The great actor, Michael Chekhov, nephew to the legendary playwright, Anton Chekhov, and one of the industry’s pioneering figures once said, “An actor has to burn inside with an outer ease”. For actors working within Australia’s entertainment industry, this quote seems all too relevant and heart-rendering.
Apart from being amongst the lowest income earners in the ‘creative’ sector, with about 40% of actors skirting or earning below the national poverty line (based on figures collected in 2012 – almost 10 years before the destabilising events of COVID-19), recent studies have spotlighted the severe mental health issues that characterise the lives of this professional group.
The reports published by major institutions, Entertainment Assist, Victoria University and the Equity Foundation, highlight alarmingly high levels of anxiety, depression, suicidality, alcohol and drug consumption within Australia’s growing population of actors. These findings have prompted appeals for a cultural change within the creative industries and the development of resources and services to create a ‘safer’ and more supportive work environment.
My research project, conducted through the Jansen Newman Institute in 2019, sought to supplement the limited literature by exploring the interpersonal aspects of working in Australia’s entertainment industry that render actors susceptible to the mental health issues identified. I found that the psychological challenges experienced by actors can be, at least partly, attributed to the interplay between the following factors: the vulnerable nature of the actor’s job, workplace power dynamics, lack of appropriate and accessible support structures, and scarcity of employment prospects within the industry.
It was highlighted that to be an actor one must be willing to access and openly display deeply personal, emotive content in their creation and representation of a character. Yet it is not only the intense exposure involved in this process that contributes to their emotional vulnerability, but the common, industry-held perception that being an actor also involves “selling” oneself as a unique and marketable “product”. So, apart from laying one’s heart bare in front of an audience of spectators (that can span from a room full to world-wide), the pressure to render oneself commercially viable for the purposes of acquiring work naturally intensifies actors’ sensitivity to the ways in which they are perceived. This contributes to heightened levels of emotional vulnerability, particularly in relation to receiving external feedback.In an age dominated by social media, reality television and celebrity scandal this is no small feat!
Moreover, the lack of professional opportunities, particularly in the smaller-scale Australian market, exacerbates this pressure and raises the stakes in audition scenarios, on-the-job performances and within professional relationships. In dealing with the issue of work scarcity many actors also place significant importance on upholding a reputation as accommodating and “easy to work with” for fear of jeopardising employment opportunities. This attitude often means that they choose not to complain or reach out for assistance in workplace scenarios, sometimes to their own detriment.
My findings were consistent with those of the major study conducted by Entertainment Assist and Victoria University revealing the fear of losing work opportunities as a central factor in actors’ decision not to seek support from within the industry.
As, arguably, some of the most ‘at risk’ professionals in the sector, the shortage of adequate and accessible, emotional, financial and practical support structures available for actors is coupled by a widespread lack of understanding, respect and duty-of-care by those in positions of power. It was apparent from my research that the harsh treatment and failure to comprehend or appreciate the vulnerable position of actors bymany producers, directors, casting agents and institutional bodies only increases an already fragile sense of self and mistrust of professional networks. Hence, without suitable industry supports to accommodate and advocate for the plight of actors they may be susceptible to the mental health hazards that stem from exploitation and abuse.
Unsurprisingly then, the necessity for actors to develop a ‘healthy’ sense of perspective and detachment from work life and identity to protect their personal wellbeing was highlighted as critical. For some this involved becoming a parent, adopting practices such as meditation and yoga, or any other mechanisms that helped them retain a strong sense of self, distinct from their work.
Inevitably, my findings also reinforced the serious need for a cultural change within Australia’s creative industries to strengthen a more supportive work environment for actors. This includes, but is not limited to, developing helpful, easily accessible resources with an emphasis on anonymity, that these professionals feel ‘safe’ utilising without the fear of jeopardising their career or future job prospects.
Furthermore, an opportunity exists for greater dialogue between actors and those in leadership roles within the industry for the purpose of learning how best to understand and collaborate with one another. Lastly, my research supported recommendations made by The Equity Foundation for acting institutions to raise awareness amongst Australia’s growing community of young actors about the mental health challenges that accompany the job and assist them in acquiring relevant life skills.
So, how long will we turn a ‘blind eye’ to the predicament of Australia’s working actors? When will we shed the assumption that actors need to suffer for their art and just see human beings in despair? It was only until recent times that rampant sexual exploitation in the entertainment industry wasn’t perceived as anything other than the norm. Do we need another #MeToo style movement to stress when enough abuse, addiction, mental illness and suicide is truly enough?