restricted access The Impact of Acting on Student Actors: Boundary Blurring, Growth, and Emotional Distress
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The Impact of Acting on Student Actors:
Boundary Blurring, Growth,and Emotional Distress

In “A Crucible for Actors: Questions of Directorial Ethics,” which appeared in the first issue of Theatre Topics, Suzanne Burgoyne posed the question of what impact acting may have on student performers’ personal lives. The article resulted from her own experience directing The Crucible, in which she observed what she called “psychological fall-out” from the show, including actors’ reported nightmares. Since nothing in her training had warned her that acting might result in student emotional distress—much less prepared her to deal with it—she began researching the impact of acting on performers. She found that, though some theatre educators seemed aware of the issue, little research had been done. Indeed, Richard Schechner contends that theatre scholars have traditionally focused their attention on the production itself and that “aftermath,” which he defines as “the long-term consequences or follow through,” is the least studied aspect of performance (19).

Seeking a research methodology that would allow her to begin to understand and document the impact of acting, Burgoyne contacted Karen Poulin, a psychologist with expertise in a qualitative methodology known as grounded theory. Burgoyne and Poulin brought together backgrounds in theatre and counseling psychology to collaborate on a study. 1 Burgoyne joined Poulin’s research group to learn grounded theory; Poulin took an acting class and served as a consultant on several productions.

Our review of the (scanty) literature dealing with the impact of acting revealed that a voice conspicuously underrepresented was that of the university student actor. In our study, we decided to allow this voice to be heard. In this article, we present the theory emerging from our study, in which we conducted and analyzed in-depth interviews with fifteen student actors. 2 The theory suggests that the blurring of boundaries between actor and character may be a significant condition for impact, and that the actor’s ability to control that blurring may influence whether an acting experience leads to growth or emotional distress. Since some inside-out approaches to acting encourage the actor to use her own personal experience in building a character, thus facilitating boundary blurring, this theory has major implications for theatre pedagogy. 3 [End Page 157]

While some of our interviewees have learned through experience that boundary blurring may become problematic, none of them reported having been taught boundary management. Liz, a doctoral student who has studied in several theatre programs, felt that “the psychological aspects of acting” are not addressed systematically in actor training:

In theory, we’re supposed to learn this in class, but it’s really not what you get taught even when you’re taught Stanislavsky method or Lee Strasberg or any of that stuff. You’re just really not taught how to attune yourself psychologically and how to get back out of that state. It just . . . sort of happens for most people, and, quite frankly, there are a lot of actors I know who can’t get out of roles, who step into a part once they’re cast and . . . whenever the show ends, that’s when they start losing the personality aspects of their character in their daily lives.

Awareness of boundary blurring appears to be a first step for students to develop strategies for boundary management. Although teachers may understand that acting can have psychological side-effects, our interviews reveal that young actors may be unaware of that possibility until they have an emotionally distressing experience. On the basis of the theory emerging from this study, we suggest that the theatre profession address boundary management as an aspect of acting pedagogy.


A brief explanation of our methodology, known as grounded dimensional analysis (a form of grounded theory), is first necessary to show how we have developed the theory we propose here. 4 Like other qualitative approaches to social science research, grounded theory is used to investigate subjective experience, as opposed to quantitative approaches, which investigate more objective matters. The goal of dimensional analysis is to generate theory about a complex phenomenon from the point of view of the participants. Prior to beginning the...