Performers open up about anxiety battles in a bid to break taboo around mental health
West End actors including Caroline Sheen and Jodie Jacobs have revealed their battles with anxiety in a bid to encourage more industry conversations around mental health.
All have revealed the struggles they have faced with anxiety and the impact this has had on their careers, and have urged the industry to do more to support sufferers.
They have spoken out following a tweet by Broadway star Patti Murin, who is starring in Frozen but had to miss a performance because of what she described as “a massive anxiety attack”.
Sheen told The Stage that she too had experienced anxiety attacks when playing Eponine in Les Miserables, claiming she had put herself under “so much pressure” to serve the role and fans of the production.
“I felt really embarrassed about it, but that’s why it’s really good Patti has spoken about it. It’s so important. I felt I was the only person in the world going through that. I wasn’t and lots of people go through that all the time,” she said.
Stevenson revealed to The Stage that she suffered from performance anxiety, but had kept it to herself for fear of damaging her reputation. She praised Disney, the producers of Frozen, for supporting Broadway star Murin.
“In the past I’ve felt like this is something I have had to hide, and I was worried that if I took it to my producers or asked for help, they might think I couldn’t cope or do the job,” she said.
“Now, I think, if I had talked to them, and had that bit of extra support, I could have managed my anxiety with more ease,” she added.
Stevenson said producers of big shows should consider having mental health professionals at hand, so cast members suffering from anxiety can access help more easily.
Meanwhile, Jacobs, whose credits include the West End production of Rock of Ages, said she started having panic attacks before going on stage two years ago.
“The nerves stopped becoming excited nerves and started to become something that made me want to pull out of things,” she explained.
She revealed she was in a “perpetual state of anxiety” before she sought help from her GP.
“We don’t talk about it enough,” she said, adding that actors had been sold “the greatest piece of propaganda” with the saying “the show must go on”.
“No, it mustn’t, there is other stuff in life,” she said, urging drama schools to talk to students more about anxiety and that “being out of work isn’t the end of the world”.
Colligan added that his anxiety started following his appearance on the BBC series Let It Shine.
“Since then, I have worried constantly,” he told The Stage, claiming the theatre industry “is the worst for it” because of the constant rejection.
He urged casting directors to let actors know sooner whether they have been successful at an audition or not, to ease anxiety.
Responding, Equity said performance anxiety was a “recognised anxiety disorder” but claimed it remained “something of a taboo”.
“It is very helpful that actors and other performers feel able to talk openly about their experiences and get a supportive response from their employers,” the union said, highlighting website ArtsMinds as a useful resource.
Performers in their own words
“Growing up, I was obsessed with Les Mis and it was always my ambition to play Eponine. It was the whole reason I wanted to go into the industry. At the age of 26 I found myself playing that part and it was really exciting.
“I think because it meant so much to me, I put so much pressure on myself to do it – obviously – to the best of my ability, every night. And when I was an audience member watching the show, I always watched the actor playing Eponine, and I remembered that when I was on stage, someone would be watching me right then. I think it did funny things to my brain. Also, if you’re due on stage every night, and you’re in a funny place, it’s not a healthy thing.
“I started having anxiety attacks – not panic attacks – but I felt really ill all the time. I started getting a bit shaky and lost loads of weight and got funny about food. Everyone thought I was anorexic, but I wasn’t. It was a really weird time to go through. I started seeing a healer – I don’t know if I believe in that stuff – but she was someone to talk to. And when I finished Les Mis I went on a long holiday with my mum and while I was there I was offered Grease, which snapped me out of it. I went back to that show and was jolly and happy.”
“Performing was my passion, my joy. I did the best part of 12 years without a day off work and loved it. It must have been a slow burn, but almost overnight I noticed I wasn’t getting the enjoyment out of it anymore. It manifested itself in odd ways. I would have panic attacks before going on stage. The nerves stopped becoming excited nerves and became something that made me want to pull out of things.
“Over a two-year period I stopped sleeping and if I closed my eyes I had lucid nightmares about my parents dying. My best friend told me to call my GP, which I did, but I could not get to the end of the phone conversation. I didn’t realise how bad it had become. I was not enjoying any aspect of performing, not rehearsals, nothing.
When I did Lizzie at the Greenwich Theatre I was talking myself off the proverbial ledge every night and I am still trying to work through it and find out where it came from. It’s much better now, but I was in a perpetual state of anxiety. Until you are standing off stage, sweating, I don’t think you can relate to it. You just say to yourself: ‘I just to have to get through the next five minutes.'”
“My anxiety started as soon as I finished the BBC series Let It Shine. I started getting anxious all the time. We worked so hard, from 8am until 11pm and as soon as the series finished we were chauffeured back to our house, dropped off and never contacted again.
“I went from that to working in a bar three days later and then I found myself constantly worrying. I worry about auditions and find myself looking for every negative before I’ve even done anything. I get anxious, and have days where I feel I could completely give up on musical theatre.
“This industry is the worst for it, as you get constant rejection. You’re either in auditions and don’t get offered a job, or you can’t even get auditions – or you don’t have an agent to get you auditions. When I do a show, I am really happy, it’s everything I want to do, but outside of that it’s the constant feeling that you’re failing.”
“I think this is something a lot of people struggle with. I have experienced it in terms of the pressure you put on yourself and the expectations you feel when you are doing a major show, and then balancing that with everything else, such as fans and the people who wait for you at the stage door.
“It’s very hard to leave your job behind. We live in an age where people are not shy about giving you their opinion, either on Twitter or at the stage door and it’s really difficult. You can pick and choose what you want to take on board, both positive and negative, but it’s there and words are powerful.
“I have certainly had days where I thought I should call out of a performance, but I generally pushed through and sometimes, looking back, I feel I should have given myself more time and space. I really admire Patti Murin for saying, honestly, ‘I am going to be off the show tonight and this is why.’ I have had performance coaching, which helped me shift my perspective a lot.”
Where can you seek help?
ArtsMinds is a collaboration between the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine, Equity, The Stage and Spotlight, and aims to help people in the industry suffering from emotional stress and mental health challenges. The website, artsminds.co.uk, includes helplines, advice and techniques.
Juliet Messenger – Welfare Counsellor at the National Theatre
What does your role involve?
I am here to provide the confidential in-house counselling service, and that is for any member of staff. And then the welfare part of the role is much more practical. It can be anything, depending on what the best thing is for an individual at the time. It may be that they don’t need counselling per se but they might need some support. For example, if an actor was feeling anxious rehearsing or about to go on stage they wouldn’t need counselling in that moment but rather something practical to help them.
Is performance anxiety common?
It is, but only in the sense that anybody, in any capacity, is bound to experience some form of anxiety. I think it’s a subject people don’t discuss at length. We ask a great deal of people to be performing in incredible circumstances and some people put a label on that as ‘performance anxiety’.
Are you aware of other theatre organisations with similar roles to yours?
I don’t come from a theatre background so when I joined five and a half years ago I tried really hard to find another person like me. I haven’t yet found another in-house version of me. I know actors often have to navigate their way through finding private therapy or going to their GP once they leave for extra support. It’s a shame there isn’t something a bit more coordinated to help with that. It’s important to us that actors and any member of staff gets support if they need it.