How to Protect Your Actor Psyche

Illustration by Nick Bertozzi

By Marci Liroff

When I’m coaching actors for an emotional scene we often have to dig deep into memories that are extremely painful. Many times, my clients are terrified to open that part of their psyche for fear that they won’t be able to close that can of worms.

When an actor is doing a highly emotional scene and has to dig deep, how do they keep themselves in a safe place psychologically so that they’re not walking around like an open wound?

I’ve asked some of my colleagues to weigh in.

HOWARD FINE (acting teacher and coach)

Actors need an exit strategy. They tend to spend all of their energy on preparation to get in, but getting out is equally important and essential for mental health.

This could include anything that brings happiness and peace to the individual artist. In the same way that an actor learns to focus on triggers to produce unpleasant emotions, they need to have a process that I call returning to the light. I teach my students that emotional recall also includes experiences of love and joy. The actor need a complete tool box of positive and negative experiences to tap into.

CRAIG WALLACE (acting teacher and coach)

My advice to actors is to explore the emotion in the body. Emotions live in the body – this is where you feel. Sit very quietly with the body and feel very specifically where the emotion is affecting you – not any holding, tightening, expanding, notice the breath. The breath is the loudest bodily indicator of how we are feeling. Feel the emotion very specifically in the body and you’ll find the truth in a safe and enlightening way. And once it’s stored in the body it’s there for you when you need it.

Dredging up painful memories in the mind feels very unsafe and the mind is there to keep you safe. This becomes a very long and frustrating process. It is also highly unreliable and the actor will often find that when performance/audition time comes, the emotion isn’t there because the frontal lobe, which has to do with logic and safety, has taken over and shut down the risky emotions. The body has no such agenda.


It is an odd gift that actors’ wounds have purpose, they are the colors we have and we get to use them. Our suffering and understanding of human frailty is how we create characters and we all have life experiences to draw on.

That is the great part about being an older actor, I have lived longer and I understand more about life. For me it is a relief that I can use what I understand on a deep soul level and in a way, it gives me a place to release pain.

Being vulnerable is a part of the process and I want to tap into what I know and give it up. It’s ok to feel lost and uncomfortable, what matters is that the person you create touches people.

I would rather feel lonely while I am shooting than to try to protect myself. It is hard to find a role that calls for deep experiences and we all know that given the chance to create a complex character is rare and beautiful.

I never need to stay in character, but if I have to be quiet and alone to stay focused I do. I guess I welcome the opportunity to feel wounded because it means I have a canvas to paint on and that is a dream come true.

JEFFREY MARCUS (acting teacher, coach and media coach)

I find wardrobe to be very helpful in ‘taking on, and taking off’ a character and their emotional baggage.  Even if you don’t change from top to bottom, just changing a shirt or shoes can make a huge difference.

Whenever emotions that can overwhelm you arise after an audition or performance, make sure you wash your hands and have a drink of water before getting in your car. Both of these are grounding and put you back in your body.

By building in ‘emotional memories’ of the character, rather than just culling from your own trauma – it becomes much easier to move effortless between perceived reality and imagined reality. My favorite go-to, if you’ve done the work well – treat yourself to a treat (my go-to is dark chocolate).

If using music to assist you in getting into the emotional space, use it to also get you out of it.


You have to balance out the extremes. If you’re screaming and crying for your job that day you have to balance it out when you get home or in your trailer; Watch a funny movie, have your favorite snack, sing your most happy song, do some yoga. Find that other extreme.

Click here for a recent article about Lily

Make sure to check out my new online course “How To Audition For Film and Television: Audition Bootcamp”. You can view it on your laptop or your mobile device and your subscription gives you lifetime viewing privileges for this course. I’ll be adding lectures throughout the year.

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Is Your Acting Teacher Making You Sick? – Part 3


By Marci Liroff

In my May 29 and June 12 columns, I spoke to some acting teachers and coaches about some of the horror stories I’ve been hearing from actors about their classes. But what happens to these actors when they finally come to the realization that those classes are hurting them? How would other teachers describe these walking wounded?

Acting coach Jeffrey Marcus responded, “For me, the walking wounded are the people who come to me depleted of all their self-esteem and confidence from, sometimes, a word said or a hope or dream dashed by their last teacher. Actors are sensitive. When they put their trust in a teacher, pay them their hard-earned dollars, pour their heart and soul into the work, and then get trashed because the teacher taught a famous actor who became a star…they must know.”

“There is a teacher in town…and I can always tell from the dead look in their ex-students’ eyes where they just studied when they come to me.”
Jeffrey Marcus

With so much bad behavior running rampant among teachers, what kinds of relationships are healthy? Marcus gave a thoughtful reply, saying, “It is my job to be of service. I am there to challenge, support, encourage, enlighten, and expand limitations. I am there to send them out with more joy and confidence with which to face the travails of the industry. Hollywood is tough. Class should be a safe haven from which to drink from the well and get replenished for the week ahead.”

“Acting can be a brutally difficult craft,” actor and licensed marriage and family therapist Julie Carmen told me. “Coddling students can set them up for a crash when the business rejects them, but abusing, humiliating, ridiculing, and insulting an acting student is totally unethical, dangerous, and counterproductive. Ideally, actors grow when they join companies, attend class daily, and do their inner work to discover the range of their personal palette. The most valuable trait is courage. Nurturing, attunement, and secure relationships breed courage.”

As for his part, actor and teacher Jack Plotnick thinks teachers and therapists aren’t that different. “I believe that an acting teacher should have the same relationship that therapists have with their clients,” he says. “I try to create a safe space where they never feel judged. I make sure that no one but me comments on their performance. I am always sharing with them that it doesn’t matter what I think about their performance. What matters is what they think. Acting runs on ‘empathy,’ which means that an audience can only experience what you experience. That’s why I tell actors they must be selfish and only interested in their own experience in the scene. Because any part of them that is trying to impress the teacher or deliver a good product is a part of them that is not having a rich emotional experience, thereby giving the audience a rich emotional experience.”

What about you? Have you ever experienced what you’d call inappropriate or cult leader behavior from your acting teacher? Why did you stay in the class?

Make sure to check out my new online course “How To Audition For Film and Television: Audition Bootcamp”. You can view it on your laptop or your mobile device and your subscription gives you lifetime viewing privileges for this course. I’ll be adding lectures throughout the year.

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Is Your Acting Class Abusive?


By Marci Liroff

In my last blog “Is Your Acting Teacher Making You Sick?”, I wrote about the cult of acting teachers and how actors can sometimes be swept up in their bad behavior. I’m gathering these stories to shine a light on this culpable behavior and to clarify what is healthy and what is abuse. I know this goes on in every industry, but it’s particularly heartbreaking when it’s in a situation like an acting class, which should be a safe place to learn and make mistakes. Actor and acting coach Jack Plotnick has another story.

“One actor did a scene and the teacher said the girl could not train with her until she got some therapy from the teacher’s sister, who is a therapist!” he says. “She said that the teacher keeps the students coming by instilling the idea in them that they are not ready and are not good enough yet. She felt that this played into her subconscious gluttony for punishment, which I think a lot of actors have because they are unconsciously punishing themselves for being artists in a world that does not respect artists and instead worships business.”

Plotnick has also heard of a gay actor being told that if he wanted to work he would need to drop all of his gay friends and only hang out with straight men. And according to Plotnick, one teacher “allows her students to comment on other students’ work, and even leaves them alone to run the scene in front of their peers and lets their peers give them feedback. These actors are paying out the  nose and she isn’t even at the class! As soon as I began coaching actors I started hearing horror stories of the bad training and abuse that can happen in acting classes. And the sad thing is that most of the worst stories came from the  students of the most prominent teachers.”

I’m mystified by this.

Why would actors continue to attend classes with—and pay great sums of money to—these kinds of teachers?

Plotnick had a thought-provoking take on this.

“The issue is that actors usually leave an abusive or unhelpful class feeling like the problem is them and not the teacher,” he says. ”Actors want to feel that they are ‘working’ at their craft. Perhaps they want to prove to their family that they are not ‘lazy’ or ‘irresponsible,’ or perhaps they have bought into the belief that classes lead to bookings. I believe in working at my craft as well, but for me, that always meant to be acting as much and as often as I could. And since I love acting, it never felt like work. And the best part is that whenever I would put up a play or a sketch show, some wonderful job would be delivered to me. I became a magnet for the work instead of chasing after it.”

Acting teacher and coach Jeffrey Marcus had an interesting response. “The only reasons I can think of are that some people want to recreate the abusive relationships that they had with their mentors-parents. The ‘no pain, no gain’ mentality: If it ain’t hurtin’, it isn’t making you grow. It’s very sad to me. In this town, the buzz is everything. When a teacher gets hot, they start believing their press, too. What started out as a calling to assist becomes an ego-driven vehicle to build up their own crumbling self-esteem. Any teacher who uses their power to seduce their students, whether sexually or to create a social network, is out of integrity.”

Check out Part 3 of this exposé June 26, when I talk about the healthy relationship you should seek from your acting teacher.

What about you? Why do you stay in class if it isn’t helping you?

Make sure to check out my new online course “How To Audition For Film and Television: Audition Bootcamp”. You can view it on your laptop or your mobile device and your subscription gives you lifetime viewing privileges for this course. I’ll be adding lectures throughout the year.

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Click to Tweet: ‘Is Your Acting Class Abusive?’ @marciliroff shines a light on this nasty phenom
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