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The Working Actor

Creativity and Depression, Lost Vouchers

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Creativity and Depression, Lost Vouchers
Dear Jackie:
As a performer, I find myself subject to a battle with depression and black moods when not working and sometimes when working. What can a performer do to combat this?

—Down
London

Dear Down:
Many years ago, in a Los Angeles Times article on depression, I stumbled across a sentence that struck me hard. I've tried to find that quote numerous times, to no avail, but the gist was that there is some evidence that highly creative people—artists—are more likely to experience mental illnesses, such as depression, than "regular" people. I remember a light going on in my head when I read that. "Of course!" I thought. "Of course that's true!" I recognized from my years of close contact with other artists that we were somehow different. Not better or worse, but different. And surely, trying to work as a professional artist in any field must be nuts!

In her book "The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius," Nancy C. Andreasen, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at the University of Iowa, argues that the same attributes that help artists create—such as openness and sensitivity—may also make them more susceptible to mental and emotional problems. Research is ongoing on the topic, but when we actors spend so much time dredging up various emotions on command, it seems likely that we'd be more prone to setting ourselves off-kilter than, say, a carpenter. Apart from the art itself, career fluctuations can drag us through hyperbusy, no-sleep periods for weeks on end, followed by stagnant times with no work in sight, making it next to impossible to stay centered. All this is why I encourage everyone, and especially actors, to do all they can to take care of themselves when they suspect that something like depression may be taking its toll.

I contacted two mental health professionals for comment on your question. Both have been actors themselves, so they have particular insight into the topic as it relates to our field.

Frann Altman is a licensed marriage and family therapist with a doctorate in clinical psychology and has been a Screen Actors Guild member since 1989. "First, I'd suggest anyone who has 'depressive symptoms and black moods' get themselves to a licensed therapist or psychologist for an assessment," she writes in an email. "Make sure there is no clinical depression or a mood disorder like bipolar. While depression can come and go, bipolar mood disorder is a lifetime disorder and needs attention the same way something like diabetes does. People such as Winston Churchill (who called his depression 'black dog') and William Styron (Pulitzer Prize–winning writer) wrestled with depression that sometimes brought them to their knees, but their brilliance and expression endured. That being said, there is a sense of purpose and creative expression when working. Downtime can really cause one to struggle with questions like 'Where is the next job coming from?' and important, meaningful questions like 'Who am I beyond the actor in me?' Creating a life that is full and rich off-camera is important to explore. Everyone has times when they feel low or sad, but if it impacts your work and your life, it needs more-focused attention. Finally, know that it takes courage to ask those types of questions. I hope the answers open some doors." Altman's website can be found at www.frannaltman.com.

Jeanette Yoffe, an actor and therapist with a master's degree in clinical psychology (www.yoffetherapy.com), suggests that creative activity should be part of your daily life—even when you don't have a job. "Get involved," she writes in an email. "An actor acts! So take action. Create your own spotlight. Find a theater company to join or volunteer at; start writing that project you have on the shelf; take a risk. An active life leaves very little room for depression."

This is where my mind first went upon reading your question. With a career guaranteed to fluctuate, you may need steadying forces in your life to maintain balance. Certainly family, friends, and hobbies should play a role, and there's a lot to be said for steady income in helping to ward off worry, but taking control of your artistic life may help you fight dark clouds. As Yoffe suggests, be sure you have a theater company, inspiring class, or improv group to work out with on a regular basis. Sometimes having an artistic outlet for your feelings can keep them from getting the better of you. And be sure you have friends outside the acting world to help you keep perspective when times are tough.

All that said, Yoffe echoes Altman: "If you feel your depression is interfering with your ability to function—i.e., difficulty getting out of bed, self-neglect, and/or intrusive or ruminating negative thoughts—seek a mental health professional immediately. Depression is not something to ignore but to embrace. In the words of Confucius, 'Our greatest glory is not in never falling but in rising every time we fall.' "


Dear Jackie:
I just moved to a new apartment, and one of my boxes got stolen during the move. It had a lot of my paperwork inside, including the copies of my two SAG waivers. Does SAG keep records of this? Because there is no way I can get this back! Will I have to start all over?

—Lost
via email

Dear Lost:
By "waivers," I assume you mean "vouchers." For those unfamiliar with the term, vouchers are given to nonunion background actors on SAG projects who have been bumped to union status for very specific reasons. Accumulating three can get you your SAG card. As I've written numerous times, I don't suggest hurrying to join SAG (at which time you will agree to decline all nonunion acting work) through this or any method, but that's another story.

"It isn't the voucher that counts towards eligibility; it is the actual work in a covered position," writes a SAG representative in an email. "For that reason, Screen Actors Guild can't accept 'vouchers' as proof of eligibility. There are many ways the guild can verify that someone has worked as a covered background actor in a SAG project. First, we can check our database to see if we have received a valid 'Taft-Hartley' form from the producer. We also can verify work through the SAG-Producers Pension and Health Plans, since contributions are made on all covered background work. Or we can check with the payroll company. If you're not sure Screen Actors Guild has a record of your employment history as a covered background actor, please call the Background Actors Department at (323) 549-6811 and we will be happy to look into it."

See www.sag.org/content/steps-join for more information on joining SAG. Good luck with the rest of your unpacking.

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