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The Working Actor

Breathless With Emotion

Breathless With Emotion
Dear Michael:

I'm not sure if you've addressed this question in the past, but here goes: How can an actor do good work while dealing with a chronic condition in real life? I have asthma that is normally well-controlled with medication, but sometimes I feel myself holding back from fully giving in to my emotional impulses during a scene if I'm having a rough day with my condition. How can I push through this feeling to express myself with emotional truthfulness and do the work that I love so much?

—Occasionally a Little Breathless, Cincinnati

Dear Breathless:

While asthma can be particularly challenging for performers, there's good news in that many—including Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor, Jason Alexander, and Diane Keaton—have enjoyed successful careers despite the condition. The asthma-managing performers I consulted offered a variety of suggestions, from the medical and physical to the artistic and psychological. But before you read on, please note the following disclaimer: We're not doctors at Back Stage, so none of this should be taken as medical advice. You need to consult your own trained, licensed physician for that. We're just sharing the experiences of others.

For Broadway's Heather Jane Rolff, who recently toured in "Les Misérables," the "double whammy" of playing highly emotional scenes while breathing the haze-filled air of the onstage barricade called for a new approach. "I was introduced for the first time to a non-steroid inhaler. It's called Ventolin," says Rolff. "Since it is non-steroid, it can be used throughout a show before scenes in which I see the potential for problems. I've had great results."

Actor Lyndie Renee takes Singulair daily and lets castmates know where she keeps her albuterol inhaler, just in case. Because allergies can induce attacks as well, Renee has also gotten weekly allergy injections for three years, which, she says, has really made a difference.

Paul Wong is an actor-singer with asthma who also happens to be an M.D. He draws a distinction—wisely, I think—between the apprehension and the reality, saying, "If the actor has actually had the experience of an acute asthma flare-up during an emotional scene, the short-acting inhaler medications that are typically taken on an as-needed basis after a flare-up could be taken prior to the problem scenes as a prophylactic, or preventive, action. Of course, this strategy or any other should be undertaken only after consultation with a qualified medical professional, since one size does not fit all and treatment needs to be tailored to the individual. If the actor has not actually had the experience of a flare-up during an emotional scene but still has the fear of such, consultation with a psychologist or stress management counselor might be helpful in overcoming this fear."

Psychology, it seems, is often part of the equation. "Don't panic when you are short of breath," says Renee. "Panic always makes it worse and can cause me to hyperventilate."

Actor and career coach Erin Cronican agrees: "When someone starts feeling their asthma coming on, if the person is calm and collected, the attack may pass, and if the person gets anxious, the asthma attack can get worse." When Cronican experiences symptoms, she focuses on staying relaxed. "Deep breathing exercises usually help," she says. "But it's also about trusting myself and knowing that I'm going to be fine. Sometimes the panic of anticipating an attack is much worse than the attack itself, so I have to calm my mind as well as my body."

You might be surprised to learn that several of your fellow asthmatics swear by physical activity. "Although it may seem counterintuitive, some type of aerobic exercise works wonders," says singer Julie Esposito. "It doesn't have to be running or anything intense—walking is great…. But exercise expands the lungs and helps us asthmatics to breathe better! I'm especially careful to be on a regular exercise regime the weeks before a performance. Besides expanding the lungs, it releases endorphins and gives one a sense of centeredness and well-being, which is invaluable for any type of performing. I have found that centeredness to then be accessible at the time of the performance. Diet is also key. I avoid dairy products that produce phlegm and I stay well hydrated, especially the days before the performance. I do use medication when I need it, of course."

Renee cites Pilates (along with Singulair and sleep) as the biggest help: "Pilates works with your breath and has seriously strengthened my lungs. I would advise any asthmatic to try Pilates for just that reason."

Veteran actor Paul Sorvino has been free of asthma symptoms for about 40 years, thanks to a yoga breathing technique he learned in his 20s—a technique he shares in his best-selling book "How to Become a Former Asthmatic" and through the work of the Sorvino Asthma Foundation.

Interestingly, none of the asthmatics I interviewed counseled emotional restraint in your acting. Quite the opposite, in fact. "In terms of fear of emotional impulses setting off symptoms," says Wong, "my own opinion is holding oneself back from giving in to truthful emotional impulses can be stressful in itself and may be worse than letting go and being in the moment."

Some, including Broadway veteran Ronnie Orbach, even experience the mysterious healing powers of what's known as "Dr. Footlights." Before the performance, he advises, use whatever treatments work, "but once the curtain goes up, getting lost in the experience of the performance, the world of the play, your fellow actors, and the audience is usually the best medicine for whatever ails ya."

Actor Mary Lahti advocates "the one thing the writer mentions: using truthfulness. That is, using what's happening in the moment." That includes breathing difficulties. Lahti got to practice this approach when her asthma began to act up during an audition. Instead of fighting it, as she had in the past, she slowed her breathing and allowed that to be part of the characterization. "I learn to adjust for the moment," she says, "so that the moment is real or truthful. Use it as part of the delivery."

Cronican believes that emotional truthfulness "should not be affected by asthma problems" unless, she says, you believe that emotionally truthful acting obligates you to scream, sob, or emote at a heightened level. "My feeling is, if an actor is looking for an emotional result, that's a technique problem, not the issue of asthma. An actor needs to trust that if they've done their work, their performance will be truthful without having to force an emotional reaction that would trigger asthma symptoms."

If these opinions are right, your fully experienced emotions may take the audience's breath away—but not yours.

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