This is one of those areas that folks don’t tend to speak on in acting class. It’s kind of a private issue, so I thought I’d write part of a blog on it.
Your health is extremely important to your career. Illnesses and injuries are the number one reason that performers are forced to quit permanently. I would say about half, maybe even more, of those people attribute their downfall to something that happened as a young actor. I am hoping that you can avoid being one of these people by taking your health in your hands. Even in the short run, this is not a job you can just call in sick to without huge problems occurring. The theater is unique in what it does to you physically and emotionally, and also in what it demands from you in the same ways. Therefore, as a performer or even just a student, there are certain precautions you can take and things to watch out for, and a few tricks to help you through the rough times.
First off, start with what you know. If you have a chronic condition, such as asthma or diabetes or epilepsy, make an appointment with your doctor right away to talk about how theater will affect your condition, and what can be done about it. Talk about specifics, such as the fact that the theater is full of dust and makeup, or that you may not be able to eat for certain lengths of time, or there is a strobe light effect in once scene. Your doctor (if she’s worth anything) will work with you to decide just what you can and can’t do, and how to medicate or monitor to make sure you stay as healthy as possible. I know of one actress with severe asthma, who starts taking steroids before every tech week, and carries an Epi-Pen with her during shows, so if she does have a bad attack she won’t have to leave the theater in the middle of a performance.
After your meeting with your doctor, go straight to the director or the stage manager (this is one of the few times that you can go ahead and bypass the stage manager- but only if that stage manager is also a student If it’s an adult, go to the SM). Explain your condition, what you can and can’t do as per your doctor, and how you are medicating. If you are doing a show at school, the nurse may have to be involved somehow. I know it seems like a big hassle and it is sometimes embarrassing, but if you were to have a seizure in rehearsal, the last thing in the world you want around you is a large group of highly reactive people in an already heightened emotional state confronted with a real crisis for which they are unprepared. Yikes. You could wake up goodness knows where covered in band-aids with a bouquets of wooden spoons in your mouth. Prepare them, please.
Along the same lines, think about your health patterns. Do you tend to catch whatever’s going around? Do you get an upset stomach when you are stressed? Ear infections every fall, or are you prone to strep or tonsillitis? Again, talk to the doctor. See what they can do for you. After that, or if you just aren’t going to get around to it, start getting preventive.
If you are prone to strep or tonsillitis or anything else devastating and contagious, at the very first sign stay home and get medicine. If you have a fever, or are vomiting, stay home. One person missing from two or three rehearsals in a row is preferable to 20 people going down two or three at a time over a period of weeks.
If you react physically to stress, try to find something that keeps you on an even keel. Rehearsals can be very draining and worrisome, and there is a lot of time pressure. Look to yoga, meditation, prayer, music, writing, reading. Something that you can do daily to lower your baseline of craziness so you have some room for the inflated type you get from this profession.
If you are one of those people who gets EVERYTHING, check with your doctor about immune system boosters. There is a lot of herbal and medical help for a low-resistance system. Also, read on to the hygiene section. My other advice to you is to not discuss symptoms. This goes for everyone. Let me go into that a little deeper.
Actors are highly suggestible people. They have trained to make themselves feel things that may or may not have basis in fact. This can be a curse when it happens subconsciously. For instance, if someone says “lemon” to you, right away you feel a prickling at the back of your mouth, and your salivary glands react to something that is not there. The same can happen with illness. When actors start hearing symptoms, there is a high probability that they will feel them, if not actually develop the sickness. Happens all the time. If you catch colds over the phone, this is definitely information you need. DO NOT discuss symptoms in rehearsal. If you are not feeling well, and someone asks, respond with “I’m tired” or “I’m just a little under the weather”. No specifics. If other people start with their own illness stories, change the subject, explain that you get sick by hearing about it, or get out of there. Stay away from sick folks as much as you can. The other advice I will give you is to not watch or listen to commercials for medications. At certain times of the year, there are symptoms being displayed at their worst on television and radio and internet about every 10 minutes for 2-5 minutes at a time. This is deadly for performers. Turn it off, mute it and do something else for 5 minutes, or get off the couch and go study your lines. Don’t watch, and don’t listen.
There are a few things that really shouldn’t need to be said, but I would be remiss if I did not mention them. I’m going fast, so listen carefully.
- DON’T SMOKE. You smell bad and look stupid, plus you ruin your voice as well as your lungs.
- DON’T DRINK ALCOHOL. It’s illegal, stupid, and dangerous. It turns your brain cells into jelly, and those don’t grow back.
- DON’T DO DRUGS. Besides the expensive ones, huffing can kill you the very first time. You would then miss rehearsal, which is not good for your career.
There. Nuff said on that.
INJURIES. Prevention is paramount. You may say, “but accidents just happen!” I’d wager that about 75% of accidents to performers are preventable. I have no statistical basis for that number, but I bet it’s pretty accurate. A few ways to prevent accidents, in and out of the theater:
- Be aware of what’s going on around you. I know you are the center of your universe, but there are a whole lot of other universes around you, and some of them are driving cars and dropping steel beams. Keep your eyes and ears open, and look before you run. Also look while you run. Preferably forward.
- Get sleep. Laughable, I know. I have watched actors as young as 6 walk into walls because they are so tired. Don’t just catch up on the weekend. For one month, as an exercise, I challenge you to a sleep schedule. Go to bed at the same time every night, even the weekends, and get up at the same time every morning, even the weekends. It is better to get the 6 hours of sleep every night than to get 8 here, 4 here, 6 here, and 10 on Friday. It’s also better for your body to sleep at the same time every night, rather than 6 hours each night but at different times. After a month, see how you feel and how if affects your days, your moods, your schoolwork, and your health. If there’s no difference, then go back to what you did before.
- Listen to the directions that are given in rehearsal. If the director just told Mary to now run in from stage left instead of stage right, and you were jawing and missed it, there’s a decent chance that Mary’s going to come barreling into you and knock you flat while you’re still looking for her to come in from the right. If you don’t understand a dance move, particularly a lift, ask the choreographer or dance captain. Get spotted if you need it until the move is clear to you.
- WARM UP. Even if there is no formal full cast warmup time, do it on your own. Stretch, loosen, limber everything you’ve got. Even if you’re not dancing or fighting, a stretched muscle has more give if you happen to stumble or slip or get pulled too hard. Get into the habit now, while you are still fairly young and elastic, so when you get really old, like in your thirties, you will have a routine that keeps you from snapping like a twig. You laugh. You’ll see.
- Don’t goof off. Especially when you’re learning fight moves or handling a firearm. Listen to the directions you are given. They are being given for a reason, and that reason is your safety and that of your onstage partners. Actors have been hurt, blinded, and even killed by other actors while fooling around with stuff like that. Don’t be an idiot.
This is just a sampling, of course. Use common sense. It is there, and you do have access to it. If you become injured, take care of yourself. If it is more than a bruise, get some ice on it right away. If it’s bleeding, get a bandage. If it is very painful, or you even think you maybe should, go get an x-ray. Do what the doctor tells you to do. If she says stay off it, STAY OFF IT. Don’t wait for someone to force you down. We all know and appreciate that you would sacrifice your foot for a play, and that you are perfectly capable of working through pain, just like the Olympics. We know it. Everyone knows it. Don’t prove it, and don’t compete with other folks who have stupidly tried to come back too soon from an injury. You’re worth more than that. No one gets a standing ovation for what they could have done that night if only they hadn’t reinjured their knee AGAIN.
Bottom line on it is, get selfish with your body. Make it happy, and keep it happy. Happy bodies are able actors. Raggedy bodies get a reputation for being unreliable.
HYGIENE. This area is still in flux for a lot of you, so let me hit some of the high points.
- Please bathe. Shower at least once a day, twice if you work out or rehearse hard. Use soap. Use a washcloth or a pouf. Just rubbing soap on your skin does not get rid of the yucky stink bugs in your underarm hair.
- Brush and floss your teeth. If you do not floss at least once every day, you have bad breath. Rotting food between your teeth does stink, no matter how many Altoids you chew.
- Use deodorant. Lots. Use the kind that is a deodorant and anti-perspirant. Carry it with you at school and reapply it just before rehearsal.
- Girls, shave under your arms. I don’t care how liberated or lesbian you are, let your legs grow into hairy ape limbs, but shave your pits. You will be called upon to lift your arms often, and to wear sleeveless costumes. Get into the habit now.
- Guys, wash your hair. Girls often will have to stroke your locks or run their fingers through the waves, and you don’t want them to gag while they work through the grease. AT LEAST every other day, if you have a short haircut. Every day if it’s longer, or if you have oily hair.
- Girls, learn to use tampons early. Use pantiliners and pads as an extra precaution, but pads alone stink when mixed with sweat. Also, you may be dancing. Things shift, and you don’t want a mess.
- WASH YOUR HANDS. With soap and warm water. Between your fingers and under your nails. After you use the restroom, before you eat, and any time you’ve been petting animals or any other mess. This will help keep you and everyone around you healthy.
- Wear clean clothes to rehearsal. Don’t just go through your hamper in the morning and decide on what reeks least. Don’t wear yesterday’s rehearsal clothes that are still crumpled up in the bottom of your dance bag or backpack.
- Same goes for your costume pieces. Take the pieces you wear next to your skin home each night to wash them. Tights, shirts, underwear, leotards. Buy some dress shields for the pieces you can’t wash. If things are getting really awful and they can’t be cleaned or you just forgot, spray some Febreeze or a mix of rubbing alcohol and water (about 3 parts alcohol to 1 part water) on the offending area. If you have stinky feet, sprinkle baking soda in your shoes each night after the show and let them sit overnight.
These things can make a world of difference to your fellow performers and to your own health. Bacon breath or B.O. can really put a damper on a love scene, and even offstage, the dressing room is a communal area that’s usually somewhat crowded. If you all do at least a few of these basic hygiene things, you can cut way down on the dressing room smell.
I know some of your bodies are still changing. You may not be aware of the new smell you put out, or you may not yet be used to bathing every single day. You may not even really need to yet. I do urge you, though, to start getting into the habit now. As I said, you may not need to or know it yet, but one way or another, you will need to eventually. Might as well start now. Can’t hurt.