Can theater be therapy? Does an ability to "get into character" and portray other people help actors resolve their own internal conflicts offstage? Or will the pursuit of a career that values emotional vulnerability, but at the same time involves frequent rejection, inevitably lead to poor mental health and instability?
Dr. Paula Thomson and Dr. S. Victoria Jaque of California State University, Northridge, endeavored to answer these questions in "Holding a Mirror Up to Nature: Psychological Vulnerability in Actors," a study published this month in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Over the course of several years, the researchers surveyed a sample of 41 professional actors in Los Angeles; Toronto, Ontario; and Cape Town, South Africa. The actors' answers were compared with those of a control group of 41 non-actors.
"This study demonstrated that the actor group had greater fantasy proneness and a greater distribution of psychological security as compared with the nonartist control group," Thomson and Jaque write. "Despite no group differences in type and frequency of trauma and loss, the actor group had more unresolved mourning and elevated dissociation."
All of the actors surveyed had at least three years of conservatory training, all of which Thomson said was rooted in Stanislavsky's method. They also had the common link of at least a few months of experience creating and performing "testimonial theater," an autobiographical medium that is used most often to heal individuals and communities that have undergone major trauma. Subjects were evaluated through a 60- to 90-minute interview session.
"I think in performing artists, there's an incredible tolerance to accept emotional abuse from people," Thomson told Back Stage. A former dancer, she is fascinated with the psychology of actors and performing artists. "I was very struck by how aware they were about people's emotions and how sensitive they were," she said, "and then how unpredictable they could be."
Thomson and Jaque speculated that experience embodying different characters in order to act out dramatized conflicts would indirectly give actors greater resolution for their own past experiences. Yet the researchers found that while actors tend to be more emotionally self-aware and secure, they are no better at getting over unresolved trauma or loss than their counterparts in the control group. In fact, the actor group was more likely to respond with confusion, silence, or halting speech when asked about past traumatic events, and they displayed "greater vulnerability for psychological distress."
Thomson and Jaque could not determine whether an actor's career choice was determined by his or her mental state or vice versa. The researchers are analyzing the results of a related physiological study -- in which actors wore what they call a "life shirt" during interviews, stress tests, and rehearsals and onstage performances -- to evaluate whether their physiology shows the same vulnerability as their psychology.