Performers rebound creatively from injury

For several weeks in November 2001, actor Peter Anderson spent half an hour each day hanging 10 feet in the air at the end of a thick black rope. He was attached to the rope by a harness that caused him a great deal of pain in his lower back. But his character was supposed to be floating effortlessly through a dream world, so he didn't show his pain, even though it was sometimes so intense that he cried silently behind his mask.

It's hard to say whether Anderson's experience is a common one, because the incidence of injury among theatre performers hasn't been very well documented to date. However, an injury-prevention manual published by Safety & Health in Arts Production & Entertainment, a local nonprofit, cites research-including a 1989 study published by the British Medical Journal, a 1992 study published by the American Journal of Sports Medicine, and a 1994 study published by the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy-that 60 to 80 percent of dancers studied had experienced a significant injury. A similar manual for musicians published by SHAPE suggests approximately half of musicians studied had experienced performance-related health problems-this based on research including a 1989 study published by Canadian Family Physician, a 1986 study published in Medical Problems of Performing Artists, and a 1998 study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

One thing is true across all disciplines of the performing arts: injured performers find themselves in a uniquely challenging situation, one that can be traumatic but also, for performers like Anderson, transformative.

However, the practical difficulties of the injury create a backdrop of financial urgency.

"Our momentum is everything, it keeps the company going," says choreographer and dancer Noam Gagnon, cofounder of the Holy Body Tattoo, in an interview at his Vancouver studio. "Being behind schedule or not being at the right festival at the right time [due to an injury]-all this is costly to the momentum and costly in the long run."

Fortunately, performing artists in B.C. are often eligible for financial compensation and coverage of medical expenses through the Workers' Compensation Board or (for actors and dancers) the Canadian Actors' Equity Association. However in both cases, there are limitations on the extent of coverage, as well as the circumstances under which artists are eligible. For performers who aren't covered adequately by either organization, injury may represent a significant financial hardship.

Even if the artist has access to financial support, injury poses significant psychological challenges. Dr. Kate Hays, a psychologist whose private practice serves athletes and performing artists in Toronto, describes the depth to which performers may be affected by injury.

"Very often, a performing artist's identity and sense of self is directly tied to their profession. So if one is unable to work in one's profession, then there's a whole lot of concern about 'Who am I, what is my purpose in being?' It can lead to some very deep, existential questions," Hays says on the line from Toronto.

At the same time, injured performers must cope with physical pain, the frustrations of temporary disability, and the uncertainties of the recovery process. When the bulged disc in Anderson's back became herniated (making performance impossible), his relief at no longer having to perform in pain was nonetheless accompanied by the fear that he wouldn't make a full recovery. His initial response was to try almost everything that was recommended to him, to the point of overloading his body with different treatments.

"You always want to think you can do something to make it better," he says in an interview in Vancouver. For Anderson, the hardest part of his injury was learning to be patient in the recovery process.

Although injuries are generally considered negative, having some time off and the chance to reflect on how to approach performance may benefit the artist in the long run.

"Many performing artists are very willing to pay attention to what is going on with their thoughts and their feelings," Hays explains. Not only is this beneficial to aspects of the recovery process, but "sometimes an artist can really make use of those emotions and thoughts in subsequent aspects of their performance."

This has certainly been the case for Anderson and Gagnon. The latter describes insights he gained from a neck injury in 2000 that caused temporary immobility in one of his arms.

"My body was finally saying-screaming-'Enough! You can't do this. You have to give yourself time to do it differently.' It was very clear to me, because I was paralyzed by having gone too far in one direction." Gagnon says that injury reveals both physical weakness and the limitations inherent in a particular approach to performance. Coming to terms with these limitations is a process that challenges the whole self-mind, body, and spirit-to learn a new way of doing things.

Anderson's rehabilitation experience is a good example of how this kind of learning unfolds. "I had to retrain the way I use my body, in a gentler way, and start from the beginning," he says. Through this physical retraining, he also learned to change his approach to acting on an intellectual and emotional level. "I was the type of person who would work through pain, and push myself to perform as well as I could," he recalls. But for performers, less is often more.

"You want to find a core of relaxation you're moving from, so that it's not through tension," says Anderson. So at the same time that he was learning to initiate movement in a gentler way, he also learned to be more accepting of himself as a performer with unique limitations as well as strengths. In doing this, he rediscovered the joy of performing.

"I feel like I have a second life. And the joy, the pure joy of just being there-this helps me to be a little more relaxed, and not push my body as much," he says.

It's important to note that good financial and emotional support may be prerequisites to realizing the creative potential of injury. While both Anderson and Gagnon have found ways of bringing something positive out of injury, it's no easy feat.

"You need space around it [the injury], because it affects you profoundly," says Gagnon. "You have to shed your skin; you have a small death."