1 week to go! – A cast member reflects on the mental state of theatrical types

Are Actors Mental?

With a week to go until our final (and most challenging) performance. The pressure, one could say, is increasing to heavy levels. Now I don’t know about you, but when I brush my teeth in the morning, its like my brain decides then and there to try and solve world problems. On one such morning it decided to tackle this:

Why do actors put themselves through this?

Now by “this” I mean the creative process of creating theatre or film. Now if you think I’m talking twaddle, then listen to this interesting fact:

“The physical stresses an actor experiences whilst going on stage or screen is the same as one might expect to experience from a small car crash” was a conclusion from a British medical study. Even the most famous of actors have talked of the pressures of acting. Sir Laurence, who in his sixties considered retiring from the stage because of stage-fright, wrote it “is always waiting outside the door” (Confessions of an Actor): “you either battle or walk away”. So why do we do this?

I believe the answer can be put into one word. Addiction. Now before everyone starts yelling out “Addiction to Adrenaline big whoopdie-do” I would actually argue that we, actors, are addicted to stress. Now obviously there will be some disagreement to this but this is my argument for this hypothesis.

We, as actors, actively explore other people’s imaginations or even people’s lives. We try as much as humanly possible to make it seem as though we are someone else. We pick up these people’s habits, slang, accents, nationality, beliefs, good natures (or indeed bad natures), addictions etc etc. We physically take on their styles, their bodies, their physical abnormalities (Richard III), their approach to others and situations. We take on their relationships, are they married? Are they happily married? Do they still have parents? Do they like their parents and so on and so forth. Yet whilst doing all this, we must also remember. Where do I go on this line? How much time do we have left before this venue closes? Are we on time, ahead of time or behind? Who am I speaking to? Who says my next cue line? What’s my next line? What’s my next character? Where’s my next costume change? How fast is this costume change? Do I have enough time to get changed? (and, on this occasion) What play are we on?

All of this we must do (or try to) the entire time we occupy the space. We go through hours and hours of rehearsal time, to try and answer most of these questions so that we are ready for the stage. We do repeated run through after run through. So that we can get used to where we are going and at what time we make those moves; but to successfully have a good run through… you have to know your lines. But to know your lines, you should have a good idea about the person your playing, but to do that you have to know what character your playing and what they do in the play, but to do that you have to….

See where I’m going with this? Exactly! you don’t! That’s my point. You have to take a run and dive right into the deep end.

Talking personally now, I always find it difficult to understand which comes first. Lines or character. Does knowing the character help you learn your lines, or does learning your lines help you learn the character? This is where my answer of we’re addicted to stress comes in. I actively go into a project like this knowing almost nothing about who I’m playing, what my characters do or indeed what my characters say. We all do. Actors walk into a project effectively blind. They may have some ideas of what goes on but nothing solid. Diving in at the deep end.

I can already hear people saying “But what if they have already done that play before”. Well unless they have the same director and cast again the outcome and process will be completely different. Each person adds something new to the project so no two productions will ever be exactly the same. Then, even if you have learned all your lines, you’ve done tones of character work and you’ve got a great show on… there is still that amazing void of first performance.

You can try and try to replicate what the performance will be like but it will never be equal to what it feels like to be in front of the audience. If a line goes wrong you have to pick it up. If someone has miscalculated how long it would take them to get their costume on and they have not appeared on stage when they should have, you have to cover for it. If a move in the fight choreography goes wrong and you look a little stupid you still have to carry on. It’s funny, even now, when describing these accidents that can happen, I am experiencing the “butterflies in the stomach” feeling.

Ok so let’s draw a comparison.

A business man with a proposal goes through months of stress gathering statistics, projections over the next year, economic statistics, budget requirements, partnership deals and requirements, future plans and what makes them stand out, but once this is done. Its over. The actual presentation is the easy bit. This is not the same for actors. We’re like Olympic Athletes (Oh god he brought up the Olympics) we go through months or years of training for this one moment. Now this triple somersault corkscrew or scene 3 you may have done 16 dozen times but one could argue that they don’t matter now. All that matters is this next moment, because the audience wasn’t there for all the times you sat in your room learning your lines, they didn’t see all the great times this scene was played out, all they are going to see or judge is this next moment. Now normal people (yea that’s what I wrote normal people) would be perhaps a little off put by this. But me? Or the Elysium Theatre Company? Or any of my actor friends? We love it.

So when you come and see us on Saturday and Sunday. Remember:

We’ve done what the RSC did in 3 years, with a larger budget than us, a larger cast and set than us. So although we’ve all been hugely stressed for the past 6 months, it’s all been for this. This one weekend. So when you see us up there, remember no matter how bloody the scene is, or how dark and evil that character is, remember there is a student behind all that thinking “How freaking awesome is this?”


Kyle Pryke is a drama student at The University of Exeter and plays King Henry IV, Richard Earl of Warwick, and a Murderer!


“shall we stab him as he sleeps?”

Kyle in Richard III at the Piazza, July 2012

(Photography by Melissa Barrett)