The area of actor wellbeing has been of keen interest to Dr Mark Seton, lecturer in creative and performing arts at Excelsia College. During his own experience as an actor, Mark noticed how performing a role could have lingering effects and heard anecdotal accounts of actors who were traumatised by roles or experienced depression due to the uncertainty of their work. In his research, Mark identified a huge gap in addressing actor wellbeing. Mark perceived that actors are peculiarly different from dancers and musicians, not because of who they are, but because of what the profession asks of them. For over 20 years, Mark has steadily been gathering research, particularly around actors’ perspectives, on actor health issues including mental health issues as distinct from physical issues.
In 2006, Mark joined the steering committee of the new Australian Society for Performing Arts Healthcare (ASPAH), modelled on the American-based Performing Arts Medicine Association (PAMA). In 2009, supported by ASPAH, Mark was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to research the health and wellbeing of actors both in training and in the workplace. Through the fellowship, Mark travelled to the UK and spent five weeks researching at different acting schools. The report detailing his experience and findings motivated Actors Equity in Australia to conduct the first national study of actor wellbeing which, explains Mark, included ‘questions around actors’ quality of life, alcohol challenges, substance abuse and potential eating disorders, financial stress, relational stress, sleep deprivation and traumatisation of characters’.
Within his doctoral research, Mark identified that many actor training institutions actively promote vulnerability. ‘The capacity of actors to be vulnerable – their ability to affect and be affected – is what audiences go to see. They want to see authenticity or what might seem to mirror reality,’ explains Mark. However, this preoccupation with vulnerability can become a hazard if an actor doesn’t know how to process his or her character’s creation and emotional journey. This lack of process can create distress and dissatisfaction and the resulting pain can drive a desire for self-medication, including alcohol and both licit and illicit drug use. According to the 2015 Australian Actors’ Wellbeing Study, around 35 percent of actors surveyed reported alcohol consumption as a strategy for ‘letting go’ after a demanding performance (Maxwell, Seton & Szabo, 2015).
Mark is currently part of AusAct: Australian Actor Training Conference which is a collaboration of acting schools around Australia empowering teachers in the teaching of acting, voice, movement, holistic health and career development. Mark has also designed and facilitated foundational training in actor wellbeing at various tertiary institutions, including Sydney Acting School, Academy of Film, Theatre and Television, and at Excelsia College. Excelsia College’s Bachelor of Dramatic Art includes a unit focused on ‘designing my creative career’, which includes strategies for managing self-care in the entertainment industry, intended for third-year students preparing to graduate.
Mark has been seeking to bring an even broader notion of actor wellbeing and sustainable practice to drama schools. Questions have been raised about acting schools providing appropriate warm-ups and cool-downs at a physiological and psychological level. According to the 2015 Australian Actors’ Wellbeing Study, almost 40 per cent of actors surveyed had difficulty shaking off intense emotional and/or physical roles (Maxwell, Seton & Szabo, 2015). Within the acting community, this is sometimes known by the term ‘seepage’ (Taylor, 2017). Some drama schools still unintentionally traumatise students by giving them dramatic scenes and roles without teaching them how to take on a role in a respectful, careful way. Mark explains, ‘If actors are not given training for warming up and cooling down, they might not know how to let go of a traumatic character or scene. They can take it back home or the trauma it could continue into another job, or, because there is no next job, they may still be mulling over the character they played. It can seriously impact their personal relationships. I coined a term “post-dramatic stress” as a very deliberate provocation to start the conversation that I felt was lacking in the academic community and in the training community around potential for traumatisation of actors.’
Intimacy direction workshops, which Excelsia seeks to provide for its drama students, play a key role in helping actors cope with the potential trauma in their work. ‘Part of an actor’s warm-ups and cool-downs now involve working alongside intimacy directors who will help actors safely enact intimacy of a violent nature or intimacy of a loving or familial quality and how to play them without being confused about whether it’s the actor or their character being intimate with that person,’ says Mark.
Mark has written a paper with Excelsia College Bachelor of Dramatic Art graduate Courtney Patten on what happens when actors play morally questionable characters (Seton & Patten, under review). The pair will present their findings at the Australian Society for Performing Arts Healthcare (ASPAH) Conference this December. If you want to learn from amazing academics such as Mark, why not consider studying a Bachelor of Dramatic Art at Excelsia College?
Maxwell, I., Seton, M., & Szabo, M. (2015). The Australian Actors Wellbeing Study: A Preliminary Report. About Performance: The Lives of Actors, 13, 69–113
Seton, M. (2022). Mental health for actors. StageMilk. https://www.stagemilk.com/mental-health-for-actors/
Seton, M. & Patten, C. (under review). Wellbeing in enactment of morally questionable characters: Negotiating moral and spiritual values within professional identity formation. [Submitted for publication]. Excelsia College.
Taylor, L. (2017). Out of character – how acting puts a mental strain on performers. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/out-of-character-how-acting-puts-a-mental-strain-on-performers-86212