The Show Must Go On: Working When Sick


The 2014-15 theatre season is underway, causing me, desperately, to try not to fret over photos of strangers in first table reads as they begin to train their instruments to say those words (repetitively) throughout the rehearsal process and within eight shows a week (plus student matinees). I see actors hunched in their seats around a table, script in front of them, and want to transport myself into the room and just “fix” things – not only because of the physical issues and their impact on vocal power and resonance I addressed in the post about The Impact of Technology on an Actor’s Body, but also because I know what happens to a body when the other shoe drops. You see, the theatre season for most companies coincides directly with cold and flu season. Unfortunately, there is no rest for the wicked, which to an actor translates to the show must go on. So how does one work with a respiratory infection without damaging his or her instrument?

Cold Facts
Everything is more difficult with a head or chest cold. Symptoms including a tight chest, the inability to expand our ribs laterally to breathe, swollen sinus passages, and the ensuing throat irritation make sleeping, breathing, speaking, and physical activity a challenge. When we are ill, our body has the huge job of fighting the illness, requiring an enormous amount of energy to be diverted from our day-to-day activities.

In everyday life, a cold or respiratory ailment is uncomfortable and something to suffer through. But our bodies find ways to “cheat” to find air, struggle through restless sleep, and cue us to stay literally and physically quiet in order to heal itself as quickly as possible. Of course, a working actor isn’t participating in every day life and “calling in sick” for a cold, although I guess an option, really isn’t a choice 99.99% of actors would even consider.

But “Actor” Doesn’t Equal Everyday Life
As an actor you will find a way to perform each night, even with a cold. Actually, your body will find ways to compensate in order to not just be upright, but also compelling as you take the stage when you’re under the weather. Each body may compensate a bit differently, but look back at the details of forward head posture in the previous post and you’ll find some of the same behaviors – specifically, dehydrated fascia in the chest.

  • When you can’t breathe you push harder for air. If you already practice the lower thoracic spine hinge I’ve previously described, you will push harder into the hinge and lift posture to reach for a breath.
  • Bodies respond to throat irritation by involuntarily trying not to use the vocal chords– the reverberation of the vocal chords is something a sore or constricted throat shies away from. If you watch someone speaking when sick, you’ll see them force their head forward a bit further, which actually create more pressure on the front of the throat.
  • Sinus pressure and/or a headache add to our desire to pull our shoulders toward our ears to protect our neck and head, creating greater tension and more fascial casting.

Top all of that with the anxiety and stress associated with going on stage uncertain of how your instrument will perform and your body is working in distress. Your goal is to just get through it however you can – nap between shows, steam more frequently, pound tea or vitamins or whatever your personal home remedies are, and say a silent prayer it doesn’t turn into anything worse – anything that requires steroids or the ever popular vocal rest.

The Pattern
Here’s the problem, not to be dramatic, but it already has turned into something worse because you are an actor who is performing eight shows a week with a cold.

The first issue you have that an accountant or magazine editor don’t is that you can’t work from home for a few days or stay quiet. This means you will likely have the cold longer than said accountant who home officed a few days.

Next, because you have to work through it – and because our bodies automatically compensate/cheat when they find something difficult – working when sick is actually creating a new pattern – a pattern you are at risk of retaining in some fashion once you feel better – you may subconsciously spend the rest of the run “protecting” your voice because in that week or two you were sick, you retrained your body. Unless you actively change that pattern before the next show, you walk into the next (first) table read subtly protecting your voice. This goes on until the next cold or respiratory illness and perhaps the next, and maybe the one after that until – bam – vocal issue – maybe due to a new cold, maybe due to exceptionally difficult dialogue – maybe you got a job in Denver and the altitude and dry air throw you over the edge. No matter the specific cause that time that silences you for a while – if you are working with a dysfunctional pattern, eventually you are at risk of a vocal issue.

The good news is that you have the ability to prevent this season’s cold from becoming an issue bigger than a box of Kleenex and something that kind of sucked for a week or so.

Working While Sick 101
Because I live in an arid climate, at altitude, I’ve learned some tricks to working with restricted air that my actors apply when they get a cold. Our first job is to get through this “thing” as quickly as possible and to give you more power each night so your body doesn’t begin to compensate – in fact, we want to actually tell your body how to compensate in order to power through without a new pattern. Think of it as directing the pattern versus falling prey to one.

Fascial Release
As a general rule, I train my students to release any dehydrated fascia in their chest in order to increase their breath capacity. This is a lifesaver when you have a cold. Use your index or middle finger to gently knead the flesh between each of your upper ribs, starting at the clavicle. You’ll find this tissue taunt and tender if you have dehydrated fascia. As you work through it, it will soften and begin to feel doughy. The space between ribs in the upper chest will widen (you’ll be able to sink more of the finger in and move it around much easier). Your sternum will be especially tender and sore if you are sick. Gently knead it as well, finding your way from sternum to the spaces between the ribs connecting to it. Once you work through all of this fascia, your breath should be much less labored. Repeat frequently.

If you can tolerate it, do the same fascial release through your lower front ribs and below the breast tissue up and under the nipple. This will be really uncomfortable, but after, you’ll feel much less like someone is sitting on your chest.

Now pack your chest in a Thermacare heat wrap. Sleep in heat wraps. Use them when on-stage while you have a cold (if they don’t interfere with wardrobe or make you too hot). The purpose of the heat wrap is to keep all that tissue warm and to keep the lymphatic system draining. Not only will this (again) allow for easier breathing, but it also speeds recovery as all that “gunk” (technical term) drains through your body. I believe this was the purpose of Vick’s Vapor Rub decades ago – it makes sense if it was.

Soak in Epsom salt baths as hot as you can stand as often as possible. If I had my way, every Equity contract would include a bathtub and pounds of Epsom salt per show. If you can’t find a tub, use hot wash clothes soaked in a basin of Epsom salt water.

Certainly remain as quiet as possible throughout the day – this isn’t vocal rest – it is just common sense to not cause greater irritation and to allow your body more rest.

Pre-Game Power Prep
My actors also have a daily physical practice when not in production; they do an extended version of that practice before and after rehearsals and shows. The work includes realigning the skeleton and engaging the core in order to fire the abdominals and turn on the pelvic floor.

Lie on your back on the ground with your spine in neutral, knees bent, feet far enough from your butt to keep from pelvic tilting, and a small towel or pillow under your head, allowing you to slightly traction yourself and placing a small amount of pressure on your occipital bones. (This can also help drain sinuses if you have someone trained in neck traction as part of your team.)

Correct alignment on the floor. Pelvis is level and even. Thoracic spine is level and on floor. Head/neck is aligned.

Correct alignment on the floor. Pelvis is level and even. Thoracic spine is level and on floor. Head/neck is aligned.

Pelvis tilted. Ribs "popped" and extended. Chest lifted. Neck/head strained.

Pelvis tilted. Ribs “popped” and extended. Chest lifted. Neck/head strained.

Pelvis tilted forward. Lumbar spine flattened to floor. Head/neck/shoulders taking the load and stress.

Pelvis tilted forward. Lumbar spine flattened to floor. Head/neck/shoulders taking the load and stress.

Open your mouth and keep it open as you inhale (just allowing air to float in) and exhale with a noisy sigh (the noise coming from your breath, this is not a vocal). Allow your ribcage to soften and feel your intercostal muscles begin to work. Your pelvis stays flat to the ground and as you exhale, your posterior ribs will begin to “touch” the floor and spread nice and wide. Once the ribs drop “down” in the front, use those muscles to hold them there as you inhale, and they will contract more as you exhale. As you continue this, you’ll feel two things. First, your ribs will begin to expand laterally (toward your arms/elbows) as you inhale. This is really critical to correcting a breathing pattern, but also will take that elephant off your chest when you are sick. The other thing that will happen will be a sensation of muscle engagement through your lower trunk – below your hips into your pelvis. Likely you are engaging transverse abdominals and firing your internal obliques – but really, who cares, you feel more powerful and connected, right? Use that. Fire those muscles, work that connection. Oh, and if you have a soft playground ball (a rolled up towel will do too) place it between your inner thighs (the length of your hand above your knees) and squeeze the crap out of that thing. Squeezing inner thighs=engaging pelvic floor.

You may also switch to a noisy breath that sounds like you are saying “shit” without the T on the end. Make that a very long “Ssshhhi” – still trying to feel movement in your pelvis. If this causes you to tighten your throat or grit your teeth, give it up. But if not, one of the side benefits of this breath is relaxing the face.

Now go on with the rest of your regular vocal/physical warm up. Steam, use your neti pot… do your thing.

Just before you go on stage and each time you come off, place yourself against a wall, find your neutral spine, and engage your abdominals with your breath.

Finally, learn to engage your serratus (extremely difficult to describe/cue the first time in writing – perhaps a short video in the future). You can’t hold tension in your head/neck/shoulders when you are using your serratus and holding your upper spine in alignment. Firing this muscle when you need some power or feel like your head might roll off will help manage that upper body.

Post show, on the ground, find your neutral, allow your neck to traction, check the rib fascia and release it. Repeat.

Post Cold. Post Run. Back to Neutral.
Once you’ve recovered from the bug, get to someone who studies alignment and have he/she watch you in motion. If they can, have them see you in your own environment and also onstage. They’ll be able to pick up any patterns you can’t detect and teach you how to correct them. This is a must after your run if you’ve been sick. You don’t want to enter the next rehearsal with any remnants of a pattern that takes you out of alignment and the unfortunate thing about a pattern is that once it becomes one, it is what normal feels like. In other words, it’s very hard to see our own patterns. If you want (and I encourage this), have yourself filmed in your every day life. Watch yourself walk down the street. Do you have a slight limp? Are you jutting your chest or chin forward? Does your torso only move as a unit, like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever?

Here’s the good news. You will get over that cold. You can get through it no worse the wear. And patterns are actually very easy to change when you put your mind to recognizing and addressing them.

Wishing you all a season in a body at ease and when that fails, you have Epsom salt and me in your corner!

  • October 30, 2014