Dying on stage, drugs and touring: Lex Marinos on the dark side of acting

Lex Marinos has been a working actor for almost half a century, across theatre and TV. He reflects on this extraordinary career in his new Platform Paper, The Jobbing Actor: Rules of Engagement, released today by Currency House

While the following excerpt is a little on the bleak side, tackling the challenges of life as an actor, the paper itself has plenty of enthusiasm for the craft and rewards of such a career.

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As one of my colleagues is fond of saying, ‘I can teach you to act, but I can’t teach you how to be an actor.’

Touring

Actors have always been itinerant workers. That hasn’t changed, if anything modern transport has increased our itinerancy. It’s one of the things that attracted me to acting: the opportunity to experience different theatres in different towns and cities and countries. However, touring can be difficult and hazardous. The universal rule applies: what happens on tour stays on tour. What happens on tour is sometimes exhilarating, frequently hilarious, usually unhealthy, often immoral, occasionally illegal, and intermittently boring. Actors die on tour, go mad, drink too much, smoke too much, and eat poorly. Romances bloom and feuds escalate, lifelong friendships are forged, secrets are shared. You wear the same clothes, watch meaningless television, and become accustomed to soft mattresses and hard pillows. You need to be resilient.

I try to force some discipline onto the chaos. If I’m anywhere for longer than a week, I unpack the mini-bar and give it back to housekeeping, not so much to remove the temptation as to fill the fridge with fruit and food and snacks. Electronic devices ensure I have plenty of books. Otherwise I’m an excellent tourist, always happy to visit galleries and museums, join in company events or remain comfortable on my own. I have to avoid being idle, because that’s when I make poor choices.

Alcohol

Grog and actors have been inseparable since they were first introduced to one another. Many an actor has been, to use John Clarke’s whimsical phrase, ‘a martyr to the turps’. The ancient Greek performances were in honour of the god of wine, revelry and fertility. It’s safe to assume that Thespis and all the thespians after him, took their curtain call, divested themselves of robes and masks, put on a party frock and headed for the bar, eager to allow their admirers to buy drinks for them.

According to The Australian ActorsWellbeing Study:

Actors use alcohol at levels well above the World Health Organisation guidelines for healthy consumption. Male actors consume alcohol at levels that are significantly higher than their female counterparts; however, both males and females report alcohol consumption at potentially harmful levels. This finding is consistent with actors’ reports, in our survey, of their reliance on alcohol as a means with which to both ‘cool down’ after performance and to cope with the more acute effects of demanding roles. It also appears that much of the drinking is associated with forms of sociality linked to working in this field.

A friend, an eminent television and theatre producer/ director, told me of a recent occasion when a young actress, obviously distressed, told him that she didn’t ‘feel safe’ sharing a scene with a certain actor, she was afraid he was drunk. My friend acted swiftly and confronted the young man, who said he was just acting drunk, exploring the character. Peace and safety were restored and the scene was shot. My friend had acted responsibly and appropriately. However, he later confessed that he had not been as truthful as he might have: he should have advised the young woman that if she wanted a career, she must learn how to work with drunks.

I admit to performing drunk a couple of times in my early days, indeed in one theatre-restaurant show in Sydney in the 1970s the whole cast was pissed. But I didn’t enjoy it. I felt guilty that I had let people down, especially the audience. I don’t like working with drunks—they are slow, lines get lost, props are fumbled, scenes lose rhythm and shape, the story becomes fragmented and obscure. Meaning is a casualty. I would like to think we could achieve a paradigm shift if we provided young actors with resilience training, but I’m sceptical.

Of course, many actors don’t drink and many others drink responsibly and moderately. Needless to say, there are lots of funny stories about drunken actors. My favourite concerns the English actor Wilfred Lawson, who turned up for a matinee performance and sat in the audience. At a certain point he nudged the person beside him and declared joyously, ‘This is where I come on.’ God love him, he was there to watch himself. An existential scene worthy of Beckett.              

Drugs

The Australian ActorsWellbeing Study also reported that:

about 80 per cent of the actors in this study are active users of either legal or illegal drugs […] This suggests, perhaps, that actors actively self-medicate in response to both the general, long-term pressures of their work and lives, and the acute burdens of demanding roles.

And then there’s the recreational use of drugs. I confess to being a user, part of the 80 per cent, and once performed stoned. It was frightening. I was loud and slow and paranoid. I hated being out of control. I never did it again. But once the show is over, that’s another matter. I don’t care what anybody does in the privacy of their own home, so long as they hurt no one and show up fit to work the next day. Too many actors have developed fatal addictions, some have overdosed, and others have had psychotic episodes and/or developed mental disorders that left them incapable of working. The most horrendous case I can recall concerned a handsome, young leading man, who, at the height of the psychedelic era had a particularly bad acid trip, during which he chopped off his own foot. Then there was the despicable film director who encouraged his actors to try heroin so they could be more authentic in their roles. This led to a fourteen-year addiction for one of my friends.

Drugs highlight one of the great paradoxes of our business. Actors are encouraged and rewarded for taking artistic risks. We love actors who bring a touch of danger to their work. Stella Adler summed it up when she stated: ‘Actors need a kind of aggression, a kind of inner force. Don’t be only one-sided—sweet, nice, good. Get rid of being average. Find the killer in you.’ But is it reasonable to expect risk-taking to have an on/off switch and not infiltrate our personal life?

When I was young and touring, the first thing I packed was my drugs. Now, it’s my medication. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. I remember one incident fondly. It was in Melbourne at the APG in the 1970s. The members of the collective belonged to one of two groups, the drinkers and the smokers, although many held dual membership. There was a sub-group of heroin users who kept pilfering the kitchen spoons whenever they needed a fix. The collective was annoyed at this drain on resources and came up with the solution: they drilled a hole in each of them.

Health

Both physical and mental health are a major concern for the jobbing actor, since our body, voice and mind are our tools of trade and we need to keep them in good order. The show must go on, and it does. In the commercial theatre there are understudies, but no such luxury exists in the non-commercial theatre. If an actor can’t perform, then a replacement is quickly found even if it means performing book-in-hand. Audiences are usually understanding and generous. What to you and me is a common cold is a loss of earnings for a voice/over artist. Back pain can end a dancer’s career. Singers lose their voice and along with it their livelihood. Actors above all must have stamina and a high threshold for pain. I’ve performed variously with broken bones, inflamed vertebra, nosebleeds, influenza, depression, dysentery, nausea, and leukaemia. Once in Canberra I contracted Bell’s palsy, which made one side of my face numb and drooping. (I maintained the palsy had hung around after a season by the Bell Shakespeare Co., and I had caught it when I warmed up with ‘To be or not to be.’) I slurred and dribbled my way through the show like a drunk.

The only performance I’ve missed was in Perth when I had the heart attack. I was back the next night with two stents and a comfy chair. The show must go on. I’m not touting for your sympathy. I mention it because most actors after a number of years would boast a similar medical history. I’ve seen actors collapse, vomit, shit themselves, piss themselves, and still complete the show. It’s not uncommon for actors to die on, or just off, stage, on a film set or in a television studio. If that sounds unlikely, put ‘actors die on stage’ into your search engine and marvel at the results. Stage combat, physical scenes, stunts, hazardous sets and inappropriate costumes can all lead to physical injury, no matter how safely they may have been choreographed or constructed. Incidentally, there are not many things funnier than seeing a dancer pull a hamstring. I know I shouldn’t laugh, but I defy anyone not to.

More alarming are the mental health issues that bedevil actors. Another recent survey discovered that performers experience depression five times higher than the general population; moderate-severe anxiety ten times higher; suicide twice as much; suicide ideation 5–7 times higher; sleep disorders seven times greater.

I’m disturbed by the number of students I meet who are on anti-depressants or similar treatment for mental disorders. I can understand it to an extent. Today they come into a world rife with war, terrorism, tyranny, unemployment, poverty, injustice, climate change and social media. A more unstable world than the one in which I grew up. And then they choose a profession that exacerbates those feelings of instability within an industry that contains, the survey notes, ‘a powerful, negative culture […] including a toxic, bruising work environment; extreme competition; bullying; sexual assault; sexism and racism.’ If they can gain employment, most (63%) will earn less than the Australian National Minimum Wage of $34,112.18

I don’t have figures for the incidence of sexually-transmitted diseases, but would confidently wager that it is also several times higher than the national average. We should pause to remember the generation that was decimated by the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 90s. The Grim Reaper blighted all levels of society, but he stayed too long in showbiz.

So what can be done? Resilience training is becoming more acknowledged as a necessary component of actor training. For the ability to identify stress and anxiety, and to help creative artists manage the impact of these conditions, this knowledge is vitally important. Various exercises and practices are being formulated for groups and/or individuals to enable them to create a healthier work environment. We must become better at it and more diligent as we mentor and inform our heirs, the new links in our chain. The larger companies are starting to demonstrate an awareness of it at an administrative level, and this needs to infiltrate the organisation. The large subsidised companies must be encouraged to provide resilience skills and counselling to the actors they employ. The smaller, independent companies will have to do whatever they can without resources.

This is an extract from Platform Papers No. 53, The Jobbing Actor: Rules of Engagement by Lex Marinos, launched this week by Currency House and available at currencyhouse.org.au 

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Featured image by Greer Versteeg

5 responses to “Dying on stage, drugs and touring: Lex Marinos on the dark side of acting

  1. A great read Lex but also a huge reminder of the responsibilty to nuture,inform,share,be honest and not sugar coat the so called glamour of being a performer…
    Hamstring dancer on POT OF GOLD!!! That will NEVER go away .
    Much love,
    Caroline MOONEY

  2. Great article Lex. While no longer in the industry I did work it for 20 years. In many ways I was lucky and generally avoided the hard core mainstream, but underwent all of the jobbing actor issues you have raised. I’ve seen drunken touring directors ram cars into their billet’s houses, been threatened by a director on tour who insisted I put all the lights back up for the forthcoming performance when we were bumping out at 11 at night, was in an MTC van driven by a drunken actor that hit the backstage door of Russell Street Theatre during a matinee, been thrown out of pubs and caravan parks and attacked in country towns for being different. I was taught to self-medicate by my more experienced colleagues in my early touring days, learned where to drink to make or meet contacts, known the depression and at times despair on relying on Silver Top Taxis for a living and being too buggered to attend auditions.
    What a glamorous life …. money for nothing and your chicks for free. I’ve had friends destroyed by the industry, many just spat out never to work in their chosen field again. I was lucky enough to choose to leave.
    Resilience training and care for mental well-being is a must for every young actor learing or entering the industry, and care for the young and vulnerable and talented is a Duty of Care all companies, managements, agents, fellow artists and indeed audience need to embrace.

  3. A good read, but it perpetuates the comforting fiction that alcohol is not a drug—‘I don’t do drugs; I get pissed instead!’.

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