When running a Drama school, one sees certain trends emerge over the years. Fashions and the prevalence of particular issues in the performing arts industry as a whole come and go. When I founded Associated Studios Performing Arts Academy some 13 years ago, the scene looked very different. Looking back, so much has changed.
Back then, Drama schools spent quite a lot of time telling young gay males ‘not to look camp’ when they performed. These days this is hardly mentioned. Many Dance schools at the time regularly weighed young performers and dance teachers would give students a tough talking to if they gained a couple of pounds. Now this would be seen as discrimination and bullying. Roughly 10 years ago ‘Belt’ was used in every epic musical theatre ballad. Nowadays we use a lot of ‘Mix’ and are starting to recognise that the language around voice craft has been quite ‘black and white’. Vocal folds vibrate in many different patterns, infinitely more complex than the labelling imposed by vocal methods.
These are just a few of the things which have progressed and changed. There are of course many more.
One of the topics one simply cannot get away from these days is the challenges of mental health problems in the young. Artistic personalities tend to feel the world’s ills more potently. We are sensitive beings, highly skilled in understanding the motivations of others and able to empathise in order to ‘represent’ it in our own performance. Drawing from our own emotional experience in order to connect specifically and truthfully to text, movement connected to psychological states, and the inherent emotional landscape of the music, is the very fodder of performance craft. Performers cannot close down and rationalise their way through their day. We have to open the wound, rub guts and move through it, and all of this in public. When choosing to study at Drama school, one signs up for relentless scrutiny. You hold your talent in one hand, and a whip in the other. Our talent is never allowed to be ‘hung up to dry’. It is snapped sharply from our control, squeezed, re-shaped, wrung out a little more, and just when we think we might have a break, it starts all over again. And that is before the many instances of rejections from auditions have even started.
In parallel to this, performing artists in training are allowed to celebrate and explore themselves more than in any other profession. We get to express ourselves, to interact truthfully with each other, to face our demons, to be challenged every single day physically, mentally, and emotionally. Never again are we allowed to be so self-indulgent. Never again do we have a whole team of incredible professionals by our side wanting us to succeed, to conquer our deepest fears and to let our light not just shine, but beam!
And in amongst this glorious setting, the path to artistic excellence, there awaits, lurking in the shadows, the devils of mental health challenges. Never before have I witnessed it on such a scale. It is not just the students, it seems to be everywhere. The difference is, that at Drama school you simply cannot hide it. The bastard will catch you out.
At Associated Studios we have an open door policy. As Founding Principal and Vocal Coach, my office is always open for a student having a difficult time. The same applies to the other Staff and Tutors.
Yet I ask myself what we are doing that this has gotten so out of hand. I do not believe it is simply that we talk about it more. Society has changed. Social media and the proliferation of information and judgement has added untold pressures. We do not allow ourselves mental time to process the day’s events. We move through information at a relentless and uncompromising pace filling our every waking minute with yet more detail, more of what others think, more of how others are doing, what they are wearing, eating, celebrating, hating and loving. And in amongst everybody else’s thoughts, pictures and newsfeeds, updates and opinions, we are losing ourselves. We are losing our time to be bored, our time to process, our time to mentally drift, to re-calibrate, to ponder, to smile at small things, to read each other’s faces and body language, to connect in small ways with strangers we encounter and seek small moments of positive connection with our fellow human beings.
I truly believe that if you are training as a performer it is absolutely vital that you actively have regular ‘mental health’ clean-ups before you start your training, whilst you are training and after you finish. Invest time in finding strategies to manage your every day. Stress and mental health problems build and fester. Then they slap you around the cheeks when you need it the least. Just before your industry showcase, your first professional contract or your first big audition. It’s a no brainer. Don’t leave it until it is too late. Look after yourself a little bit every day. Go for walks in nature, invest in your friends, feed your soul. Take time to rest, to sleep, to regenerate, to eat well, to practice gratefulness and mindfulness. Take time to release your body through massage, sport, walking, Yoga, massage or anything else that works for you.
Performing Arts training should be one of the most exhilarating and rewarding years in your life. But go into it with firm self-management strategies in place, and what you will get out of the money and time you invest, will be worth it a hundred times over.
Founding Principal/ Vocal Coach