Back after interval: Looking after your mental health as we return to creative work and workplaces

For performers and creatives

As we transition towards COVIDSafe settings, we’ve seen 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 have gone 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: tips and techniques for practitioners and performing arts workers.

Returning to performance

It’s normal to feel a bit rusty and out of form after a long period of reduced practice and performance. Getting back into the routines of practicing and performing 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. Remind yourself of just how difficult the impact of COVID-19 may have been for you, your peers, colleagues, friends, family and others. Remind yourself that nothing could have prepared you for the scale of the pandemic and its consequences. Speak to yourself the way you would to a good friend or family member who is struggling – gently and with kindness.

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

Working with performance nerves

Feeling nervous before performing after a long period away is very common, and the tips and techniques used in this guide are for more than just returning after the events of 2020. We can use them after any time away, including holidays and time out of the industry for any reason including parental or caring responsibilities and recovery from illness and injury.

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 any anxiousness 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.

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 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 practice 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.

Revisit 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. How much sleep were you getting? How often were you rehearsing? What kinds of foods were you eating? 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 pre-performance “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. What have you learnt about yourself and your practice from the time away? What did you miss? 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.

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?

Ask for help

You are not alone – ask for help and accept it from a professional, a peer, colleague, employer, company manager, stage manager, supervisor, mentor, or friend. Remember, support is for prevention as much as it is for crisis.

If you are worried about someone, ask if they are ok, and if you are still concerned, stay with them and connect them with other supports. If you or someone you know is at immediate risk, please contact the Emergency Services on 000.

If you feel like you are in crisis, reach out and do not be alone. If you need support, please speak to your GP about options available to you for mental health support and utilise the services listed below.

Support Act Wellbeing Helpline 1800 959 500

Dedicated First Nations Support 1800 959 500 (Option 3)

Lifeline 13 11 14

Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636

As the performing arts industry gradually continues to recover, it is critical that we continue to look after ourselves and each other. The resilience, kindness, empathy and compassion that are the hallmarks of our industry will continue to hold us in good stead as we navigate the future together.

Further reading

 Back after interval: tips and techniques for practitioners and performing arts workers

Back after interval: tips and techniques for leaders, managers and organisations

The Arts Wellbeing Collective would like to thank Dr Anastasia Hronis, Australian Institute for Human Wellness, for her assistance and support in the development of this resource.