“To weep is to make less the depth of grief.” HENRY VI, PART III
It’s true that actors suffer for their art. We go to countless auditions, get told no more often than yes, among many other grievances. Actors are bettors. They gamble on themselves constantly, each day, in the name of their art and their talent.
As someone who’s experienced this twice, there may come a time in your acting life where you may be on stage or on set and someone you love dies. The thespian’s motto is “The show must go on.” Yes, it does, but sometimes it may not be in your long-term best interest for it to go on with you. Sometimes, though, the time on stage or on set may be healing.
The first time this happened to me, I was 17 years old and performing in a community production of Othello Though it wasn’t a professional production, I treated acting as my profession. My grandfather died a week before opening night. My mother spoke to director on my behalf and his response to her was, “Is she still going to be in the show? She’s really talented.” It was about the show for that director, not necessarily what could be done to keep me in a safer space. When I came back to rehearsal, it was weird. Fellow cast members didn’t know what to say to me or how to act. I didn’t hold that against them. It’s hard to know what to say when someone close to you has someone die. I was very close to my grandfather and though legally almost an adult, I had a hard time coping with all the feelings.
The second time this happened to me was six months ago. My godfather, whom I held in high regard, died unexpectedly. We had been talking on the phone a lot in the six months prior. He was going through stuff. He was in mourning himself and then took a sudden turn for the worse. I was in the middle of filming a short film when I heard the news of his death. I let my director know what was going on via email and he was very kind and compassionate. He let the cast and crew know that I had a death. Everyone was very kind. He worked around my schedule so that I could leave the state to go to the funeral. He was a true professional.
Both times, at least to me, there was no discernible impact to my performance. I got on stage and set and executed the director’s vision to the best of my ability. However, I can tell you that the earlier experience with the death of my grandfather has followed me in some not-so-healthy ways. When I saw another production of Othello five years after my grandfather’s death, I was in tears most of the play. I had this deep association of Othello with my grandfather’s death. I saw Othello two years later and I was just angry the whole time. I had to go because of the drama academy I was enrolled in required me to go. I am hoping time will help me shed my baggage with Othello.
Here’s some advice to you if you are acting and lose a loved one:
- Don’t feel pressured to do or be more than you can handle. Ask for an understudy if you need one.
- Evaluate where you are in the processes. Are you in first rehearsal? Final dress rehearsal? Are you filming for one day? Thirty?
- How much responsibility do you have to your family? If you are in charge of making funeral preparations for the loved one, take a long look at what you can handle or sustain. Funerals are very messy to plan, even under the best of circumstances. You may be able to take a week or two off your production or have the producers change a shooting schedule, but there’s not really a do-over on a funeral. If you have responsibility to your family, focus on your family first. Above all, the funeral is to help you find closure and if you have any doubts, choose to focus on the funeral.
- Reach out to your director and/or producer. If it’s to hard to talk about it, send an email about what has happened and what you may need. If you have a manager, ask them to help you work out the issues with production. Focus on your healing.
- Do not push for emotion. You are likely maxed out. You are an instrument. Don’t break your instrument. If you’re not feeling it, don’t force it.
- It may not be a good idea to bring a recent death into your scene work. I’ve seen this really mess folks up. It’s going to be time before you go through those stages of grief and bringing something in that’s too fresh and too raw may harm your psyche more than it helps your scene. It’s not brave to dredge up something that you are unprepared to handle. It is brave to assert your healthy boundaries.
- Care for your body and care for your spirit. Acting is already hard, with a great deal of little disappointments. Having a death cloud you doing what you love is a real downer. Take extra care of yourself. Enlist a friend to check in with you from time to time. An actor friend who you trust is a great choice.
As actors, we constantly search for emotion. We study emotion. There will be times when our life on stage and screen may be impacted by a death or other tragedy. Above all else, “…to thine own self be true,” and care for yourself in your time of loss. As an actor, you are your instrument, you are your truth and you owe it to yourself to care for yourself as best you can in your time of loss.