Parting with a Part: How to de-role

As actors, we spend years learning how to become different people, but how do you leave a character behind when a show is over? Exploring the dark side of humanity is an actor’s privilege, but sometimes the impact of the character on your own psyche can take you by surprise.  

By Stephanie Garville

Taking care of your mental health when playing intense parts

Surveys of the acting community have found that performers are twice as likely as the general public to develop anxiety and depression. While there are many contributing factors to this statistic, the emotions actors need to access and express when playing a role (and the strong identification they can form with their characters) can cause issues. The solution is to de-role - to consciously detach from unpleasant or intense characters, in order to safeguard wellbeing and mental health.

What can I do to de-role?

Even the most prepared actors can experience negative effects when they take on intense roles. Here are a few practical and mindful ways to wind-down and get back to the real you.

Get physical

You’re probably used to warming up before a performance, but it can be just as important to warm down. Get out of your head by doing something active. Try literally shaking off the character by moving your body - flapping your arms, jumping up and down, or running on the spot. Stretch each muscle group to release tension, breathing deeply to focus your mind and let go of any negative emotions. You could even do this together as a company as a team-building exercise.

You can take this a step further if you need to by doing some exercise to get your endorphins pumping and clear your head. Just half an hour of running, swimming or aerobics can do the trick, or, if you’re short on time, you can find a space backstage to do some yoga or skip rope.

consciously letting go of a character’s costume, cosmetics or key props is a big part of de-roling successfully

If you change your natural speaking voice to suit the character, you can also try resetting your vocal chords by shouting a long, loud, ‘aah’ sound to break any affected speech patterns.

Alternatively, you can create your own ritual around stepping out of the character, using specific gestures to signal the end of your performance. Maybe choose an exit from the theatre as your ‘de-role door’. By walking through it when you leave the performance space, you are choosing to leave the character behind, ready for you to take on again when you return.

Dis-robe to de-role

Just as the right clothing can be the key to finding a character, consciously letting go of a character’s costume, cosmetics or key props is a big part of de-roling successfully. It can be tempting to try and save time by only partly changing, or leaving on a full face of make-up - especially if your character looks pretty commonplace. But, leaving the costume and the character on the rack helps to create distance between your true self and the role, symbolising your choice to separate from it. This action puts you back in control, and asserts your needs over the character’s motivations.

Some actors recommend showering straight after a performance, where possible, to physically  ‘wash off’ the character. Some say their names out loud to themselves in the mirror to strengthen their sense of self. It may also help to keep your favourite comfortable clothes at hand to change into after a performance, so you can get straight back into being the most recognisable version of yourself. Scent conjures up strong memories and associations, so it might also help to put on  your favourite perfume or aftershave after a performance. By having a ‘you-uniform’ at hand, you can slip back into your natural personality without too much effort. You could even play your favourite music or pick a theme song to signal your transformation back from your role. Whatever works best for you!

Make time for your hobbies so you can create a healthy distance from your work

Be mindful

Notice your thoughts and make sure you know what’s normal for you. If you start to feel that perhaps your feelings or reactions are more like the character’s than yours, it’s time to take action. When you recognise an impulse or thought that comes from the character, not you, try mentally putting the thought to one side and turn your attention back to what you were doing. The more your practise, the easier it will be. After a few tries, you’ll find that it becomes a habit, like any other part of your usual process.

To keep you on the right track, try to surround yourself with things that root you in your life and personality. For example, you could keep a few small keepsakes, like photos of friends and family, in your space backstage. When you leave the space at the end of the day, take in your surroundings. Using all your senses to ground you, notice all the differences that separate the outside world from the performance space.

For a proper break, indulge your other interests outside acting. Are you into baking, photography, or skating? Make time for your hobbies so you can create a healthy distance from your work.  

Working with others to de-role

A great way to de-role is by talking with your fellow actors and directors. By building time into rehearsals and post-performance reviews, you can tackle any issues as a group.

Share the experience

Take full advantage of opportunities to talk things through, not just to improve your performance, but to check-in with others about how you’re feeling. Often an outside perspective is useful to deal with any issues you might be having with your role, or separating from it. Seek out advice from experienced professionals on how they de-role - often they will have gone through similar phases in their careers and can help you figure things out. Sometimes physical contact can work wonders too. If the show deals with a lot of negative themes, like hate or cruelty, a group hug with the whole cast can help everyone reconnect by feeling the care and affection in the company.

Counselling can help you to work through difficult feelings brought up by a role, so never be afraid to try it if you need support. If you’re struggling, it may be that you are identifying character traits as your own, due to similar experiences in your own life. Taking on another personality can often highlight unresolved issues and talking therapies can help to deal with these. If in doubt, find someone you trust that you can turn to for help.

Think about others too. Is there someone in the company who might need help to deal with emotions brought up by your character’s actions? Make time to consider this and to talk it through with them. If you notice someone behaving differently off-stage, try to reach out and reassure them, showing them where they can get help if need be.

Keep it social

When it comes to de-roling, all actors are in the same boat, so why not band together to make things more fun? Agree as a company to de-role together before you leave the performance space, or plan opportunities to socialise together outside work. A simple trip out with work friends - the sillier the better - can work wonders to help you shrug off any unwanted negativity from your parts.

Make sure not to slip into using character names while you’re out - instead make a conscious decision to use only real names. Names make a real difference when it comes to identity, so ask others to introduce you to new people by your real name, not your character’s. You can even make a point of differentiating yourself from your role. For example, “I’m James and I play [name of character]. Some people worry that because I play [character] I’m a really loud guy, which is funny because I’m actually pretty shy.”

stay connected to the people that love you for the real you, not your character

Most important of all - stay connected to the people that love you for the real you, not your character. A quick call to a non-actor friend or family member can be a huge help when you’re trying to de-role. Hearing about their day can wash away all the drama of the show and act as a great way to get perspective. No-one knows you like your loved ones, so they are your secret weapon to staying grounded and staying true to yourself.