Compassion within the Performing Arts
Updated: Dec 23, 2022
“Self-compassion is not a form of positive evaluation. Rather, the benefits of self-compassion stem from the way one relates to oneself, with compassion or contempt."
Compassion and Mindful Compassion within the Performing Arts
Similarly to my experience writing this mindfulness essay, it has been challenging to locate research on the applicability of compassion and mindful compassion within the performing arts. Whilst it was possible to find a small pool of research on mindfulness within actor-pedagogy (mostly from Dr Deborah Middleton’s canon of work from the University of Huddersfield’s Mindfulness and Performance Project), to find research on compassion and in particular the application of mindful compassion within the performing arts disciplines has been very challenging. This certainly feels like a new frontier for the combination of these contemplative disciplines however I am confident that with some research and application, they could be of great support to each other. Below, I have outlined some common difficulties for those who work in the performing arts and how self-compassion exercises could be of benefit. I then move into acting pedagogy and how the self-compassion exercises might support an actor in their training and professional life.
Moving away from self-esteem and towards self-compassion
It is well known that most actors and those who work in the creative industries frequently deal with large amounts of down-time and periods of unemployment, or work in part-time and ‘gig economy’ jobs to tie them over whilst waiting for the next artistic opportunity to come along. Figures suggest that at any one time, 92% of the trained profession are out of work (Simkins, 2009). This inevitably has an effect on the mental health and wellbeing of those working in this industry with The Stage reporting in 2015 on a joint research effort by themselves, Equity, Spotlight, and Arts and Minds that in a survey of over 5000 people working in the performing arts industries; 46% described their mental wellbeing as poor or average. 81% of those people worked in theatre (Hemley, 2015; Love, 2018). Whilst the limited opportunities and the precariousness of the financial model within this industry is thought to be the cause of the poor mental wellbeing of its workers (Layder, 2014, p. 123), there is also a link to be made by touching on Kristin Neff’s body of comparative work on self-esteem and self-compassion. Neff distinguishes them as follows:
“…self-compassion is not a form of positive evaluation. Rather, the benefits of self-compassion stem from the way one relates to oneself, with compassion or contempt. Self-esteem is a measuring stick that we use to sum up our worthiness as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Instead of accepting the richness and complexity of our experience, the pursuit of self-esteem tries to capture and sum up our lived experience with simplistic evaluations of self-worth. Self-compassion does not try to capture and define the worth or essence of who we are.” (Neff, 2011, p. 9)
Neff also writes that self-esteem activates the drive system (Gilbert’s three emotional systems (Gilbert, 2009; Gilbert and Choden, 2015)), whereas self-compassion activates the self-soothing contentment system (Leary et al., 2007, p. 902; Neff, 2011, pp. 6-7). It is easy to understand how in the performing arts industry self-esteem has become the default ‘self-image protection’ method for so many, and what perhaps bolsters this even more is that actors and performers make their living by having to literally offer themselves as currency within the public eye. Whilst a builder or academic can hide behind their labour or ideas, an actor must rely on the public presentation of their body, voice, and mind. Within a professional context, the actor has nothing to hide behind and offers themselves up (personally) for scrutiny in every employment opportunity they have. Thus we can see the need for self-esteem to be high, however based on Neff’s findings above, it is reasonable to suggest the benefits of a new model of self-compassion within the performing arts industry. A study by Jaqueline Hammond and Robert J. Edelmann of the University of Surrey (using the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (Rosenberg, 1965)) found that professional actors are likely to have a higher rate of self-esteem than non-actors (Hammond and Edelmann, 1991, p. 128). However I imagine this number to be much higher in today’s world if we are to consider the more intense challenges that our drive system faces in the 21st century; Pani L. writes that “…current environmental conditions in industrialized countries are completely different from those in which the human central nervous system evolved.” (Pani, 2000, p. 469). I can see many benefits to adopting Neff’s ‘self-compassion over self-esteem’ model within actor pedagogy in drama schools, and on a personal developmental level for those already working in the industry. Moving on to what place self-compassion exercises might have for those working in the performing arts.
Self-compassion exercises within Acting Training
"Pain x Resistance = Suffering”
One of the greatest challenges for an actor is to manage their nerves (or stage-fright). This is a complicated area in which most acting traditions suggest the actor ‘use their nerves’ to fuel their performance (which is unclear advice) or focus so intently on their character and given circumstances that their nerves disappear. Uta Hagen, the ‘post-Stanislavskian’ actor and teacher of whom so much of the UK’s contemporary acting training is now based, wrote the following on managing nerves:
“…I try to control them by focussing on my main object and intentions, using my technique to keep me in the universe of the play… the better your technique becomes, the more you should be able to concentrate, to eliminate distractions and shed the concerns of your private life in order to involve yourself in the life of your character.” (Hagen, 2008, p. 202)
Instead of the actor directing their awareness towards their nerves, Hagen suggests they concentrate on their technique. This perhaps isn’t the place to delve too deeply into Hagen’s techniques, but it’s worth mentioning that they centre around contemplative and somatic practices that build character and help the actor embody their character’s circumstances (much like Stanislavski’s work). Whilst these techniques can be useful, I don’t believe this is a practical way or indeed the best way to manage nerves. So to look at nerves through the lens of compassion: If we can first acknowledge nerves as suffering, then Hagen’s model of trying to “control” our nerves would suggest that her method is about avoiding the nerves or approaching one’s inner landscape with a degree of force. This directly contradicts our compassionate motivation of moving towards suffering and highlights the brilliant Germer quote “Pain x Resistance = Suffering” (Germer, 2009, p. 15). An alternative exercise here could be the SSA (Soften, Soothe, Allow) approach to nerves, which I believe would achieve greater results in pacifying an actor’s stage-fright. If the actor was able to check in to their body and soften the areas where the nerves were taking hold, soothe themselves with a reassuring inner voice and breath, and then simply allow their nerves to be a part of their experience – knowing that adrenaline can be useful for a performance, and that nerves and stage-fright are always just going to be ‘part of the deal’, then nerves could actually become a healthy aspect of the actor’s personal and professional development. I believe this approach would engage the balance of all three of Gilbert’s emotional systems (2009, pp. 201-202) and that the actor (not having to rely solely on their drive and threat systems) would have a more positive experience during performance. Naturally the SSA technique would need to be taught in a rehearsal room or drama school environment and a qualitative analysis would need to be done to assess its viability, but based on the research to date, I believe this could be a successful model.
It has been useful to look at the work of Leary et al. (2007) and their research on how self-compassionate people respond to unpleasant life events. There are some interesting parallels to how this research could be relevant to the professional life of actors. Leary et al. write:
“People who treat themselves kindly after receiving less positive reactions from others than they desire, recognize the universality of rejection in the human experience, and hold their emotions in mindful awareness should find such episodes less distressing than those who are low in self-compassion. They should also have less negative reactions toward those who do not evaluate them as they desire.” (Leary et al., 2007, p. 893)
A professional actor is under constant evaluation for their work. When they are auditioning the evaluation is by directors and/or producers, and when they are performing, there is the evaluation of the press and public. As stated earlier, job opportunities are scarce and so the frequent rejection from those evaluating actors can cause the actors to develop negative reactions and states of minds towards their assessors (Layder, 2014). We can see from the Leary et al. study above, that a training in self-compassion can alleviate and realign these habitual negative reactions. We can also apply another of their findings to auditioning; casting directors rarely inform the actor if they have been unsuccessful in their audition. This has historically always been the case however after some backlash from the industry in 2019, this prompted the Casting Directors Guild of Great Britain and Ireland to publish their “CASTING DIRECTORS’ GUILD CODE OF CONDUCT” (The Casting Directors’ Guild of Great Britain & Ireland, 2019, p. 1), and Equity to publish their “Manifesto for Casting” (Equity, 2019, p. 8) documents; with both stating that performers and/or agents should be told when they have not got a role at the earliest opportunity. However, it is widely known within the profession that this still does not happen. I would consider that the absence of response or feedback in this scenario (whilst potentially frustrating), is neutral feedback. To return to Leary et al. again; one of their studies was to ask their participants to individually speak about themselves for three minutes into a camera and then receive feedback on whether they were “socially unskilled–socially skilled, unfriendly–friendly, unlikable– likeable, cold–warm, unintelligent–intelligent, and immature– mature” (Leary et al., 2007, p. 894). The participants weren’t actually recorded and the feedback they received was randomly assigned, however the study notes that “participants high in self-compassion rated the neutral feedback as more positive than participants low in self-compassion”, and “high self-esteem may be associated with defensive reactions to neutral feedback, whereas high self-compassion is not.” (ibid.). We can see here the similarities between the study and actors auditioning for work, and how actors who might happen to be higher in self-compassion (or had trained in it) would find their difficult professional landscape much easier to traverse. Finally on this point; Leary et al. note that people who are high in self-compassion relate similarly to both positive and neutral feedback; they explain this is as being due to two areas of Neff’s (2011) self-compassion model: common humanity, and mindful acceptance; as both have faculty in how people respond to positive and negative experiences.
"People who are high in self-compassion relate similarly to both positive and neutral feedback..."
To move into a more focussed ‘performance area’ of self-compassion within acting; Leary et al. write about their study in which their participants were asked to read a children’s story to camera. The recorded reading was then rated (in the following categories: “…awkward, competent, confident, attractive, nervous, foolish, creative, likeable, and reasonable.” (Leary et al., 2007, p. 897)) by the readers themselves; some who were low in self-compassion, and some who were high in self-compassion. This story reading can be considered synonymous to acting on a fundamental level; with interesting results again for the validity of self-compassion within acting training with the study finding that “…raters felt greater negative affect watching low-self-compassion targets, possibly because low-self-compassion targets subtly communicated their own discomfort to the raters.” (ibid. p. 898). More research needs to be done here with professional actors rather than non-actors simply reading stories, but as an initial inquiry; it is exciting to see that one who is high in self-compassion is more favourable to watch for a potential audience.
In a previous essay I wrote of the usefulness of the link between ‘the undercurrent’ and ‘the observer’ (Regan-Addis and Choden, 2018, p. 118) for an actor whilst they are performing. To revisit it in brief; the observer is synonymous to the actor’s ability to being aware of their performance (i.e. the actor being aware of themselves performing as a character in a play), whereas the undercurrent is synonymous to the actor’s acceptance and embodiment of the on-stage circumstances (i.e. the actor in character); this is a well documented phenomena within acting pedagogy (Krueger, 2017, p. 11; Quilici, 2017, p. 2) which requires the actor to balance both concepts whilst delicately navigating the self-critic during performance. Leary et al. write of the same experiment above involving the recorded stories:
“…participants’ reactions to their own videotaped performances differed as a function of self-compassion. Participants who were low in self- compassion evaluated their answers less favorably and rated their personal characteristics (as observed on the videotape) less posi- tively. They also felt worse while watching the tape compared with participants who were high in self-compassion.” (Leary et al., 2007, p. 898)
This potentially shows us that an actor who is both high in self-compassion and able to apply their self-compassion techniques to the inner world of the undercurrent and the observer (in the acting sense as mentioned above) would have the skills to judge their performance compassionately in real-time. So often the actor self-sabotages by giving in to the self-critic which can come in many forms such as being overwhelmed by nerves, forgetting lines, intense stage-fright, or a sense of disconnection from the performance (the observer in overdrive). This self-compassionate way of reviewing performance could also apply after the event, which could assist greatly in calming the self-critic if the actor thought a performance had not gone well.
Summary and conclusion
From a first investigation, it is evident that there are areas of suitability for mindful compassion within these disciplines and the profession of the performing arts. I look forward to discovering further research as the field emerges and building my own links between the two areas. through my own performance work, directing, and teaching.
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