As an actor, you're asked to go out there night after night, show after show, portraying the entire range of human emotions-from deepest despair to the heights of happiness-and often you have go through this entire range in a two-hour period. So you can see why an actor would get all screwed up and drink a lot.
That was a paraphrased speech given by an excellent college drama professor of mine. Perhaps it's an oversimplification, but judging by the uproarious laughter from the class, it struck a chord.
Call it an occupational hazard: actors and other performing artists are required to hold their emotions dangerously close to the surface. It's an asset in their trade to be what many would call "emotionally unbalanced."
Local therapist Al Germani is a man who sees the repercussions of such emo-coasting. When the curtain goes down at the end of the day and all that's left is real life, it's Germani's job to help artists find a semblance of equilibrium.
"[Some artists think], "If I go to therapy, I won't be a good artist anymore,'" the therapist says with a touch of amazement. "It's a stereotype and it's sad."
As a musician, choreographer and director himself, Germani has a unique insight into the mind of a cliché stereotype of the "tormented artist."
"You have to be careful that you don't get caught up in the stereotypes," he emphasizes. "Maybe people who are more vibrant [and] more emotional might be drawn to theatre or the arts. Then there's the other idea that because people are in the arts, especially someone who's an actor... it's going to have you delving into yourself a lot."
A possible reason for the stereotype, Germani explains, is that actors are, by nature, more expressive than your average Joe. If your thespian pal is depressed, he or she will likely "act it out."
"If you picked 100 actors and 100 people who work at the post office, it might seem like the 100 actors are more emotionally whatever... because actors are more overt with it," Germani explains.
So the chicken-and-egg question is: does acting cause emotional struggles, or do emotional struggles cause acting? The irony is that acting can help people overcome their psychological challenges.
"If in any way your art helps you process inner conflict, that's the definition of being therapeutic," Germani says.
In order to effect life-altering changes, Germani works with patients from one to 10 years. He does not believe that antidepressants or a few sessions of HMO-prescribed therapy are the answers for creative people. Many of his patients are dealing with the repercussions of childhood abuse, and working through those issues is not as easy as popping Paxil.
"In our culture we tremendously minimize and underestimate the incidence of childhood neglect and abuse," he explains. "And we really underestimate how much it damages us. This is what most people end up dealing with when they come to therapy."
The false assumptions that surround both actors and victims of abuse can exacerbate problems.
"We have stereotypes about actors and artists, and then we have tremendous stereotypes about mental illness," Germani explains. "Actors-especially those with any degree of name recognition-might fear being labeled "crazy' or mistakenly identified as having an illness like schizophrenia."
So while the pressure and invasiveness of fame add to a person's psychological stress, they're reticent to seek help precisley because of the limelight. Germani says that the stigma of "seeking professional help" has been minimized, however, by actors who have come out of the therapy closet, like Robin Williams, Bruce Springsteen and Anthony Quinn.
"Cybil Shepard just came out and said, "Yeah, I went to therapy for 10 years."
"I do psychodynamic work and it's not fun. It's hard. It's painful. It's a hardcore technique," he says. "[Our] primary goal is the resolution of inner conflict-unconscious conflict. Nowadays a lot of HMOs and other places, they work with just symptom reduction."
Germani explains that "real artists"-those who work intuitively and creatively-are usually very averse to symptom reduction because it is directive work.
"When an artist goes to therapy, they don't want the therapist telling them what to do," he says. "I'm very non-directive. I think that's why all of these celebrities tend to end up doing this kind of work. Nobody tells Bruce Springsteen how to write a song."
By working through his patients' problems, Germani says, he is able to expand their acting potential. Often actors have certain emotional areas they "just can't go" onstage because of traumatic experiences in their own past. Their performance, then, is limited. Germani points to Robin Williams' recent turn to darker, more serious roles-such as the stalker in One Hour Photo-as an example of therapy's ability to broaden an actor's horizons.
Germani is tight-lipped, of course, on the subject celebrity clients' names and his work with them, as he is with all his clients. So while watching an actor render an emotionally difficult scene, local theatre audiences will never know if Germani was the man who helped them "go there."