Tisch Drama students call for cooling off exercises in acting classes

Miller: A lot of people get naked. It’s just like a thing in Meisner. People get competitive I feel, at least in my group, we did, they get more intense emotionally and physically. 

WSN: Dorothea Miller is a drama senior at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. After an exhausting and chaotic freshman year experience, Miller turned to mental health professionals for the first time in her life.

Miller: I was suicidal during that time. And it was probably, it was one of the hardest times of my life. And so I ended up seeing a psychiatrist and a therapist too. And I was on medication and still am. Go Prozac. 

WSN: Tisch Drama is one of the most prestigious acting programs in the world, producing a roster of star-studded alum like Elizabeth Olsen, Kristen Bell and Adam Sandler. But is NYU Tisch irresponsibly pushing students to emotionally and physically vulnerable positions in the name of artistic excellence? Miller recalls an acting exercise on emotional preparation. 

Miller: The whole point of it was to elicit sadness, and everyone was like, ‘got to cry, got to cry, got to cry, got to cry. Yes, I cried. I got an A.’ So it was this whole thing, and it was so fucked up at one point because I just felt like I was forcing my body to cry.

WSN: An inevitable part of acting is expressing difficult emotions. NYU adjunct acting professor Billy Griffin Jr. shares how Tisch faculty allow students to set their own boundaries with challenging material. 

Griffin Jr.: From what I’ve seen, not only faculty, but administration is making great efforts to make sure that folks feel safe and included and that there is space for dialogue, and that they don’t have to… You know, nobody needs to work on something they don’t want to work on. Nobody needs to watch somebody else work on something they don’t want to watch, you know. There’s all kinds of material out there that can be very difficult, triggering, upsetting for folks. 

Tarczy-Hornoch: I think a lot of people are trying. I think people are making efforts, but I don’t think it’s, like, the same effort across the board.

WSN: Sofia Tarczy-Hornoch is also a senior in Tisch Drama. They revealed obstacles to speaking up about uncomfortable roles and classroom situations. 

Tarczy-Hornoch: There’s such a stereotype about acting training and the crazy, the crazy teachers and the crazy things that happen. And I think as a first-year going into it, you have no idea what’s normal, what is okay. There would be moments where sometimes I’d be like, I don’t, I don’t know if this feels right, but I don’t know enough about acting school to make that call. And I don’t feel like I know enough to be able to say anything about that because it doesn’t feel right, but maybe that’s how it is. Like, maybe I just need to deal with that on my own. And I think it’s, again, the culture of like if people don’t speak up about it, other people don’t know that they’re not comfortable with it. That they’re not the only ones who feel that way. 

WSN: While some students struggle with emotional boundaries, some others, like Tisch Drama junior Peter Xiao, don’t view attachment as a problem. 

Xiao: Because I don’t want the emotional aspect to affect me, to affect the Peter in real life. So, you know, just make the boundary clear. You should not be panicked if you don’t want to do it. At least a boundary I was told was, if you don’t want to do it, don’t do it. Don’t force yourself. Don’t force yourself to do it. And if you feel like there is a stretch, you can do a stretch, then go for it. It basically just depends on first, your impulse, second, your comfortability, third, your intention. Ultimately, it’s the actor’s choice to reach to a place or not. 

[Vocal Warm-up Sound] 

WSN: Although Xiao never struggled with being too attached to emotions, he worries about his peers. 

Xiao: I mean, I’ve witnessed some of my friends were like in that breaking spot, but then I don’t know if they actually received help or not.

WSN: Do you think that the instructors spent enough time, or any time at all, kind of helping you after a really emotionally trying exercise? 

Miller: Yeah, not enough time. There was… I just remember watching some of my friends go up, and they were in tears. Like dry heaving. And then my teacher would be like, ‘Okay, like, nice.’ Like, ‘Come down from that. Nice. Nice. Alright.’ And then we take a moment, and it’d probably be like 20 seconds. It would be different if there was an exercise to kind of do. But there wasn’t. 

WSN: The Tisch Drama Department did not wish to comment on this subject. Even for established actors, effective emotional regulation can be difficult. Award-winning actors like Daniel Day-Lewis, Heath Ledger and Dakota Johnson have all spoken about how challenging roles have negatively impacted their mental health. 

WSN: To produce successful actors for a demanding industry, Tarczy-Hornoch believes that NYU Tisch must teach students to better handle emotionally challenging roles. 

Tarczy-Hornoch: I think it could be really helpful to, I don’t know, somehow enforce that every studio includes in your primary training talking about how to cool down. Also, I’ve had, I’ve had some teachers that are good about this, especially one of my instructors in [the Experimental Theatre Wing], but incorporating into class both time to cool off but also education about how to cool off. So I think part of it is very literally building it into the curriculum and the schedule of a class, so that there’s structural support there.


Contact Jennifer Ren at [email protected]