The Actors’ Church promotes mental health care for performers
Those who have been to Covent Garden in London are sure to have seen the tall columns of St. Paul’s Church in front of which there is always a crowd watching street performers. Jugglers and acrobats keep the spectators, mostly families with children, enthralled. Those who are not so young may recognise the place made famous by the opening scenes of My Fair Lady. But no one usually bothers to see the church which is behind those impressive columns, the main entrance of which is from the opposite end and the gate is so simple that it is easy to miss it.
This church is also known as The Actors’ Church, and it was here that a special event was held in the month of May this year where Stephen Fry was the main speaker. A panel discussion was held to create awareness about mental health which was followed by a Q and A with the actor. Stephen Fry was there well before time but the public was not allowed to take photos as this gathering was for a serious purpose. He spoke about mental health in general and said, “The suffering of the mind is as painful as the suffering of the body. The only difference is that it is not visible to others.”
Stephen Fry had been chosen to speak on this occasion and to open the discussion because he was himself a victim of mental health problems. He connected immediately with his audience when he spoke about his bipolar disorder which had been the source of so much suffering for him. He mentioned that now help was at hand because the UK was developing a new branch of medicine – the Performing Arts Medicine.
Just as there is a Sports Medicine for sports injuries there is now Performing Arts Medicine for the treatment of all physical and psychological disorders among those who practice any form of the performing arts. Actors, singers, dancers, musicians and others can now go to specialists who can give them medical help specially designed for their needs.
Those who perform on stage or on the screen have very particular psychological problems which often turn into physical ailments. Performers suffer from anxiety coming from the lack of security in their profession. Also, their work and earnings depend on their physical appearance and with time as their bodies change they find it hard to get work. That leads to low self-esteem and often to depression. Sometimes the negative roles that actors play affect them psychologically because they try to get under the skin of the characters they are playing. Performing Arts Medicine will teach practitioners how to understand and treat this kind of suffering.
We spectators never see the psychological suffering of those who entertain us, make us laugh, cry and think. The mental health issues of actors and singers become the stuff with which gossip magazines fill their pages. Little do we realise that just as an artist uses brushes and a canvass to express himself actors and other performers use their own body, mind and emotions as their instruments of work and self-expression.
The Actors’ Church has a special connection with actors because the whole area of Covent Garden is dotted with theatres, big and small and The Royal Opera House is within the Covent Garden complex. Actors have been praying there for more than 300 years and some actors are also buried in the churchyard. Once in a while one can catch a wedding of an actor or an actress. Inside the church there are commemorative plaques to well-known actors, such as Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward and Vivien Leigh. In summer plays are staged in the garden of The Actors’ Church.
On certain Sundays of the year special services are held where those in the gathering pray for the well-being of all those who are in any way connected with the stage and screen. No one is forgotten, not even the wig-makers and the sound engineers. The church gives special attention to the spiritual needs of performers as creative people have a particular need for reassurance, solace and inner guidance.