The Fetishization of Actor Pain

Tom Sturridge and Reed Birney in Broadway’s ‘1984’ (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

There have been countless stories making their rounds in the media about how the recently-opened Broadway adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 is so visceral, graphic, and intense that audience members are picking fights with each other and begging the actors to stop the action of the play, not to mention those who “faint and vomit.”

Take that, “falling asleep at the theatre” crowd. No more naps for you!

The graphic nature of the show, in itself, does not strike me as particularly problematic. Shock in theatre is perfectly fine when done with a purpose, and directors Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan have been able to demonstrate a very clear line of thinking in regards to why they’ve chosen to stage the play in this way.

William Shakespeare’s ‘Titus Andronicus’ directed by Lucy Bailey at Shakespeare’s Globe.

Besides, the theatre has been no stranger to either gore or controversy lately. The audience reaction to 1984 calls to mind the overwhelming amount of fainting caused by the Globe Theatre’s 2014 Titus Andronicus, and the controversy over the Public Theatre’s recent staging of Julius Caesar is only beginning to boil down.

Theatre thrives in controversy, as adverse reactions or challenges to the play remind us that our art means something and is resonating with real people. (This isn’t to say, of course, that all good theatre is controversial or that all controversial theatre is good. An impactful play is not always controversial, and likewise can a play be full of bigotry that stirs controversy but teaches nothing useful.)

However, while reading through the article, something caught my eye:

Though it’s unclear how, Wilde and Sturridge both reportedly broke bones on set — the tailbone for Wilde and the nose for Sturridge. Wilde also dislocated her rib and split her lip during previews, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

I’m sorry, run that by me again?

“I broke his nose, but it was in retaliation because he broke my coccyx,” Wilde said on the Today Show. And this was in previews.

Oh, okay.

Wait, WHAT?

Playbill backs up the story here with an entire article about how much Olivia Wilde has been injured doing a show that, may I remind you, just opened.

This is one of the kinds of controversy that does not serve neither art, nor theatre. And, frankly, it should be more controversial.

Grant, of course, that Wilde herself says this isn’t a big deal. According to her, “we’re doing everything necessary to tell the story right, and it’s an intense story.” Somehow, though, the ‘I have to suffer, to physically injure myself to tell this story’ mentality is not a comforting one.

This is far from the first time we’ve seen this recently. On Broadway, we had the parallel stories of Steven Boyer and Alex Sharp in Hand to God and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, respectively. Sharp admitted to a fractured elbow, a strained wrist, and displaced kneecaps among other things during the run. Boyer, who sustained a few injuries himself, at least reinforced that this was a bad thing:

For weeks I had a bruise on my chest that was in the exact shape of my fist. It was a reminder that every injury I’ve sustained — I have no one to blame but myself.

The “acting is pain” mentality is likewise dominating the world of film right now. No one could forget Leonardo DiCaprio paying the Academy Award blood tax and finally getting his Oscar for The Revenant after dragging himself through the wilderness, and even before that we had the legendary story of how he cut himself on the Django Unchained set and continued acting while bleeding from the hand. Christian Bale starved himself for The Machinist, then Matthew McConaughey did it for Dallas Buyers Club.

This is far from a new phenomenon, but what’s strange is the increasing reverence awarded to actors who put themselves in serious harm’s way for a role. That mentality is bad enough in film (especially considering that the stakes tend to be higher and the stunts more injurious if something goes wrong), but even more troubling in the world of live theatre, an environment where actors need to be able to achieve the same results up to eight times or more a week.

There’s something to be learned from the recent ordeal of Andy Karl, the Groundhog Day lead (“Phil? Phil Connors?”) who tore his ACL days before the show opened on Broadway.


True, finding Karl’s story truly admirable is still a bit dangerous — despite having just sustained an injury that sidelines professional athletes for whole seasons, he finished the show before actively seeking treatment. That’s a bold move, and one that smacks equally of bravery and recklessness.

Still, after being diagnosed with an acute, full ACL tear, Karl worked with his team to readjust the the choreography and blocking of the entire show to accommodate his limited mobility. He sent an understudy on when needed and only performed when necessary to be eligible for the Tony nomination (once again, still not exactly the safest idea, but few among us can grudge him the dedication in that context).

Andy Karl in Broadway’s ‘Groundhog Day’

We need more theatrical injury stories in which the dedication to care and safety after the fact is the narrative, not the injury itself. One torn ACL during a show is a mistake — multiple broken bones is a pattern.

Actors should not be encouraged or required to continue working in potentially dangerous situations. Better to let an injury end a job then let an untreated injury end a career.

As Andy Karl said, “champions adjust!” And champions survive to work another day.

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