laughter Yoga (a forced laugh, done in pairs, that becomes a real one). These exercises are based on the assumption that your physical posture and movement don’t just reflect your emotional state—they affect your emotional state. Actors slouch when they are portraying a character who is depressed; if they sit up straight, it helps them get out of the character’s mood—and out of the character.
Pete Simpson sees cooldowns as especially necessary after physically rigorous performances, such as the ones he’s been giving for two decades as a member of the Blue Man Group, which bought fitness equipment to encourage companies to warm up and cool down.
“I understand how it gets de-emphasized, particularly when it comes to the endorphins of performing,” Simpson says. “You sort of don’t want to come down from a show high to engage the drudgery of physical maintenance. You just want to, well, go out for a drink and sleep.”
Simpson is also a member of the avant-garde theatre company Elevator Repair Service. Though the aesthetic of Blue Man and ERS, both incubated in the New York’s downtown experimental scene, may appear emotionally detached, Simpson says they actually require performances of intense and complex emotion, and require cooling down as well. But in his experience, this is seldom a group activity.
“My personal emotional cooldowns are really private,” Simpson says. “There are times when whatever release a cooldown is supposed to facilitate doesn’t even really happen until some banal moment in the middle of the following day. Emotional processing chooses its own timeline.”
After a performance by the SITI Company, says Ellen Lauren, the New York City-based company’s co-artistic director, “We cool down by stretching, by deep breathing—although it’s not mandatory. As we get older, certainly you have to attempt to keep your skill set up, like a dancer would. “Still, she wonders: “What are you ‘cooling down’ from? Are you hepped up because your body is sweaty and exhausted, or because you are in an emotional state? The traditional idea that actors need to get into and out of character is just not something that concerns us as a company; that’s not how we work.”
So the collective ritual after a SITI performance, Lauren notes, is a blend of celebration and postmortem.
“We share a bottle of Jameson in little Dixie cups and talk about what happened during the performance, and tell jokes, and pull each other’s chains,” Lauren says. “There’s an underlying tensile strength to a company that’s been around as long as we have.”
Richard Schechner, professor of performance studies at NYU and editor of TDR/The Drama Review, may have coined the phrase “cooldowns” in connection with his avant-garde company the Performance Group. In any case, he began using the concept 50 years ago.
“I use cooldowns just as I use warmups,” he says. “It’s more difficult, however, because after performing, performers are eager to meet friends—there is always a rush to get out of the theatre. People want to close up shop.” Although he knows of no research into its importance, a cooldown just “makes sense, to move from an intense process in an orderly way—just as it makes sense to move into an intense process in an orderly way. That is, if warmups make sense, then cooldowns do too.”
New York City-based journalist Jonathan Mandell writes regularly for this magazine.