Two years ago, Bobby Steggert, a Tony-nominated actor with extensive credits on and Off Broadway (Ragtime, Big Fish, Yank! etc) , surprised the theater community by announcing that he had switched careers. In an article on Medium, he explained that he was in the middle of getting a degree in social work from Columbia University. “My master’s degree will be a piece of paper, but my life as an artist will make me a great social worker, this I know.”
Since July of 2019, Bobby Steggert LMSW has been serving as a psychotherapist in private practice and a staff therapist at the Institute for Human Identity Therapy Center,. Three-fourths of his clients, he tells me, are “actors, singers, dancers, directors, writers, or designers,” and (his staff biography says) he comes to the therapy relationship with “warmth, humor, and a solution-focused approach.” He seemed the right person to ask about the specific mental health needs of theater artists during this stressful period, and he readily agreed to speak with me.
Have you had any new thoughts about your switching careers since you wrote that piece in Medium in 2018?
Time and retrospection have been even more clarifying. I think that what I struggled with most of all near the end of my performance life was a lack of meaningful purpose when not employed. This is obviously part and parcel of any freelance career, but a lot of that sense of purposelessness was within me, and in my inability or unwillingness to find sustainable and grounding purpose in other parts of my life. As a result, I focus quite a bit on finding purpose with clients, and how they can foster these essential elements of a satisfying life, even within the extreme limitations of a time like today.
Based on your own experience as a therapist, and that of your therapeutic colleagues, has there been a general uptick of mental health issues over the past few months?
Most definitely. I think that we are in a time of great anxiety as a culture and so of course that trickles down to individual experiences. There are a lot of people who are experiencing heightened anxiety and depression, and, as a result of that, dealing with an increase in substance abuse and also relationship issues and, of course, issues with unemployment and loss of income.
My colleagues and I have gotten quite a few inquiries from people who want to enter therapy. I am at capacity so I try to find other therapists for people who call me in order to get them treatment as soon as possible.
People are struggling pervasively because we have been challenged with unbelievable limitations. When you don’t have community and you don’t have a sense of purpose and you don’t have a source of income, those are definite recipes for mental health struggles.
I understand that every person is individual, but are there issues specific to (common in) theater artists during this time of pandemic and unemployment, or ways in which theater artists feel these stresses in a different way?
The most devastating thing about this crisis for theater makers is that there is really nowhere to turn for alternative employment in live performance. Theater artists are singularly gifted in creating work that is shared and felt in one communal, physical space, and in this moment, it’s practically an impossibility. We are all making major sacrifices right now, but theater artists have their hands tied in a way that is unique, and any adjustment to other work is felt as a true loss to one’s core sense of contribution.
What advice or words of comfort have you been giving to artists — or could you give to artists now?
The irony is that so many artists buy the line that they have “no real world skills” and yet they are the most creative, adaptive, and flexible people around. They are made for shifting and unexpected circumstances. They understand the vicissitudes of a highly inconsistent industry, which uniquely prepares them for a highly inconsistent time. I try to remind my clients that their fantastic relationship and communication skills alone make them highly qualified for any temporary adjustments to employment or living situations that are required of them right now. I also like to remind my clients that they are excellent at making meaning – that’s what artists do – and one major thing we have control over now is to make conscious, growth-oriented meaning out of our experiences, even when they’re terrible. And while many can’t make meaning through work right now, they can make it through their relationships, parts of their identities outside of the profession, their bodies through health and self-care, and their creative voices, whether broadcast to the world or quietly to themselves.
What about theatergoers rather than theater makers? Are you aware of ways in which the lack of live, in-person theater has had a tangible, diagnosable effect?
I am not sure if I could call it diagnosable but I do think that humans benefit greatly from gathering in groups and physical spaces and in experiencing collective energy together. I think that is why theater is so special. That’s a huge reason why people, for example, attend church. Without that live shared energy, I think that is why people are suffering from loneliness even when staying connected to friends and family through the Internet.
So what can people do about this?
I think it depends on people’s risk level and how far they are willing to go to be in contact with other humans, but I have suggested to my clients to find as many opportunities as possible to meet friends in the park or to be around other people in outdoor settings as a way to feel more physically connected to other humans.
It’s interesting that you talked earlier about searching for purpose, because that of course is the main characteristic of your Tony-nominated role as Mother’s Younger Brother in “Ragtime.” Is that just a coincidence?
In retrospect, I think that as an actor the roles you play can teach you about yourself, and I do attribute that experience to be the seed of an investigation for myself as to how I could find more sustainable purpose than I was able to find as an actor who too often has to wait around for invitations to participate in what they do. Another role really taught me something — Will in “Mothers and Sons.” He was a young man who was so integrated as a gay person. That character taught me that I needed to do more work to embrace the fullness of my own sexual identity.
So you’re saying that your roles helped shape you as a person?
Very much so. When you inhabit them, you take on their energy and you take on their psychology and if you are open to it, that character can teach you new things about yourself.
I admired your performances, and was struck by how much vulnerability you allowed your characters. Feel free to disagree with my premise, but, if you agree, was that vulnerability deliberate, a reflection of your own nature, or just a result of the roles for which you were cast? And is that quality a help or a hindrance or irrelevant to your new career?
I do agree with the premise. The purpose I did find as an actor was to expose the complexities of the human condition in a way that was raw and that was vulnerable. I think that is because I am naturally a more emotional and more vulnerable person. I think that quality inspires others to be more vulnerable, and so I find it very helpful as a therapist. I’m asking others to become more vulnerable and through that vulnerability to understand themselves and to experience life more deeply.
But do people seeking therapy want a vulnerable therapist, or rather somebody who seems confident and authoritative?
I think that the most important quality in a therapist is that the person feel safe with them. That sense of safety can help them to open up and to be braver in their own introspection. [My vulnerability] changes shape because as a therapist there are certainly boundaries, but at the same time I try to exist in a therapeutic relationship with total openness and with a certain kind of vulnerability that I hope can inspire others to be the same.
Where can people go for help?
I have two layers of an answer to that question. Specifically for theater people who are looking for mental health help, I think that the Institute for Human Identity is a great option because they have a lot of availability for therapists who are in the arts or who understand what it is to be in the arts. [The Institute offers a discounted rate for members of Actors Equity and SAG-AFTRA.] Another resource is the Actors Fund, which has a wonderful list of therapists who are also in some way connected to the arts. Those are the two places I would send theater people if they are looking to talk to someone.
On another layer, I think the best way to deal with stress especially under these circumstances is to find a physical practice, because being connected to one’s body is sometimes the best option. So I am finding that people are turning to yoga or exercise or mindful meditation.
But what if the theater person doesn’t have any money? As you said, most are unemployed now.
That is really rough. The Actors Fund also provides grants to people who are unemployed. There are also much more affordable options, such as therapeutic apps like TalkSpace.
Is there anything about theater that you’ve used to help your clients – or yourself – cope with the stresses of the current situation?
I find it oddly comforting to think about Shakespeare’s time, in which London theaters closed several times due to the plague. He mentions the plague in several of his plays, including The Tempest and King Lear. And during the two year period between 1592-1594 when he couldn’t write plays, he turned to poetry. He adapted just like we all must.
If possible for us to telescope out of this very moment, and while acknowledging all of the suffering and hardship we are enduring, we can be reminded that human history is full of enormous disruptions to life as usual, and yet we keep moving forward, because we have to. Live theater will never leave us – and we will inevitably return to the day when we gather again to take in stories in ways that no other storytelling can replicate.