Cooling down: How Actors Unwind After Intense Performances

“Every night, I had to kill myself,” said Daniel Durant, who made his Broadway debut in the recent revival of Spring Awakening portraying Moritz, a character who commits suicide. “I had to go through those emotions every night. Most of my day was spent getting into the character.” And, 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’m addicted to.”

His castmate Austin P. McKenzie, who portrayed Melchior, had a more old-fashioned method. “The professional answer would be to do a warm down and that kind of stuff, but what I really like to do is have a drink, that’s what I like to do. Maybe a cigarette.”

The two actors, picking up their Theatre World Awards at Circle in the Square Theatre last year for impressive New York 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, and after a role?

Phillip Boykin’s fierce portrayal of the menacing Crown in the Broadway production of “Porgy and Bess” earned him a 2012 Tony Award nomination, but building up to such an intense role presented challenges for climbing down from it. “A vodka with cranberry always helps,” Boykin offered cheerfully. “Even with that I wind up laying on the bed or sitting on the couch watching television and 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 replied. “She will remind me quickly that I’m not that character anymore. It’s hard to let go. Eventually it wears off; I would say it takes anywhere from three weeks to a month”

Cynthia Erivo: “I just take a moment to sit, and stop. Sometimes it takes a while.”

Emily Skeggs: “Lots of jokes. I like to joke with friends, usually backstage.”

Bobby Steggert: “I wind down by going to a quiet place. New York City can be quite overwhelming so I make sure to get out of here once in a while.”

Like most trained actors, Ben Whishaw, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, was taught how to prepare for his roles in meticulous detail, helping him portray some intense characters, from Hamlet to a teenage Holocaust survivor to John Proctor in The Crucible. But he received no instructions on how to shed the intensity. “Sadly, they don’t teach you such things at drama school; I wish they did. It’s one of those things 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 let the whole thing go as the water rushes off my body.”

These answers don’t surprise Erin Mee, but few of them make her happy.

Mee is a theatre director, the co-artistic director of an avant-garde theatre company called This Is Not A Theatre Company and a professor at NYU’s Tisch School of The Arts. She has launched something of a campaign to convince actors, acting teachers, artistic directors, and entire theatres to see cooling down as an integral part of the artistic process. Her campaign is starting small: In the Spring, she will teach a workshop at Tisch on cooling down.

“It is something that is mostly ignored in actor training in the United States,” Mee says. “And I think that’s a problem for actors. It affects their health. It may also affect 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 United States because none of the players that control funding (the NIH and major foundations) care enough about the well-being of actors to investigate it,” says 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, most recently “Evolution, Cognition, and Performance” in 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 says. It is just at its beginning stages, however. “The Germans are looking at what actors and dancers actually do, cognitively and physically, to transform themselves when they perform on stage.  The next step will be to do some longitudinal studies – stage acting, dancing, and singing over time – to discover how this work alters the brains of performers,” McConachie says. “There’s no doubt that actors’ brains differ in important ways from the brains of accountants, cab drivers, and neurosurgeons, but exactly how and why, no one knows yet.  Is this a good thing or psychologically harmful?  I suppose it depends on your point of view.  I think we can say that most actors do not become serial killers” (notwithstanding “the occasional John Wilkes Booth.”) At the same time, McConachie says, “it’s not hard to imagine that some characters could draw some actors into situations, thoughts, and emotions that could be temporarily dangerous and even harmful to them over the long term.”

Dutch psychologist Elly Konijn argues that the emotions of good actors on stage are not the same as the emotions of their characters, but that her studies indicate their 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,” says 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 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 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 war-time sex slave in Eclipsed, a play by Danai Gurira. “When we were at The Public, 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. And so after the show, I would head home and just keep to myself. And, upon moving to Broadway, I had that run as like 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 it’s going to come out, what’s going to trigger (it).”

Lucas Steele put it succinctly in a recent Tweet: “I do my best to leave #Anatole onstage @GreatCometBway. He really takes it out of me.”

The sense that acting is an emotionally risky craft is arguably exacerbated by the modern Western approach to it. As Goldstein has pointed out, it was only in the 20th century that professional acting stopped being highly stylized, and actors worked 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 Method acting, first developed by Konstantin Stanislavsky, which emphasizes the importance of feeling real emotions.

“In Stanislavsky’s writing, there’s a great deal of attention to becoming the character; that’s the title of one of his books,” Erin Mee says. “But there’s no attention to becoming yourself again.”

Mee first began to believe there is another way in 1991 during her first trip to Kerala in the South of India, where she observed the Theyyattam, a Hindu dance-like possession ritual that lasts all night, and has two climactic moments. There is the moment, hours into the ceremony, when the shaman becomes possessed by the deity, and then there is the moment when the shaman visibly comes back to being him or herself. This equivalent of warmup and cooldown is performed in front of the spectators, Mee says, and both are given equal weight.

Over the years, she has developed exercises, many derived from yoga, to give 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 in pairs that becomes a real one. They 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; 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 theater company, Elevator Repair Service. Although both companies were incubated in the Downtown experimental scene, and their productions may seem emotionally detached, Simpson says they actually require performances of intense and complex emotion, and require cooling down as well. But in his experience they are seldom post-show group activities. “My personal emotional cool downs are really private.  There are times when whatever release a cool down 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, “we cool down by stretching, by deep breathing, although it’s not mandatory,” says Ellen Lauren, SITI’s co-artistic director. “As we get older certainly you have to attempt to keep your skill set up, like a dancer would. “ However, she asks, “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 says, is a mix between a celebration and a 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; there’s an underlying tensile strength to a company that’s been around as long as we have.” Lauren cites a tenet of Noh theater: jo ha kyu. “It means a beginning, a middle and then acceleration. We don’t cool down; we accelerate.”

Richard Schechner, professor of performance studies at Tisch, editor of TDR, and the founder of the avant-garde company The Performance Group, may have coined the phrase “cooldowns,” and in any case began using them 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 — by everyone; people want to close up shop.” Although he knows of no research into its importance, “a cooldown 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.”

This article appeared slightly altered in the March, 2017 edition of American Theatre Magazine.






Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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