Quentin Dunne is a licensed therapist and clinical counsellor, and as you can imagine, he’s quite busy these days—“these days” meaning since mid-March, when most of the world was indefinitely confined to our homes to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus. But Dunne also has a background working with actors, having served as one of the on-call therapists at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and he speaks with Backstage about how mental health care can help actors remain open in their performances, knowing your boundaries, and what actionable steps you can take today to feel better tomorrow.
What is unique about the way you work with performers?
One of the things about pursuing a career in the dramatic arts is it can be very fulfilling and rewarding and give you a lot of great opportunities for creative self-expression and exploring different parts of yourself through the characters you may be playing. The part that is sometimes not so great is that there is always the possibility that people have some wounds they’re carrying, and they might be trying to heal those wounds through getting cast in this part or that part. They may want to bring life to these characters and do great work for the audience, but it could also be true that if they don’t get a part, there’s the risk of [thinking], I guess I’m not good after all, or any variation on that. It’s really important for people not to equate their professional accomplishments with their personal worth. And by the way, that can go in both directions: “Oh, I got cast in the lead, I must be the best, look how superior I am.” It can be helpful, mental health-wise, for actors to be open and vulnerable and invested in what they’re doing while also being grounded and centered so that they don’t think that because they didn’t get cast in this part, or maybe they did get cast and the then director felt it wasn’t working and then let them go, they don’t mistake that as some kind of judgment of their personal worth.
Actors are frequently told to be open and vulnerable; how does that relate to mental health?
One of the things I say in therapy or when I’m meeting with people is: Therapy should always be safe but should not always be comfortable. It should be safe enough that it can be uncomfortable. While it’s not exactly the same thing, I feel there is a parallel with acting. The way we grow in mental health is to at times be uncomfortable, look at things that are painful, express parts of ourselves that we have always been self-conscious about. A good therapist creates a space that is safe enough for things to get uncomfortable for the sake of growth. Similarly, with acting, I don’t think a lot of great acting comes from remaining completely within our comfort zone or never taking chances. If someone is really committed to a performance, they should be willing to go to some places that might not be comfortable—but it has to be safe enough. They have to really feel the director is urging them to play the truth of this character, as opposed to the director wanting to do something for the sake of shock value. So [I am] also helping actors have a sense of their own boundaries: “Yes, I am willing to be very uncomfortable, I am willing to play a character that may be completely unlike me and invest everything I have in it, but I’m not willing to put myself in a situation that feels blatantly unsafe.”
Speaking to this moment, what can actors do right now to better their mental state?
Because we are in this highly unusual time and nobody’s gonna be performing in any plays in the next few weeks, this might present a good opportunity for people to really think about what it was that made them fall in love with acting and performing in the first place. Sometimes, the paradox of pursuing a career in the arts is that on the one hand, as you get deeper into the career and you’re taking more classes and you’re going to more auditions, you get more talented. You get certain skills and begin to grow as an actor. On the other hand, sometimes, the deeper you get into it, [the more] you run the risk of forgetting what it was that brought you to life in the first place. There’s the risk that you go from thinking, I want to act because it brings me to life and it’s such a wonderful world of collaboration and a great way to go through the world, to, Ugh, I really hope I get this job so I can pay rent or my student loan. Try to use this time to go back and think of some of the things that made you want to do this. That’s not a bad way to direct your attention during this time.
What advice are you giving your patients right now, to get through the pandemic?
The main thing I try to give my patients is not advice but focus and attention, presence, to really try to let them express themselves and know that whatever anxiety they’re experiencing is not neuroses or because they’re made of glass. We have never seen anything like this in our lives—and hopefully we’ll never see anything like it again—and it is a highly difficult and challenging time. I try to let them know that whatever they’re experiencing is valid. Also, if they are worried about family members or friends, I try to let them know that their very worry is a sign of their compassion and care. And then, finally, a lot of people say the most precious resource we have is our time, but I suggest that maybe attention is really the precious resource. The way in which we focus our attention has a great deal to do with the quality of our lives. Somebody can say, “Oh, time is our precious resource,” and then they spend 10 hours soaking in celebrity gossip or getting into feuds on Twitter. The alternative is they could spend one hour reading some great poetry or meditating or reading a book on acting. I think it’s worth encouraging people to look at their attention as a very valuable resource and to use it accordingly.
Is there one positive outlook actors can have about this pandemic?
This situation we’re in is a reminder that there will be things that will knock us down that we didn’t see coming. And one of the things that can help us get through really difficult times is art. For example, there have been a lot of musicians that have been offering free concerts on YouTube, and you can see in the comments that people really enjoy having that sense of community watching their favorite singer. That’s a really good reminder that people are tuning in to watch the performing arts. For writers, directors, filmmakers, actors, as horrendous as this situation is, it’s also a reminder that art matters. People turn to it during difficult times, so maybe what they are doing in whatever field, it’s entertainment, but it can also be a real public service.
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