“I’ll Teach You How to Act, and How Not to Act: Does Neurosis = Talent?”

Years ago, when I was starring in a series, being a psychotherapist was not on my radar.  But being in therapy meant I had a standing appointment.  So when one of my fellow actors volunteered that they feared entering treatment would somehow rob them of their “talent”, their “gift”, I had this thought.  Perhaps the neuroses they struggled with could be reined in, to the point where they could draw upon those idiosyncrasies that ear-marked their diagnosis (when applicable for the role); and, in turn, keep them in check when they were not appropriate.  As actors, we use parts of ourselves to create a character, when we deem those parts necessary and relevant; certain aspects of our persona we’ll save for another role (Kate in “Shrew” has little in common with Lady M in “the Scottish play”, though both are strong females).  Conversely, one doesn’t have to BE a murderer to PLAY a murderer.  But we can put ourselves in the shoes of the killer (called empathy, required in any good actor, and in any good therapist).  We can cherry pick those aspects of ourselves that relate to the role we are taking on, making it our own.

Scott Barry Kaufman’s August 12th piece in the online “Scientific American”, on Robin Williams’ comic genius, vis-a-vis a mis-perceived diagnosis from the DSM, is an attempt to separate the actor from his neurosis.  Mental health experts may proffer that highs, or manic behaviors, must have a dark side:  the lows, or a depressive downturn.  Mr. Williams’ idol, Jonathan Winters, had, in fact, spent time in a psychiatric facility.  He shared a similar off-center, highly original take on life, and created a cast of memorable characters out of that impulse.   If there was a dark side, the public didn’t see this–it was none of their (show) business.  Perhaps privately Mr. Winters struggled with this dilemma:  how does one come down from that manic high, without falling into an abyss?

Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, to name a few:  they all had their melt-downs magnified through the lens of the public eye. Non-celebrities fight their demons on a smaller stage (“all the world’s”…well, you know the rest); unless they make the headlines, because of collateral damage.

We humans have a fragile center that we can’t always protect.  Depending on our DNA (nature), and what life throws in our way (nurture), none of us knows how we would function in someone else’s shoes.

Jamie Masada, owner of LA’s Laugh Factory, who knew Robin Williams for over thirty years, said he didn’t really know him–but he loved him.  Countless interviews being replayed after his death reveal only a whiff of the “real” man behind the roles and voices; but that was his choice, his prerogative.  Hopefully he had people in his life he could dare to be “himself” with.

But sometimes many of us, fueled by fear, shame, and guilt, feel compelled to protect others from our true feelings, hiding them deep inside.  These feelings take on a dark power of their own and, unless they are exorcized, they can kill us.