“The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain… If it hurts, repeat it.”
– Ursula Le Guin, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas
Of all the artists we lionise for turning their anguish into something for our entertainment, none are more revered than the actor.
Singers like Adele and Taylor Swift have made fortunes from their very public personal pain, while the sorrow which writers like Sylvia Plath or Tim O’Brien put on the page is studied to try and get an understanding of what they experienced.
The actor, though, is a different beast.
We hold lavish award ceremonies to give trophies to those who can dig the deepest to mine the most heart wrenching vein. High end magazines write glamorous headlines about the real stories behind big performances, while the ones at the supermarket checkout throw up befores and afters of how Christian Bale or Hilary Swank transformed their bodies as roles demanded.
Stories of ‘the process’ are bandied around as the stuff of legend. There are even television shows dedicated purely to trying to find out how an actor fashioned a particularly wrought performance.
We accept it. I certainly did, and always thought that good acting was essentially synonymous with an actor brutalising themself.
That was until I met New York actor Aria Publicover.
“Hundreds of thousands of actors are trained like that every year,” she explains. “Shame the actor if they can’t feel anything, or make them go to those very dark and heavy places that impact their mental health.”
Aria started her training in Canada before moving to New York to get access to a wider range of roles. During the early years learning her craft, sticking to the old fashioned methods of only using the real no matter what the cost, there was one memory in particular she used to bring up the hard emotions: the death of her father.
That is, undoubtedly, one of the darkest and heaviest places a person can go.
“He opted for medical assistance in dying. Or, ‘assisted suicide’ is the regular-people terminology,” Aria says with the kind of nonchalant wryness that only someone who now has complete control of a memory can pull off.
However, when starting her training as an actor, she wasn’t in control of it. Using the raw memory of watching her father die was a regular occurance. It went about as well as expected.
“If you’re looking back on something that dramatic, and all you’re remembering is the trauma and the awful things, and it brings it up and it takes you back to that place, that’s not a healthy memory.”
Still, for years Aria used the memories of her father’s death, or being bullied in school, or the myriad of tiny, heavy things which can crop up when living with mental health challenges. Because that is the way it was, and how convention said actors generated performances.
It wasn’t working for Aria, though.
“If you’re just doing the same thing over, and over, and over, and over, and over again, and you’re traumatising yourself, and you’re creating such a negative headspace; how can you possibly progress from that?”
This was a realisation that only came after moving to New York City and beginning to study under teacher Anthony Abeson. After the unofficial expectation from her conservatory training in Canada demanded that she subject herself to reliving some of the worst moments of her life, she found Abeson’s approach radically different.
“He teaches a variety of techniques,” she explains. “Some Strasberg, some Stanislavski, some Stella Adler. And Stella Adler was all about not hurting the actor and using your imagination.”
For an acting luddite like myself this concept was mind blowing. Isn’t all acting imagination? The actor channels something inside of them to unlock whatever their character should be feeling, and then uses their imagination to channel that into their portrayal.
Turns out I was terminally wrong on two accounts.
The first wrongness was that it is imperative for actors to keep digging up their trauma in order to inspire a performance. In line with Adler’s theory, Abeson’s teaching, and Aria’s application, any memories used should be safe.
It is all about how you felt after thinking back towards your motivating thought, Aria patiently explained to me, in seventeen different ways, until it clicked.
“If you can look back [at an event] and think ‘Oh, that was the last time I saw this person’, or ‘Hey, I grew from that,’ and then, afterwards, you’re okay – and you can distance yourself from that – and come back here… then that’s an okay memory to use.”
Use your imagination, then, and picture what you want a performance to be. And only draw on your real life if it doesn’t hurt you. Understand how a character in a situation would feel, but don’t claw at your scars until you feel it again.
The second wrongness I had was thinking that acting is all about getting that emotion out; once that was done then the hard work was over. Turns out I was especially wrong there.
“If you haven’t processed that real life event, you are only going to focus on it and therefore not pay attention to what you want in the scene,” Aria says to me. “You’re not paying attention to what the character wants in that scene, not paying attention to your partner, listening to your partner, or paying attention to the director’s notes. Because all you’re doing is focusing on the real life event.”
It’s here, for the first time, I can see how the years of being forced to relive her own traumas in pursuit of a great performance, over and over, truly weighed on Aria.
“I wasn’t focusing on my real life. I was focusing on the past. I wasn’t growing as a person, I was just focusing on the same things over and over again. And how hurt I was, instead of trying to practice any sort of gratitude for what I had and how far I’d come since.”
This is a mistake that Aria does not let her acting students make.
Many even come to her explicitly to try and exorcise something within them, but Aria is very clear: “An acting teacher or director is not a therapist.”
“With acting, a lot of people view it as therapy. It’s not,” she explains, and begins to clue me in as to why acting – opposed to other creative pursuits – is singularly unhelpful.
“You’re not going to be able to healthily process anything if you’re just focusing on that aspect, nor are you going to be able to move on as a creator.”
As a writer, I can step away from the page. A singer can strike a song from their set. A painter can send a finished piece off to a gallery and never look at it again. It’s not the same with an actor.
To hammer the point home, Aria brought up a time when she performed in Unity 1914. This was when she was twenty, with her father’s death still raw. Like she thought she was supposed to, she used that dark moment for a scene where her character needed to have an emotional breakdown on stage.
“I’m practising that over and over again. Five to six times a day. And, at that point, I didn’t know that I could use the imagination, and all I’m seeing is the moment that my dad died. Where I saw the blood drain out of his lips. Remembering how his heart stopped beating.”
“It fucks a person up, man.”
“And there’s a huge difference between processing that through therapy, and talking to your friends about it, and saying ‘Hey, this really hurt me and I need to talk to somebody about it.’ And then just reminiscing on those awful moments. No idea what the fuck I’m doing.”
It hurt her, deeply. But, ever the professional, Aria also explained how it can also hurt the performance.
“If things get too much then you disassociate. You just focus on the emotion. You focus on the situation and you end up on stage, and you’re like: Nothing is happening right now because my body has shut down. It does not want to be thinking about this. Then you fuck up the performance, and you fucked yourself up.”
“It’s a double whammy, right there,” she says, somehow able to look back at the experience with a sliver of humour.
As well as finding balance within herself between mental health and performance, and passing that on to her students, Aria is also looking to increase mental health awareness in her roles.
She has signed on to play Rita in the film The Madones, one of a slate of projects supported by Telefilm Canada and in association with the Schizophrenia Society of Canada.
“Persons with schizophrenia endure isolation, estrangement, loneliness, detachment,” explains Trailer Park Boys creator Barrie Dunn, who is making his directorial debut with the feature.
“These are afflictions that most of us struggle with at some point in our life. And particularly now in this time of COVID, all the world seems so affected.”
Like his star Aria Publicover, Dunn too wants to change the perceptions of people with mental health challenges.
“One of the greatest obstacles for people with schizophrenia to overcome is stigma,” he explains.
“Don’t believe me? I ask you to stop reading for a moment and think about a story that you’ve heard about or read about a person with schizophrenia. Chances are either murder or violence are involved.”
“And so, we must educate. And education through entertainment is the best medium for this.”
Both Dunn and Publicover agree that an education to understanding is key when dealing with mental health and the arts.
“Strasberg said this. My teacher, Anthony, quotes it all the time,” Aria explains. “‘Emotion is the fruit that grows from the tree called situation’. You can’t have an emotion without having a situation, without truly believing in that situation.”
“Emotion comes after.”
There is something we can all learn here from the actor’s approach of needing to understand and process a situation, rather than trying to mould raw hurt into something we deem as good.
So often we use pain to drive ourselves on, thinking that if we make it useful then perhaps it will go away.
If we hit the gym hard enough then perhaps we’ll be more worthy of love and the next person won’t leave us.
If we give up on our hobbies and dreams to take an all-encompassing, but safe, job, then perhaps we won’t be failures.
If we chose to fill our lives with noise then perhaps the quiet won’t hurt so much.
But the truth is that, much like the actor who fuels their performance by raw trauma, none of this helps us. None of this lets us grow or move on, or to process the things which have happened to us. It keeps us unsustainably trapped, sentencing our lives to be nothing more than a reaction to something that happened to us.
But if we stop. Grow. Process. Then, much like the actor who only uses their personal trauma to recognise emotions rather than to reenact them, we can make sure that we make changes in our lives for good reasons which first and foremost do right by us.
“I don’t want to see other actors hurting themselves, or hurting others” Aria says. She knows that to use struggles in her art, first they have to be dealt with and processed.
We should do the same with the hurts in our lives.