Dealing with illness on stage

 3 July 2012

It’s one of the nightmares for many actors: you’re due on stage for a big opening night, but you fall ill. How are you going to get through the show?

Guy Oliver Watts is a professional actor who started his career as a musician.
Guy Oliver Watts is a professional actor who started his career as a musician.

All right on the night?

Actors talk about ‘Doctor Theatre’. It’s what they call the strange mix of adrenaline and fear of letting yourself down that can power you through regardless of how bad you feel. And everybody has heard the mantra, ‘the show must go on.’

That can make it sound easy, as though there’s only one option. But that doesn’t really prepare you for what can be an exhausting, lonely experience.

In a precarious industry, many actors don’t like to acknowledge health problems. So it can be hard to find out how others dealt with their problems.

Here are two stories from actors who have had health issues whilst working. They talk candidly about some of the problems they encountered and some of their solutions.

Dealing with sudden illness

Guy Oliver Watts was away on tour playing Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

"We were in Colorado, playing a town near Aspen. I was feeling breathless in the car on the way and a bit panicky. By the half, I’d thrown up already and I still wasn’t sure what exactly was going on."

"There were no understudies, so there was nothing else for it. I went on."

No Puck would mean no show, essentially, so Guy had to decide what he was going to do.

"There were no understudies, so there was nothing else for it. It was up to me. Had I not gone on the show wouldn’t have gone up! Not to mention a minefield of contractual problems for the producers. So I went on."

It turned out Guy was suffering from altitude sickness. He was one of the unlucky few who can’t ascend to great heights quickly, as their bodies can’t adapt fast enough to thinner air.

Luckily, the crew at the theatre knew what to look for and had oxygen cylinders standing by in the wings.

"It was absolutely God-awful, one of the worst times of my life! I’d thrown up twice more before the curtain went up. I managed to do the opening soliloquy, I went off, vomited into a bucket again, had some oxygen, came back on again, did the next scene and so on."

"I managed the opening soliloquy, went off, vomited into a bucket again, had some oxygen, came back on again, did the next scene and so on."

Worse, Guy’s employers weren’t especially grateful. They called him a few days later to thank him. But on the night, it was a different story.

"I felt under enormous pressure to go on. I felt very alone, and slightly friendless had I actually decided that I couldn’t cope with it.

"I suppose I can look back with some sense of achievement, but I don’t really know whether it was worth it or not."

Performing with pain

'John' (a pseudonym) felt fine when he started work at regional theatre in the UK. He’d got a little back pain, as though he’d pulled something at the gym, but it was nothing he was worried about. That was just the beginning.  

"Almost immediately starting rehearsals, I started to notice that my movement was limited in a lot more ways than I anticipated.

"I was a strong physical person, and it was a big part of who I was as a performer. To have that taken away from me was the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. Absolutely.

"Because I was at the beginning of my first major acting job – in terms of theatre certainly – I started to think I wasn’t capable of fulfilling it.’

Things got worse over the summer, to a point where he was in constant agony and had real trouble moving. This meant having to ask for time out of rehearsal.

Asking for time off work for sickness in other careers can be hard enough. It can be even more so as an actor.

"I was very aware when you’re rehearsing a play, there are no gaps, there are no holidays. Because acting work is so scarce, you want them to know that you’re grateful for being there.

"And yet I had to ask, ‘could I have this morning off, I need to go to the doctor.’ A credit to my employers, they were understanding. They made it clear that it was difficult for them, but they accommodated it."

Getting support from your employer

John discovered he had an inflammatory joint condition. It would be with him for life. He needed to wait for treatment on the NHS. In the meantime, the show was opening. He was really struggling to perform through his pain. Eventually, he realised he had to explain everything to his employers.

"Rather than just run off and cast somebody else, they called me in. And they were more than kind. I was expecting them to fire me. But they wanted to keep me on, and they got somebody else in, to understudy me. He was going to stay up there for a shadowing period, so we could see how I did."

"When you’re rehearsing a play, there are no gaps, there are no holidays."

That was the perfect decision for John. He knew that he had a safety net to rely on if he did have to miss a show. It also provided a huge psychological motivation for him to keep going!

"More than anything, the understudy's presence made me a hundred percent sure he wasn’t going to go on stage. It just wasn’t going to happen. I’d go on there dead!"

Thankfully, it never came to that! The treatment started working well, and his condition is now completely under control.

Advice for dealing with health issues

John had excellent employers, who were very supportive. He now feels he should have spoken to them sooner. 

"Had it happened to me now, I would have been more open about it earlier. It’s a burden to carry that secret.

"More often than not, if someone has hired you, you’ve already beaten quite a lot of people to the role. They take a lot of pride in you. So have faith in that.’

Guy wasn’t quite as lucky with the support he got. As soon as he was closer to sea-level again, a few nights later, he was fine. But he’s aware that isn’t always the case. He feels you must have the final say on what you think you can actually cope with.

"I think you owe it to yourself and to your career to ask yourself a very serious question and be honest with yourself.

"Could this harm me in the long term or have a detrimental effect on my career? If the answer is yes, then you absolutely must be brave enough to say, 'no, I can’t do it.’"

Equity, the actors’ union, is an excellent place for more support and advice regarding illness in the workplace. 020 7379 6000 is their general enquiries line, or you can email questions to [email protected].


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