Whether onstage or backstage, you can be pretty wired after a performance. This makes total sense – you have been under pressure to get things right, dealing with small margins of error and relying on your mind and body to get the job done. Your emotional-brain reckons shows are a dangerous thing to do, even if your rational- brain doesn’t agree. As a result, you have a sympathetic nervous system response which floods your body with adrenaline and activates you so you’re ready for anything. Winding down is tough. No wonder you can’t sleep straight after a show!
Winding down tips
What your body needs is help to get the nervous system into parasympathetic mode – the ‘rest and digest’ rhythm you need for sleep. Expect to spend an hour winding down before bed – here are some techniques to try.
- Put the day to bed (so you can go to bed!) – write down (or talk out) any thoughts about the day and put them away. What went well? What would you do differently next time? Psychologists call this ‘emotional processing’ and there is evidence that 15 to 20 minutes writing in this way each day is beneficial for sleep.
- Try gentle exercises like yoga, stretching, or walking. If you are staying close to the theatre and feel safe, a walk home after the show could be a good way to start the wind down process.
- Take a shower and spend that time imagining the show and the day being washed off.
- Rest in bed – time resting is still valuable for body and mind. Search the web for a ‘progressive muscle relaxation’ and see if that works for you.
- Read, or engage with audio books, gentle music, or mindfulness.
- Limit screen use to less than two hours before bed. Light from screens can keep us awake, and certain types of screen use (social media, games) can increase brain activity and alertness. It’s hard because when you’re away, screens can help you connect with your loved ones, and entertain you when you’re wired after a show. If you must use screens prior to going to sleep, at least turn on night shift (iPhone) or use F.lux (cross platform) to adjust the screen to the warmer end of the spectrum, which is easier on the eyes and less stimulating. As with all the recommendations here, it is important to make an assessment for your individual situation.
Getting out of character
There’s an added element to the post-performance wind down for actors – separating oneself from the character. There are currently no research-based guidelines for getting out of character. The following ideas are drawn from anecdotal evidence and clinical experience:
- Connect with your body – dance, do yoga, walk, take some deep breaths, physically shake the character off – arms, legs, hands, feet.
- Create a ‘self-kit’ – a little box or bag of things that remind you of who you are outside of work. These could be keepsakes from loved ones, objects that represent your hobbies, favourite snacks.
- Pop your headphones on and crank up your favourite playlist or watch a cartoon you loved as a child.
- Carefully remove any make-up, wigs, markings etc. worn as the character.
- Change into an outfit that is comforting, or expresses your personality, or both.
- Smells can evoke powerful memories – use a particular perfume or deodorant when portraying the character, then rinse it off and use one that represents you.
- Call a loved one and find out the details of their day. The tiny details of daily life can be a good antidote to the epic arc of performance. Plus, you get to speak to someone who loves you for you.
- Notice when your mind supplies you with thoughts or suggestions that are from the character. Practise saying to yourself, “Thanks mind, but that’s (CHARACTER), that’s not me” and then turn your attention back to what you were doing in the present moment.