Leigh Riley in her high school production of “Footloose.” Research by the U.S. National Library of Medicine has shown a prevalence of depressive disorders in “creative” people.  COURTESY OF LEIGH RILEY

Theater performance is a work-intensive art that can leave the actor feeling vulnerable. While it supplies an evening of entertainment and escapism to those in the audience, for the actors on stage it can be a two and a half hour whirlwind of panic and energy depletion.

Thirty years worth of studies by the U.S. National Library of Medicine show a prevalence in depressive disorders in “creative” people.  The objective of the study was to examine the psychiatric morbidity stress profile, coping skills and personality profile in creative versus non-creative populations.

For some, the material itself can be triggering, requiring a great deal of emotional labor to work with. Leigh Riley, a junior English major, has been performing since they were nine years old. “I have sometimes had to miss rehearsals because I simply don’t have the energy for them,” Riley said. They recall an instance in their freshman year where the production’s themes of suicide, abuse and sexual assault made it difficult to perform.

Brian Bernhard, a senior theatre arts major, credits his anxiety and depression for his love/hate relationship with theater.“While this work is always extremely rewarding, the logistics and planning it entails can be extremely overwhelming,” Bernhard said.

Both Riley and Bernhard summarized their theater backgrounds as intense, but Riley has found value in the community that theater cultivates, providing a platform to talk about topics that we don’t get to talk about in our everyday lives, which can help heal. When Riley was in high school, the school’s production of “Footloose” helped them to cope with the loss of a friend in a car accident earlier that year.

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“I was playing a character who had lost her son the same way, and it was actually really helpful,” Riley said.

Perhaps it is the vulnerability itself that, frightening as it may be, attracts people to theater and performance. While people may suffer from social anxiety or depressive episodes in their day-to-day life that limit them, theater can be an outlet to let go of one’s fear. Bernhard tackles his anxiety and depression through acting.

“It lets me be someone else, or at the very least, dive into the world of someone else,” Bernhard said. “Every now and then I get the opportunity to play someone I’ll learn a great deal from.”

Alice MacBain, an international exchange student from Hampshire, England, finds that theater is as much an escape for her as it is for the audience. “I have generalized anxiety, so it tends to keep me away from experiences — keep me away from people. It’s debilitating,” MacBain said.

Back at Leeds University, MacBain wasn’t finding a lot of opportunities to perform, but coming to the United States gave her new motivation. “It’s weird because back at home I was the most unhappy I’d ever been,” MacBain said. “I’ve never been this far away from my family before for this long, I needed to get involved.” Since she got cast in Stony Brook’s Pocket Theatre production of the musical, [title of show], her anxiety has dissipated altogether.

“I went into it with a relaxed mindset, with no anxiety, and I’ve now come out happy and it’s made me feel more settled and safe here than I did before,” MacBain said.

Performing allows actors to access new parts of their personalities. MacBain describes herself as a neurotic person, but she can be more flexible and open when performing. “It puts me under scrutiny in a way that I avoid in general life,” she said.

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Riley, too, found themselves able to channel their anxiety in a positive way through theater. “I think that my struggles with mental illness have made me a more empathetic person, which is very helpful in acting,” they said.

There is a freedom in playing a part, or performing a role, that is a refreshing break for people who sometimes feel trapped by their mental health.

“With theater, there’s no hiding,” MacBain said. “It’s a good thing for me because it makes me come out of my shell and show exactly who I am. Who I am at rehearsals, that’s me.”

A piece of theater requires a group of individuals to give a lot of themselves: their time, presence and commitment. A performance challenges its actors to be vulnerable and open, so that even when depression and anxiety can make it feel impossible to do so, the actor must still give a piece of themselves away to the audience. And at the end of the night, when those efforts are met with applause, they know that being themselves was enough.  

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