“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading for?… A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” – Franz Kafka, 1904
Experiencing a powerful book, film, play, painting, piece of music or other form of art can be the sort of illumination or axe Kafka talks about. But what about for the writer, painter, actor or other artist? They can also be “wounded” while making that creation.
Talking about her work in the film “The Omen”, actor Julia Stiles said she “always felt that I was the kind of actor that could put the role away when I go home, and for whatever reason on this film I couldn’t.
“I really had horrible nightmares while we were shooting – could barely sleep and I was terrified.
“I don’t know what it was, I thought maybe we were tempting the fates. Maybe my mind was playing tricks on me. But ultimately I thought that was a good indication that the story was powerful.” [From interview by Paul Fischer, Darkhorizons.com May 19th 2006.]
Like many other actors, Meryl Streep thinks her work can be therapeutic as well as emotionally demanding. “I just get to work out all my murderous thoughts and my weaknesses and my failures and things I don’t want to do as a parent or work out on the family,” she has said.
“It’s better to take them here [acting]. I need it as an outlet. I love it. It feeds my imagination. It connects me to understanding — if you’re talking about a life journey — to understanding other people: what it means to be alive, what it means to be you, not just me, you. That’s interesting to me. Always has been.”
[From the page Nurturing mental health: acting.]
Actor Laura Linney says, “With big, emotional roles it’s very easy, especially if you’ve grown up in the American school of acting, to exploit your own pain. You have to be careful about that, because 9 times out of 10, your pain is not appropriate to the character.
“You can watch someone on-stage cry and cry – but in the audience you feel nothing. It’s easy to become indulgent. For me, what’s important is the story first.” [imdb.com]
Completing a project can also generate complex emotions.
J.K. Rowling commented about finishing the writing of her last book in the Harry Potter series that she was very upset and distraught: “The first two days were terrible. Terrible. I was incredibly low. What is probably hard for people to imagine is how wrapped up the 17 years’ work is with what was going on in my life at the time.” [Dateline NBC July 29 2007]
In her article Playing Depressing Roles [Backstage.com July 09, 2007], Jean Schiffman quotes critic Charles Isherwood that Vivien Parry’s work “makes you realize how actors may live so fully in the minds of their characters that a trauma endured onstage can open a searing wound in the actor’s soul too.”
Schiffman goes on to write about Lorri Holt, appearing as Queen Elizabeth in a stage production of Richard III, who in “play after play, has had to dredge up horrifying personal material to embody the emotions of these grieving women.
“Holt was ambivalent about accepting the role of Elizabeth, which involves grief of mythic proportions. She says it’s harder for her to find those dark places before coming on stage than it is to leave them behind at play’s end, but that wasn’t always the case.”
Holt says, “The more I play someone who has these great losses, I find that if I look at my connection to everything — the world, the universe — it’s helpful. I don’t feel so isolated.
“I’m tapping into something that belongs not only to me but to everyone. It feels like it’s not my specific burden to carry; I’m carrying it into the show as a representative. If I look at it that way, I see that we [actors] are all providing a service.
“We’re in a service-oriented profession… And it’s okay to let go [at the end of the performance], because you’ve performed that service, and it’s an honor.”