Art, Canada, Top Stories

By Seeking ‘Safer Spaces’ for Actors, We’re Creating a Hostile Environment for Art

It was a difficult time with a difficult actor. I was directing one of my own plays, and the lead actor wasn’t acting. Yet I knew he was more than capable of executing the part.

Finally, I confronted him. “Why aren’t you giving anything in the scene?” I asked. The actor was exasperated: “You know, when you gave me this play to read, I was hoping for once I wouldn’t have to play a screwed-up character. Why are all the characters you write so screwed up?”

That was the last time I hired him.

What kind of play do you want me to write? Drama emerges from conflict. And I honestly have no idea why any actor would want to appear in a serious play featuring protagonists who are not, in some way, “screwed up.” I mean, aren’t we all just a little bit screwed up? And isn’t that what we need to see on the stage: reflections of our deeply conflicted, neurotic selves?

What I didn’t know was that this actor was ahead of his time. Nowadays, young actors are talking more and more about the “trauma” associated with their profession. In a widely circulated article titled Out of Character: How Acting Puts a Mental Strain on Performers, Leith Taylor noted that even as of 2017, “theatre productions are more frequently using the services of psychologists—particularly if the subject matter is dark or difficult and likely to trigger psychological or emotional reactions in the actors” due to the “deep emotions they are often required to access and express when playing a role and the strong identification they can form with their characters.” The article concluded with the expressed hope that “artists will hopefully suffer a little less for their art in order to provide audiences with their best work.”

The most recent edition of a newsletter published by the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association, the union representing workers who deliver live performances, warns that “sometimes, playing characters in various states of trauma can be overwhelming, affecting the performer’s own mental well-being.” The author reports that “directors are struggling with the responsibility of emotional labour that is being placed on their shoulders,” and approvingly describes enlightened directors who “started each rehearsal with yoga” or otherwise proved responsive to actors’ anxieties.

It’s absolutely true that, as the article notes, many actors lead “precarious” professional lives—“the rejection, the uncertainty, the financial hardships, the travel that takes you away from family and loved ones.” And the author is correct to counsel that directors exhibit sensitivity toward performers who are struggling with work-life balance. But I raise an eyebrow at the suggestion that it’s their identification with the parts they play that pushes them over the edge: “There is a long held belief that great art is born of great pain and that only by delving deep into despair can an artist reach the height of their craft…there is a danger in accessing those areas of emotional and psychological tenderness.”

Konstantin Stanislavski comes to mind. From the 1930s onward, the legendary Russian theater director’s “Method of Physical Action” became influential, eventually leading to the widespread adoption of the so-called “method acting” approach in the West. Performers such as Marilyn Monroe and James Dean underwent intensive psychoanalysis while training at The Actors Studio in New York City, a process aimed at spurring the same kind of deep psychic exploration that seems to so worry some actors today.

But it’s important to note that Stanislavski didn’t focus on psychoanalysis per se, instead he emphasized a psycho-physical approach that encouraged actors to explore their character’ motivations through improvisation, movement and dialogue. It was the American iterations that took his insights into the more formal realm of psychotherapy and even psychiatry.

Some acting teachers now are taking Stanislavsky to the extreme, suggesting that there is no such thing as creating a fictional character: “Someone says character is the external life of the person onstage, the way that that person moves or stands or holds a handkerchief, or their mannerisms,” wrote David Mamet in his 1997 book True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor. “But that person onstage is you. It is not a construct you are free to amend or mold. It’s you. It is your character which you take onstage.”

Stanislavski, left, photographed in 1909.

Actors’ own emotional lives are now being emphasized at the expense of the characters they’re hired to play. In his 2015 book, Theatre of the Unimpressed: In Search of Vital Drama, Canadian playwright and director Jordan Tannahill argued that the best theatre often features actors who are not playing a role strictly speaking, but rather addressing the audience directly through theatrical sub-genres that emphasize confession and audience immersion. Tannahill approvingly quoted Toronto theatre artist Jacob Zimmer, who “describes the precise moment he falls out of love with a play: ‘House to half. Stage to half. House out. Stage out. Shuffle shuffle shuffle. Lights up. I’m done! I’m done entirely!’” The ambition, Tannahill wrote, is to reject “the parochial tradition of slowly dimming the house lights and stage lights to suggest that a play is starting, while the actors sneak onstage in the darkness.”

This is the culmination of what I regard as a wrong turn on the path to theatrical realism. Yes, Stanislavski searched for truth in his performances. But he did not preside over the sort of “reality theatre” that featured men and women simply exhibiting the tics and confessions they’d brought with them into their dressing rooms. Stanislavski’s theories served a Russian theatre dominated by Chekhov, whose plays were very much fictional works in which actors played characters, not themselves.

One problem with actors who purport to be playing themselves on the stage is that they are still engaged in an act of lying. They are not actually at home having a chat with intimate friends (and they might even be lying to them, too!), or confessing their feelings to a spouse or therapist. They are on stage, in a theatre (or ersatz theatre, in the case of certain immersive works), doing a job, for which they are (hopefully) paid. What they are doing is fake, and will always be fake. And if they truly do find the business of acting to represent a painful intrusion upon their own soul, it might be because they misunderstand the difference between presenting “a lie that makes us realize the truth,” as Pablo Piccasso put it, and reality itself.

I am only occasionally an actor, and have taught acting infrequently. One reason I avoid the field is that I’ve grown suspicious of the quasi-masturbatory, psychoanalytic bent of modern training programs. I don’t know if I fully agree with Noel Coward’s minimalist 1950s-era advice to actors, which I will paraphrase as “Speak loudly and clearly, and don’t bump into the furniture.” But I certainly am partial to Simon Callow (b. 1949), who confessed in his 1984 autobiography Being An Actor that he was attracted to the theatre not because it was a place to engage in self-discovery or self-exhibition, but because it was a place to hide. (Not quite incidentally, Callow used the occasion of the book’s publication to come out publicly as gay—at the age of 35.)

Art can help us explore ideas and understand reality. But it should not be confused with reality itself. We must not expect it to aspire to morality in the way that people aspire to be moral, or even to present an optimistic or even a “healthy” viewpoint. Art is an anti-reality spun for the audience, tempting them to embrace a temporary, mysterious hypnotizing sense of pain and delight.

Once you blur the line between art and reality, you inevitably come to insist that, for both audiences and artists themselves, a play be ethical, moral, redemptive, ideologically compliant and that it contribute to how you feel when you either act in it or watch it. Given the prevailing trends in the theater industry, it should come as no surprise that the aforementioned Canadian Actors’ Equity Association newsletter article informs us that “in the post #MeToo era, with trigger warnings and intimacy coaches becoming part of the standard vernacular, a growing awareness of performers’ needs for their own mental well-being is taking hold…Younger actors, in particular are putting the onus on directors to help them deal with difficult reactions to the material in a way that wasn’t common even a few short years ago.”

* * *

Actors must be treated with respect by their directors. But good theater always has been dangerous, in the sense that it awakens the mind to dangerous ideas and emotions.

Was it always thus? No one knows the exact nature of actor-audience interaction in ancient Greece. But research suggests that Greek tragedy—which originated in primal “goat songs” (religious elegies that accompanied animal sacrifice)—could send audiences into a mystic frenzy, accompanied by music, dance, masks and choral incantation. Aristotle spoke of “catharsis,” which signals purgation. The audience would watch, weep and be afraid, draining their sense of pity and fear—the opposite of trigger warnings and moral preaching.

Plato mistrusted the artist’s gift for deception, and sought to ban art that didn’t serve the state. He hated the sophists, including Gorgias, who championed rhetoric over reason. Writer Christopher Lyle Johnstone informs us that Gorgias defined poetry as “capable of producing in hearers the divinest works….they can stop fear, banish grief, create joy, nurture pity, induce longing, cause suffering, bring pleasure…Speech is magic.” Gorgias proposed, paradoxically, that although all art is deception, it is the wise man who lets himself be deceived. Like Shakespeare, he was an aesthete who trusted the authority of artistic deception. And I defy you to find a Shakespeare play with a clear “moral.”

But times have changed. Following Plato’s conservative example, arts councils now increasingly “judge applicants according to relevance not excellence,” as one writer put it. And a prominent grant recipient recently declared that “art for art’s sake should be thrown into Lake Ontario.” As seen through this lens, the apparent “immorality” (or amorality)  of Shakespeare, Greek tragedy and the rest of the traditional canon becomes clear. The characters in most of these old plays are indeed very “screwed up.” And these days, actors performing in them in the old-fashioned way—whereby the curtain is pulled to reveal people portraying an array of damaged fictional human beings—are not urged to use psychoanalysis in the service of illusion, but instead to seek therapeutic help to protect them from the toxic characters with whom they mistakenly confuse themselves.

Every generation of director and actor collectively imagines itself as being on the cutting edge of art. But by blurring the line between art and reality, some performers now are turning the craft of acting into the servant of therapy. No longer can we trust art to “stop fear, banish grief, create joy, nurture pity, induce longing, cause suffering, bring pleasure.” In seeking “safer spaces” for actors, we’re creating a hostile environment for art.


Sky Gilbert is a Canadian writer, actor, professor and drag performer. He teaches creative writing and theatre studies at the University of Guelph. His new book Shakespeare: Beyond Science: When Poetry Was the World, will be published in the fall of 2020 by Guernica.

Featured image: Scene from a 1926 Moscow Art Theatre production of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Days of the Turbins, directed by Konstantin Stanislavski.


  1. One of the emerging factors in the Performance Arts, I learned from a recent fly-on-the-wall, following the children of celebrities immersing themselves in the environments of their parents humbler origins, was that the fees for schools training the young in the Arts as a vocation, were effectively pricing-out young people from poor and working-class backgrounds. Apart from the generational shift towards fragility, this may account for the greater emotional vulnerability and tendency to need counselling amongst young actors. In the past, a decent percentage of kids from working-class backgrounds in any institution of higher learning persuaded one to shrug off your own angst, given that you were invariably surrounded by people who had come from far less fortunate surroundings than your own background.

    I do think though, that actors have always been a pain. Often they will view a play, or at a dramatisation of a work of fiction, and look at their role purely through the lens of character. This is too narrow a focus. It’s important to also look at the history and context of the fiction, to analyse the deeper truths embedded in the text. Because make no mistake, most fiction writers are out to persuade, convince and manipulate- they’ve usually worked out that a non-fictional elucidation of a concept or belief, will only draw in those sympathetic to a particular message, and will, in effect, be an exercise in preaching to the converted. Lionel Shriver said as much, in a recent talk.

    So fiction is, by it’s very nature, sneaky. It’s an attempt to draw in a broader audience to induce sympathy for a particular theme or subset of people. It’s probably why most writers want to direct, and most directors want to write- because the directors wants to convey their own message, and the writer wants to control the way their message is conveyed, without actors unintentionally getting in the way. This was apparently a source of tension for Roald Dahl. Sometimes, a villain is written with sympathy, in an attempt to expose flaws we all possess, illustrating the way circumstance can push these flaws to extremis. At other times, a hero might be portrayed as progressively less sympathetic, in order to act as a cautionary tale. Either way, actors can get in the way, if their own interpretation of a character clashes with the broader message of a piece.

    A good example of this is Edmund in King Lear. A modern interpretation of this character might cast his circumstances as unfair, to portray him as torn in his opening soliloquy. This is a mistake that ignores the times Shakespeare lived in, the great truths of his age and the audience he was writing for. It fails to understand that the way that the Elizabethans coped with the brutal truth of their short and miserable lives was to impose order onto nature and chaos, to follow strict hierarchies and pursue swift and merciless justice (people could be executed for breaking Lent)- usurpation was an ultimate evil, given the carnage it had caused from Stephen and Maude, to the Cousins’ War. So Edmund should be portrayed as irredeemably evil, from the very start.

    But this new phenomena (or old phenomena driven to extreme), of acting fragility does not bode well for the theatre. It threatens to obscure the actor’s talent for emotional depth. The exceptional performances of actors like Mark Rylance, Meryl Streep, John Lithgow and Gary Oldman might increasingly become a thing of the past. Plus, if actors are increasingly drawn from the ranks of the upper middle-class how on Earth are they supposed to develop any sympathy at all for the characters they play, when their own experiences are so narrow and cosseted? Worst of all, we now know that learning about white privilege decreases sympathy towards the white working class, whilst doing nothing to increase sympathy towards minorities . Apart from anything else, isn’t employing a staff of trained counsellors to deal with fragile actors egos likely to jeopardise many productions through cost?

  2. I think certain actors overestimate their real value, or “artistry”. For example, Leo DiCaprio is a pretty decent actor, but how many of us would fork over money to see “Leo DiCaprio is LeoDiCaprio in Leo DiCaprio, a film by Leo DiCaprio”?

  3. I can really empathize with these people. I had to play a banker for thirty-five years.

  4. Yeah, I have about this much -> <- sympathy for the problems of people whose job it is to literally play pretend.

    I used to live in LA, and I got to know a few actors. I remember there was this bar that would give you a free drink if you came in with a royalty check for less than $1. They were fun to be around, but they were empty-headed. The entire profession rewards people who are very heavily on the “feelings” side of things rather than the “thinking” side. Why do you think so many of them are easily tricked by Scientology into joining?

    And then they get up and want to lecture us on what terrible people we are, and how we don’t meet their strict moral standards, and then their buddies in the media give them a platform for some reason that I don’t understand.

    I used to think it was an out-of-left-field ridiculous idea that the Romans held actors in official contempt. But, I’m pretty sure I understand now. They’re not thinking people, their position can make them very popular, and they can use that popularity to advance ideas that other people filled their heads with.

  5. Wow. In a word, infantilization…no, strike that. In a word, narcissism… no wait. In an acronym, WTF?

    As an audience member who might be triggered by a too powerful performance or a play that deals with painful issues, I demand that counselors be on hand, both at intermission (which I’m opposed to, because it represents the binary), and after the show. Don’t forget the crayons and support puppies (I’m partial to labs).

    1. Everyone had better hope we are not entering an era of actors only being capable of “playing” themselves. As a general rule, they are not terribly interesting individuals, and audiences will exit in droves.

    2. Why does so much of this nonsense happen in Canada?

  6. I think it seems that way simply because Canadians just don’t generate as many newsworthy (by American standards) events as our southern cousins do. For example, out here the biggest news recently centred on the discovery and closure of a puppy mill (the dogs are now all safe and have found homes, fwiw). It’s rather different from the steady stream of murder and mayhem and corruption from south of the border. So this sort of stuff bubbles to the top.

    I think the next big story from our frozen wasteland is going to centre on why our dear leader Justin is sporting Jordan Peterson style facial hair. Is there an ideological revolution brewing, has Justin somehow gained an IQ?

  7. With regard to your second point, the entire anglophone world seems to be in a race to achieve maximum wokeness (read weakness); and judging by what we read here at Q, Canada would appear to have taken the lead. New Zealand might be running a close second. Can you just imagine the sad calamity if this group of once proud countries ever had to fight a war?

  8. Safe spaces are for children and the mentally impaired. Anyone triggered by words or other expressions are not yet ready for the real world. Words and art may move people but one who can not distinguish between being moved and triggered into fear should stick to Disney and Dr. Seuss.

  9. That’s why I love my theater troupe. We raise money for charity, and so it’s a bit different. We also tend to go for Broadway and Gilbert and Sullivan, so it gives us a reach back to older times. Helps a lot.

  10. Will the last rational person in Canada please turn off the light when you leave?

  11. Can we include, well, pretty much all of Hollywood? I too would fork over good money to see that. I’m thinking something along the Survivor lines but somewhere in the arctic. With cannibalism

  12. Sorry, the typo fix, nothing else

  13. I’ve always found the link between nationalism on the one side, and social identity politics on the other, rather interesting. Perhaps they are just manifestations of the same drive to find a greater sense of self in some whole or another, rather than through individual responsibility for one’s life and toleration for others.

    I saw that rather strongly growing up in the 50s and 60s in the US, and certainly again in Quebec nationalism after I moved to that province in '72. And certainly historically it’s been borne out time and again in countries all over the world. Sometimes laughable, sometimes tragic, but always human (all too human).

  14. Neither you nor I know if the author is referring to an actual incident or a composite of incidents he has noticed over time. I was pointing out the fallacy in his argument, which rests on this example that he presents without deep context. It’s facile to present a moment of pique as the basis for a broader thesis, which in this case quickly morphs into a plethora of weakly relevant aspects of the performing arts industry.

    In the first version of my rebuttal, I had stated that all actors get typecast and we all have to come to terms with that (I deleted it for brevity before posting). The actor in this example may or may not have auditioned for that part, may in fact have auditioned for a different part, but was noticed by the director/casting director as having intrinsic qualities that made him a good fit for the role he was complaining about (the definition of typecasting) – and a lot of that “good fit” is about the actor’s look or walk or voice range, among other things. I was once cast as the mother of the main character. Another pair of actors complained to the director that they should have been cast as the parents because they were so much more experienced, etc., etc., etc. and I was just a newby. They missed the point of the exercise – the main character and I shared a particular look (round face, dark hair), so I was cast because I actually looked like I could have been his mother in real life.

    In an industry where you have to compete for every job (sometimes amid hundreds of other actors), you take what you’re given “until you become a star” – a circumstance only slightly less likely than being struck by lightening. I think what really happened in this example is that this was the point at which this actor had finally had his fill of being typecast (good fit, etc. from above). This was a learning/teachable moment for both actor and director.

    And directors rarely cast against type (with any actor less than “a star”), because if that fails, it can ruin the director’s career, lose producers a lot of money and drive theatres into bankruptcy.

    It’s an industry built on not much more than hope. I still maintain, that actor was not whining; he was just approaching the abyss. If he was good at his chosen profession, I hope he had the good sense to step back and learn how to deal with the reality of his own genetics.

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