Back after interval: for performers and creatives

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Looking after our mental health as we return to creative work and workplaces (COVID-19)

What is 'Back after Interval'?

This resource consists of practical, evidence-based tips for looking after your mental health and wellbeing when returning to live performance after time away.

While this resource was developed in the context of public health responses and venue re-openings throughout COVID-19, the principles shared can be used after any time away from live performance.

Live performance is at the heart of what we do. Sometimes we experience long periods away, and jumping straight back into it can feel daunting. 

This resource has been designed to help you and your company thrive when returning to live performance.

Introduction

As we transition towards COVIDSafe settings, we’ll see our theatre capacities slowly increase from 0% to 100%.

However, for those of us who are returning to rehearsing, performing, auditioning, and creating, we might not have had the chance to build up our mental and physical strength slowly. Unlike our theatre capacities, we might go from 0% to 100% very quickly. 

If we continue pushing ourselves at 100% before we’re ready without taking action to protect ourselves, we may be creating a recipe for burnout. If the somewhat sudden return to the intensity of the world of the performing arts has left you feeling overwhelmed, you’re not alone. 

The mental and physical strain of performing was well-known before COVID-19. It hasn’t suddenly become easier now that our theatres are reopening. Add to that the complex and sometimes competing emotions of excitement, gratitude, sadness, frustration, and many more that we might be feeling, it’s no surprise that we might be looking for some tips and techniques for navigating this unusual time.

The following information is designed to complement the resource: Back after Interval: for all performing arts workers.

Returning to performance

It’s normal to feel a bit rusty and out of form after a long period of reduced practise and performance. Getting back into these routines can be difficult, particularly if we’re constantly comparing how we’re feeling now to how we felt at our peak. Instead of being overly critical, harsh, or judgemental to yourself, aim to treat yourself with kindness and compassion.

For many of us, self-compassion might not come naturally and can feel a bit self-indulgent or uncomfortable. This means we actually have to consciously practise being kind and loving to ourselves. 

Self-compassion involves validating our emotions and accepting them without judgement. Rather than telling ourselves that we ‘shouldn’t’ feel a particular way, or that we’re overreacting or being too sensitive, self-compassion invites us to recognise and acknowledge our own emotional experiences, and to make space for them rather than trying to push them away. 

If you’re feeling out of practise and not up to the performance standard you previously held, self-compassion may sound something like, “it sucks that I’m out of practise. I feel frustrated than I’m not at the level that I was at before. I know that with consistent effort and practise, I’ll be able to do well, just like I’ve been able to do in the past.”

Managing performance nerves

Feeling nervous before performing after a long period away is very common. Whether your time away is because of closures and cancellations, holidays, parental or caring responsibilities, recovery from illness and injury, or any other reason, there are techniques for addressing performance nerves, should you experience them. 

We know that the more we do something, the easier and less anxiety provoking it becomes over time. So naturally, the more often we are performing, the more our nerves and anxiety should ease. The opposite is also true – if we have a period of time without performing, it’s possible that nerves and anxieties about performing may creep back in – even if we’ve never experienced them before. Nerves in and of themselves are not a bad thing. We don’t need to aim to get rid of them, but to channel them in a way that is helpful. 

If you find your performance anxiety is becoming unmanageable or impacting on your life, work and relationships, please seek professional support. 

Start small and build up

If you can, ease yourself back into performing. You may want to consider starting with smaller performances, for example, smaller crowds, performances for friends and family. 

If you utilise social media, you may want to consider doing live streams either instead of or alongside a smaller performance. Some people find the distance that social media provides helps them feel somewhat ‘invisible’ on the other end of the screen. Seeing the number of viewers in a tiny box can be less intimidating and overwhelming than performing in front of a crowd of hundreds or thousands of people.

Be aware of your thoughts

In general, anxiety tends to be driven by our thought processes. If we’re thinking about all the things that may go wrong, negative reviews, harsh judgement, or the possibility of not getting another gig, it makes sense that we’d feel anxious, worried, or overwhelmed. 

The problem with this is that our feelings influence what we do and how we perform. This sort of negative anxiety is less likely to help us perform at our best. Instead of focusing on these worrisome thoughts, try to think of the helpful and realistic things that you know to be true.

Write it out

Write yourself a list to help prompt you of all the times you have had successful performances. 

Think about times where you’ve had meaningful engagement with your audience, great chemistry onstage, electric moments where the words simply jump off the page, kind audience responses, great feedback, difficult parts of songs/dances/roles that you’ve been able to nail, skills that you’ve tried and mastered. 

Remind yourself of all of the hundreds of hours you have put into learning and exploring your art form, the training, the practise sessions, time spent analysing character, physicality, voice, movement, story. Remind yourself of why you perform, what you love about it and why you keep going. 

Keeping your positive prior experiences front of mind helps channel your nervous energy in a positive way and enhance your performance, rather than overwhelm you with anxiety. You know how to do this. You have these skills. 

A great tip is to write out these things in advance, and read over them before a performance, as it can be hard to remember all of your wonderful achievements, learnings and accomplishments when emotions are running high. 

Re-visit routines

Routines are important when we’re trying to establish a pattern of behaviour. Whether conscious or unconscious, you would likely have had some routines when performing regularly.

These may have changed during COVID-19, and may need to be adjusted as you re-enter the routine of performing. 

As well as your physical habits, what mental patterns did you have? Maybe it was a preperformance “pep-talk”, or a piece of music that helped get you in the zone. This is a great opportunity to revisit old patterns that worked for you in the past, and also develop new ones. 

See if you can use some of these learnings to create new routines that serve as regular reminders of all those things you love about performance.

A different kind of performance
Performing to smaller audiences

Due to the actions that venues and theatres are taking to keep us and our audiences safe, there may be times when we’re performing to fewer people than we’re used to in a space. 

You may not be able to see their facial expressions if they are wearing masks, or, it may be that people are unable to sing and dance along, or engage with immersive performance in the same way as pre-COVID-19. 

This can be disappointing and difficult to navigate, especially if the ‘vibe’ of the show typically came from people singing, dancing and getting involved in the performance. Fewer people might even simply mean that the applause is not as loud or as full as we may like! 

Dealing with these realities requires one important thing: acceptance. Acceptance requires us to shift from emotional states of frustration, anger or resentment, and allows us to ‘let go’. Acceptance helps us acknowledge that certain things are out of our control, and that no matter how much we wish they were different, we cannot change them. 

Focusing on things that are out of our control can be upsetting and frustrating. Instead, it can be more helpful and empowering to focus on things that are within our control, and that we can influence and change.

There is so much in your control – how you show up to rehearsals, the way you treat other people, how you role model COVIDSafe practices, your attitude to learning and creating, and the energy you bring into a space, just to name a few.

Not performing as much as you'd like

As the performing industry recovers from the impacts of COVID-19, there may be fewer opportunities and less work for people in the performing arts and entertainment industries.

This might result in feelings of frustration, disappointment, anger and resentment for you. Again, acceptance that these situations are out of our control is key, and focusing on what we can control will help us feel more empowered. It is easy to become disheartened in these circumstances. To maintain motivation and momentum, keep reminding yourself of why you do the work you do. 

If you need to, write it out and keep it somewhere handy to read over. Have reminders of highlights of your career so far somewhere where you can see them, whether they be photos, promotional materials, reviews or thank you cards. 

Recovery for our sector will take more time than we’d like it to, so aim to balance both your long-term goals and your short-term needs. What can you learn or explore within, and beyond, your work that will help you get through today and set you up for the future?

Asking for help

It is ok to ask for help. If you, or someone you know is having a rough time, don’t carry on alone. Ask for help and accept it.

Don’t ever worry that you’re ‘not distressed or upset enough’. Navigating the performing arts industry can be tough, and we’re all only human.

Click here for more information and services.

Contributors

Dr Anastasia Hronis is a clinical psychologist and founder of the Australian Institute for Human Wellness. Anastasia is a practicing clinician, as well as a researcher and lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney.

Anastasia is also a trained classical concert pianist and provides performance coaching and consultations, as well as running workshops and masterclasses for those in the performing arts industry. She has performed on stages around the world including the Sydney Opera House seven times, and the internationally renowned Carnegie Hall in New York.

Chris Cheers is a psychologist, facilitator and lecturer based in Melbourne. Before training as a psychologist, Chris worked for arts organisations across Australia, developing a rich understanding of the industry. Chris Cheers Psychology specialises in providing mental health support and workshops to clients in the arts, performance and creative industries.

Chris is an endorsed Educational and Developmental Psychologist and also has expertise in supporting LGBTIQ+ clients across all ages. Chris has been a university Lecturer in Psychology since 2011 and is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Alcohol and Policy Research at La Trobe University.

Dr Jane Miskovic-Wheatley is a NIDA graduate in Directing, and currently works as a clinical psychologist who consults to companies such as Bell Shakespeare, Arts on Tour and CDP Theatre Producers. Jane is also the research stream lead for the InsideOut Institute for Eating Disorders, University of Sydney. 

Jane has experience as a large event specialist choreographer with extensive touring experience, and has worked on Pan American, Commonwealth and Olympic Games Ceremonies.

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