Ever wonder how actors and actresses prevent themselves from getting too wrapped up in a character? It’s all over Hollywood, from Heath Ledger’s tragic death in “The Dark Knight” to Natalie Portman’s stunning portrayal of a girl who literally becomes her character in “Black Swan.” Read on to see how UM’s actors deal with the stress.
There are no curtains hiding the set at The Alvin Sherman Family Stage within the Ring Theatre at the University of Miami. The audience can see everything, creating extra pressure for the actors and writers to change the static scene into a dynamic world. This spring the stage will be placed at the core of the theatre for the slate of spring shows “Big Love,”“Lysistrata” and “Carousel.” This format makes the actors, and their newly structured world, literally the center of attention with eyes coming from the North, South, East and West to judge their performance.
The Physical Demand of a Role
Junior Elizabeth Neslterode is taking part in this season’s “Big Love” as a Greek woman, who along with her sisters, could potentially become a murderer. The performance entails that she act in an extremely physical manner by continuously falling onto the ground and becoming literally tangled amongst her costars.
“It is really helpful to have someone who can help us with the safety aspect and make sure we don’t injure ourselves,” Nestlerode said, about physical coach Lee Soroko.
Over the past four years, Soroko has incorporated his theatre experience, ranging from plays at Columbia to Off-Broadway productions, and training to teach numerous UM students how to perform stunts carefully on stage. He reminisces about a time when a choreographed elbow strike to the face didn’t go as planned, and resulted in a busted nose for one unfortunate actor.
“It’s a discipline; things can go wrong,” he said. “There are safety parameters and you have to follow them, but as soon as you break the safety parameter, or you’re caught up by adrenaline, then the fight is no longer safe.”
Dealing with Mental Stress
Theatre also requires real people to interlace themselves into roles made believable. The mental stress of making a role believable to a skeptical audience is often more draining than the physical stress.
“The thing that helps distinguish between offstage and onstage life comes with training,” Nestlerode said. “You have to discover your own habitual way of standing, walking and talking so that you can substitute your habits with physical and verbal choices that will help create a character to tell a story in a play.”
Separating between the two lives can be a difficult duty for some. Many critics attribute the death of Heath Ledger to the mental stress of trying to separate his life to the role of the Joker in “The Dark Knight.”
However, most tragedies are unheard of because only the elite make it onto Hollywood’s highest-paid list, while the majority fail to find work. The United States Department of Labor reports (in its latest update) that in 2009 only 39,880 actors were employed.
Because of the stress invested in trying to land a role, directress and UM assistant professor of theatre arts, Jennifer Vellenga, wants to help guide performers when it comes to nurturing what she calls “the self.”.
“It doesn’t matter how much training you give an actor or how talented they are naturally, there has to be a component of confidence and valuing oneself that comes into play,” she said.
Vellenga is currently teaming up with her mother, Dr. Mary Guindon, to write a book about the state of mind of an actor, and how it goes hand in hand with becoming successful in the business.
“My mother is a psychologist that specializes in self-esteem, and actors, because they consistently put themselves up for judgment, might be prone to it a little more often,” Vellenga said.
She describes the downfalls of stress that could develop among her students, stating that physical appearance is also expected when practicing a career in the arts. She explains that the limited amount of students going through UM’s theatre arts degree program become really close because they spend most of the four years together in estimated 14-hour days.
Preparing for the Part
“We bring in a person from the counseling center on campus to talk about some of the issues that will come up, for instance: depression, stress, eating disorders, time management and getting ill,” Vellenga said.
Nestlerode expressed her gratitude for the counseling center on campus, stating that it’s free for all students and provides a great venue for them to hash out their baggage. The counseling center is provides psychological assessment services to assist students with a trained staff in the fields of psychology, social work, mental health counseling and psychiatry.
Senior Gianmarco Soresi, 22, admits to having counseling as a child, but states that acting hasn’t led him to seek treatment. He realized he wanted to become an actor after playing a prince in the first grade, and has followed his passion ever since.
“I think that being an actor one has to open themselves up to who they are, which can make someone realize they need therapy or counseling, not because of the act of acting, but because to be a good actor one must confront themselves,” he said.
Musical theater major Valerie Roche, 20, remembers the challenges she faced during rehearsals this past fall for UM’s production of “Urinetown.” Playing a character named Penny, she had to “pull out every bit of ballsy” she could gather. It wasn’t just the role that had her stressed, but also her health.
“I got very sick and the role was exceedingly demanding vocally,” Roche Said. Her voice was shot for 75 percent of the rehearsals, consisting of four weeks, and didn’t fully return until after the musical had opened.
When it comes time to prepare for a part, all thespians have different procedures to get them stage ready.
Soresi describes his method of acting as incorporating the physical and vocal changes in his own life so they become second, if not first nature. Nestlerode and Roche both use music as a ritual to get ready for their pieces.
“For every show I pick a song that I think represents my character,” Roche said.
Even though actors face challenges in an industry full of disappointment and instability, they continue to seek and become characters for their own personal reasons.
“If I can make someone think about something they would have never thought about, or even make them laugh when they are not having the best day, then that’s all I want,” Roche said.