Flashback Friday: How to Avoid Going Down with the Ship

For this week’s Flashback Friday Blog Post, we decided to bring in some positive reinforcement to set your weekend off right. Morale is a delicate thing at the best of times. Given that our work as actors requires a certain degree of emotional openness, (and therefore it is not uncommon that the business attracts highly sensitive and perceptive people), keeping everyone’s spirits up for the duration of a production can require serious effort.  Negativity is infectious and can quickly overwhelm a cast. When that happens, it is important to find ways to keep your head above water.

My Dark and Dirty Past

I started thinking about this when I was in a show that boasted exceptionally low morale. The rehearsal process was truncated and chaotic, the script was dense and problematic, and the show itself was not well-known. Add to the mix the fact that we were running in rep with a proven crowd-pleaser and cast morale took a nose dive pretty early on. It was very hard to avoid feeling like we were being asked to run headlong off a cliff, and wearing silly clothes to boot. The experience made it clear to me how important it is to develop strategies to help avoid being sucked into a whirlpool of negativity. To that end . . .

Suit Up and Be a Leader

Obviously the only behavior you can control is your own. So why not try to be a lighthouse in the storm and set a positive example? Get into the habit of finding things in the process you enjoy, and vocalize your feelings. Speak up when you see castmates do good work. When rehearsals are especially frustrating, stay calm and be patient. You don’t have to lie or be fake. But this is the time to remember that you have a responsibility to maintain a professional attitude. Injecting positivity into the process can help counterbalance low morale, and it has the additional benefit of reinforcing your control over the situation. It’s easy to let yourself be a victim and get mired down in a negative process, but it doesn’t serve you, your castmates, or the work.

. . . Even When You’re Hitting Your Head Against a Brick Wall

That being said, playing cheerleader is a tough gig. Sometimes setting a positive example just won’t have the results you hope for. For me, constantly looking on the bright side while people around me are not on the same page makes me feel like a futile and deluded Pollyanna. But honestly, that’s just too bad. At some point you have to recognize that you’re a professional now. Your obligations don’t end when you step backstage. Sometimes doing your job is difficult, but it doesn’t mean you get to take a pass. If the effort feels false, make it honest. Let whatever feelings of affection and loyalty you have for your castmates, director, crew, etc. fuel your work ethic. Remind yourself that you love your work. Respect yourself as an actor. Let these be the reasons to keep trying.

On the Subject of Venting

It’s very easy in theatre to let the boundaries of the personal and professional bleed into each other. When you are working with your friends, when you hang out with castmates after rehearsal, the natural instinct is to discuss the process. Of course people want to vent, to talk about their frustrations and insecurities. There is comfort to be had in bonding over a mutually trying experience. The problem is that it is easy to let that spiral out of control, until those feelings infect the cast and the work as a whole. When morale becomes a problem, sometimes it is more constructive to take your frustrations outside the process. Find someone who isn’t involved to whom you can vent. If you need to relate to your castmates, don’t dwell. Acknowledge the difficulties and change the subject. Instead of complaining about what isn’t working, suggest solutions. If there is simply nothing to be done, have a laugh about it and move on.

Other Strategies

You know the drill. If you find that you are stuck in a process that is becoming increasingly negative, find ways to detox outside of rehearsal. Invest some time in activities that make you feel strong, happy and hopeful. Don’t bottle up your anxieties until they overwhelm your work; take a mental break. Talk to friends who lift you up. Get outside, exercise, go to a movie. Whatever clears the cobwebs. Let that be the energy you bring into rehearsal with you. Keep coming back to the script with fresh eyes. In the long run it will be more efficient than trying to beat a dead horse.

Keep it in Perspective

One of my regrets about the show I mentioned previously was that I felt that while I was able to maintain a relentlessly calm and positive attitude during rehearsals, my anxieties started leaking out once the show opened. I had spent so much time repressing my own apprehensions and trying to single-handedly boost cast morale that when the pressure of rehearsal lifted, my composure started to crack. There were several times when I wasn’t happy with my performance and voiced those opinions backstage, which was not constructive for anyone. What I should have done to combat that is remembered early on that while it was my responsibility to bring a positive attitude to the table, that is where my control over the situation ended. Don’t expect that you will be able to save the ship yourself. As long as you keep pumping water overboard, you’re doing your job!

Of course some productions are going to have more challenges than others. Sometimes the product will be weaker as a whole. But that does not condemn your work, nor does it mean that you can’t have a valuable experience. In the immortal words of Finding Nemo’s Dori the fish, “Just keep swimming.” And thus, with a final allusion to the sea and all its symbolic turbulence, I leave you. Happy sailing!


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Rachel Rachel Frawley is an actor living in Atlanta. She holds a B.F.A. in Theatre from Michigan State University (with cognates in Music and Professional Writing) and is an Apprentice Company graduate from the Atlanta Shakespeare Co. She also works as an education artist for local theatres, which have included the Shakespeare Tavern and Aurora Theatre. For more information, visit her website at www.rachelfrawley.com