Actors with ADHD face a unique set of challenges, since the craft requires intense focus and concentration. But with support and proper symptom management, aspiring performers with ADHD can still fulfill their dreams of breaking into the biz.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impulsivity, hyperactivity, and difficulty paying attention. Though ADHD affects every person differently, common symptoms include:
- Poor time management skills
- Problems focusing on tasks
- Trouble with multitasking
- Excessive activity or restlessness
- Hyperfocusing on a single task
Although its causes are unknown, ADHD appears to develop due to a mix of genetic and environmental influences. An estimated 8.4% of children and 2.5% of adults have the condition.
Performers with the disorder often have difficulty remembering lines and paying attention; they may also overthink situations and struggle with anxiety or depression.
Memory deficits: Remembering lines may be difficult—particularly if you’re not pulled in by the material. “Challenges that many with ADHD face are not necessarily because of the person, but the demands of the environment,” says Dr. Arash Zaghi, who studies the links between ADHD and creativity. “A person with ADHD may be put in a position of reading or writing without an interest in the material. When someone with ADHD is being asked to do things that they may not find interesting, then if the brain is not interested, there may be challenges remembering details or being engaged.”
Difficulty paying attention: “I often have trouble listening—because of my ADHD, it really is something I struggle with,” says J Savage, an actor with the disorder who’s currently performing in “Bad Cinderella” on Broadway. “My brain just goes in a different direction sometimes, and in rehearsals, I can miss a note or a clarification.”
Hyperactivity: The extra energy that sometimes accompanies ADHD can also present a roadblock. “The hyperactivity aspect can be great in a dance rehearsal, but sometimes in scene work, it causes me to overthink and makes being in the moment difficult,” Savage says.
Managing other mental disorders: The disorder is often associated with anxiety and depression. “Only recently, I learned that anxiety and ADHD are frequently linked, which suddenly put my experiences in a different context,” says Richard Buchanan, an actor with ADHD whose credits include Baltimore Center Stage’s “Shakespeare in Love” and Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s “Jane Eyre.”
“From the first time I stepped onstage as an actor, I struggled with anxiety. I knew as soon as I set foot onstage, I would be fine, yet the anticipation could bring me to my knees,” the actor says. “My mind simply could not stop replaying all the potentials—living an event over and over again. It was like Doctor Strange seeking the one desirable outcome in millions [in “Avengers: Infinity War”]. It was, and sometimes is, exhausting. I think early in my career this held me back, because I did not know how to bear the weight of all those possibilities.”
Jim Carrey in “Sonic The Hedgehog 2” Courtesy Paramount Pictures and Sega of America
Find your ideal environmental conditions: Mary Spinosa is a registered nurse, drama therapist, and the executive director of Theatre With a Twist, where she works with hundreds of actors with the disorder. “When people with ADHD find their sweet spot, they will shine brightly. They really just need to be engaged to hit their best,” she explains.
Put in the effort: “Through my theater training, I developed coping skills and gained lots of experience, witnessing firsthand that if I did the work, things would work out all right and the show would go on,” Buchanan says. “And thankfully, for me, it always has.”
Trust your intuition: Zaghi believes the creativity that often accompanies the disorder may stem from people with ADHD’s risk-taking tendencies. “In my research, I have discovered individuals with ADHD to be more intuitive, insightful, and understanding about how the world works,” says Zaghi. “Intuitiveness is a big thing. While it can be difficult to put into words, people with ADHD seem to have a clear vision of connections that others don’t see. It’s an interesting type of wisdom. The data I have published show a positive correlation between ADHD and creativity. Many with ADHD are able to use tools in unconventional ways.”
Get physical: The bursts of energy that come with ADHD can be put to good use in performance. “In a dance show, the hyperactivity really helps,” Savage says.
Buchanan agrees. “Once I get going, my energy is boundless.”
Tap into your feelings: “I’ve always had big emotional responses to events and felt emotions in a big way,” says Buchanan. “In grad school, studying the Meisner Technique, [which teaches you to focus on the responses of other actors,] it finally hit me that these many aspects of myself I would attribute to my ADHD were a blessing, not a curse.”
Forge your own path: Try to accept the fact that you experience the world differently than other people. “It is important to find your own way of doing things,” Buchanan says. “As a young actor, I really struggled with memorizing. Not only was it tedious, but I was afraid I would lose my spontaneity.”
In grad school, the actor started to recognize that he needed to take a different approach. “I began to record my lines and listen to them while doing chores and working on my scripts while I ran on the treadmill. It changed my life,” he recalls.
Give yourself structure: While deadlines, anxiety, and organization can be a struggle for actors with ADHD, finding the proper tools can help you succeed. “Set up systems for yourself to stay organized: Write down notes and essential tasks, and keep a calendar,” Buchanan suggests. “Your strengths and weaknesses are closely linked, so you can use one to lead you to the other. Once you know these aspects of yourself, you will know how to prepare and enjoy your success.”
Build clear lines of communication: If you have ADHD, Spinosa recommends scheduling a one-on-one with the director of your project. “A meeting between the two can help both develop a plan to ensure success,” she says.
Be patient with yourself: Buchanan advises giving yourself ample time to take notes. “I am great in the moment, but I have the memory of a goldfish!” he says. “Short-term memory is not my strong point—if I don’t capture an idea, it will be gone forever when I’m on to the next one. In my experience coping with ADHD, I have learned again and again that accommodations made for specific groups frequently benefit everyone.”
Maintain a work-life balance: The hyperfocus that often accompanies the disorder can cause actors to overwork themselves. “Most people with ADHD will do all the work you ask of them and more, particularly if they are given the freedom to find their own way,” Buchanan says. Remind yourself to slow down and take time to reset.
Jaguar PS/Kathy Hutchins/Shutterstock/Blaine Ohigashi / ©A.M.P.A.S.
Here are a few big names living with the disorder:
- Dan Kwan
- Channing Tatum
- Alejandro G. Iñárritu
- Will Smith
- Jim Carrey
- Woody Harrelson
- Ryan Gosling
- Michelle Rodriguez
- Jessie Mei Li
Inclusivity of neurodivergent people in the industry benefits everyone by fostering more diverse forms of artistic expression. “Ideas are incomplete until we have gathered all types of knowledge and ways of thinking about things,” Zaghi says. “It’s important that we bring in other people. We need to understand that we are each limited; we are always lacking a broader vision when everyone is not in the room.”