If you consider the arc of a professional actor’s career over time, there are a couple of qualities that will inevitably stand out. The first is that the profession, as a whole, is very competitive, and this competitive factor is stressful in almost every instance.
After 30-years in the business of both stage and screen (and voice overs, commercials, industrial/educational films, personal appearances, speech making, self-marketing, etc.), I would venture to say that acting may well be one of the most stressful jobs in the Western world.
In 2015, drawing its information from the Department of Labor, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Census Bureau, trade associations and private survey firms, a research team from CareerCast.com published its annual list of 10 Most Stressful Jobs in America (2015), and placed professional actor at number six on that list, just after police officer and before news broadcaster and event coordinator. In such a competitive and stressful daily environment, healthy and optimal mental functioning is a necessity not an option.
It is my personal belief, again as a 30-year veteran of show business as well as a psychological researcher, that proper self-care and mental (or emotional) hygiene is important to the actor as both a competitive advantage as well as a matter of survival. If you are an emotional wreak, it is very difficult to operate at peak creative levels in the multiple domains that professional acting requires. So, there are a couple of things you can do about that.
First, various forms of psychotherapy, when properly applied, can be used as personal growth tools and an inoculation for the stresses and strains on the personality, and sometimes fragile ego, of the actor. It is also sometimes just nice to have someone to talk with, that is not a part of the industry, to give us perspective on being human and alive; a perspective that can potentially be lost or distorted in between auditions, rehearsals, and the ongoing rejections that are part and parcel of the business. So, I sometimes recommend personal therapy as a way to grow and stay sane along the path of the actor.
But, perhaps more importantly, I also recommend a daily meditation practice, and here’s why: Meditation actually counteracts many of the symptoms of stress that professional acting can produce!
#1 – Meditation Helps Relieve Stress
Researchers have shown that regular meditation practice, and in particular mindfulness meditation practice, can effectively relieve stress, lower blood pressure, and help keep a clear head in stressful situations.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m sitting in an audition holding room surrounded by a bunch of equally qualified actors, trying to make sure I know my lines, and planning what witty thing to say to the director when I walk into the room, a little bit of calm is a really valuable asset!
I actually used a mindful breathing exercise when I was auditioning for a role in the 2012-2014 re-boot of the TV series Dallas (which I landed!). While I was waiting to go in for my callback, I pretended to be carefully studying my lines, while I tuned into the rhythm of my breathing and just tried to notice the sensation of air coming in at the tip of my nose. I got distracted several times, but each time that happened, I would turn my attention back to that sensation of breathing, and guess what: my breath remained slow and normal (instead of speeding up and going into the top of my chest), my hands ceased to shake (I’m a nervous auditioner by nature), and an almost eerie internal calm came over me right as they called my name to go into the room.
The really cool thing about that state was, it was a much better place to start reading my sides from than my normal shaky nervous self, yet I still had all the energy and nuance to my reading that I used to think fed off of my nervous energy! I still believe to this day that that moment of calm was what set me apart from all of the other very talented actors that were up for that role.
#2 – Meditation Improves Concentration
I wrote a book on actor training (coming out from Routledge in 2018!) the basic premise of which is that consciousness training, accomplished primarily through meditation practice, can significantly affect actors’ abilities to direct and “attune” their powers of attention. That is important because the only actual “tool” that actors take on stage or in front of a camera is the ability to consciously focus and direct their attention. Their training and rehearsal are in the past. In the moment of performance, attention is the only currency that matters.
It turns out that Stanislavsky, Chekhov, and many of the other fundamental theorists who have provided the structure for Western actor training agreed with this general premise. (See the wonderful book by Sharon Carnicke, Stanislavsky in Focus: An Acting Master for the Twenty-first Century for an exploration of Stanislavsky’s use of yoga and meditation techniques in developing his actor training system.)
For my book, Advanced Consciousness Training (A.C.T.) for Actors, I did an exhaustive literature review of two discrete fields: 1) acting theory and praxis and 2) consciousness research, specifically meditation and attentional training techniques. I then combined my findings to create a synthesis of practices appropriate to the actor’s craft and training. I set out to create a book, written in the language of the actor, that would be directly useful not only to university and conservatory training programs but also to the actor “on the street,” the students or professionals who are interested in honing their talent for the actual audition and performance challenge.
If you are interested in the research that backs up my claims, I encourage you to read the book when it comes out next year. In the meantime, you can check out two important books that include a great deal of meditation research and practical applications: Integral Meditation: Mindfulness as a Way to Grow Up, Wake Up, and Show Up in Your Life by Ken Wilber, and Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson.
My fundamental proposal is this: consciousness training (meditation in one form or another) that is appropriately engaged and sustained, will improve actors’ abilities to focus and deploy their attention, which will have a substantive and positive effect on auditions, rehearsal, performance (stage or screen), and every aspect of the actor-training process, from movement class and voice training to the ability to focus and execute monologues and scene work. Most actors I know would (and do) pay a lot more than the price of a book to have a secret weapon like that!
#3 – Meditation Helps You See More Choices
This final point is fairly self-explanatory; however, you have to actually do the meditation practice for a while to see these kinds of results. Meditation is an activity not a theory or set of ideas. Therefore, no amount of reading about meditation will actually give you the experience (or the benefits) without doing the practice itself.
There is research that shows that meditators are more creative decision makers and can tolerate a higher level of ambiguity (meaning they can perceive a wider range of potential viewpoints even if those viewpoints are contradictory in nature). Meditators can see more choices, and again, I don’t know a single actor that would not pay good money for a competitive advantage like that!
There are several different kinds of meditation, and each form has slightly different effects. Again, for those interested in a deeper dive as well as detailed instructions on the actual practices, please see my book Advanced Consciousness Training (A.C.T.) for Actors (Available, September 2018).
My goal in introducing meditation to actors as a training tool is to help create a new kind of enlightened actor, an actor whose attention is not crippled by cell phone use but who has extraordinary focus, intensity, and presence on camera or on stage; an evolved actor whose consciousness is completely open and responsive in the moment of performance.
I propose a [r]evolution in actor consciousness that can be effected by intentional effort rightly directed. I have used these practices myself and can attest to their effectiveness. Also, I believe that the vast majority of actors who already have an established meditation practice would agree with the propositions I make above; those that I have interviewed for my books and articles most certainly have.
The attunement of attention is only one effect of serious meditation training. In my book, I focus much of the conversation on attention, stress relief, and temporal presence, but there is more, much more, for the willing and the able who take up a meditation practice of their own. I will allow you to discover what those other benefits are for yourself. But it all starts here, with this breath … and this breath …
About the Author. Kevin Page is an author, actor, and psychologist who writes about mindfulness meditation and other healthy mind/body training techniques. His book, Advanced Consciousness Training (A.C.T.) for Actors (Routledge, 2018) teaches both stage and screen actors how to use various meditative arts to improve their abilities as performers. He has two other books on psychology scheduled for publication in 2018, Psychology for Actors (Routledge), and The Fourth Force: A Biography of Humanistic and Transpersonal Psychologies (SUNY Press). His article, The Genius of Meditation, was recently published as a feature for Mensa Bulletin (June 2017 issue), the official publication of American Mensa Association, with 55,000 monthly subscribers.
On Twitter and Instagram: @KevinWPage