‘The Show Must Go On’: New ABC TV doco explores mental health
Coinciding with Mental Health Week, it is the debut doc by filmmaker and former Home and Away actor Ben Steel and produced by award-winning feature film and documentary creator Sue Maslin (The Dressmaker).
Over three years, Steel spoke to 42,000 performers and industry workers about their battles with anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.
They included Sam Neill, Michala Banas, Jocelyn Moorhouse, David McAllister AM, Shane Jacobson, Dean Ray and Sarah Walker.
“The biggest surprise to me was discovering the magical 50,” Steel says.
“When you reach the age of 50, people were telling me, the work just dries up.
“It’s not just performers like musicians and actors, but the crew as well.
“I could understand there’s an age limit for actors, because, the argument goes, people want to see young sexy people.
“That’s proven not to be necessarily true
“But the ‘50’ applies as well to behind-the-scene roles like producers, directors, writers or editors or camera people, they know their craft so well and so fantastic at them.
“They couldn’t understand why their opportunities were not coming to them.”
Entertainment normally takes place at night time or weekends which makes it very difficult for those in it to maintain a healthy relationship with the wider society.
“You finish your gig or performance, you have this adrenalin going through your body and – whether you’re on the stage or backstage – everyone’s on top of their game, you can’t go to sleep straight away.
“You’re going to bed at 2 or 4 in the morning, so you’re out of synch with the hours of traditional people.”
THE CONSTANT BREAK-UP
Two comments from Neill sum up further problems faced by entertainment people.
One is that they’re continually auditioning for roles and projects, so always coping with a high level of anxiety.
The other is that it takes dedicated work to sustain new friendships made on a tour or a play after everyone moves on to the next reel.
Neil says, “You constant feel you’re breaking up with people.”
Past research in the music industry discovered a tendency to blur the distinction between what we do and who we are, and having a crisis of confidence if there’s a career lull.
“That was exactly the case with me,” Steel reveals.
“My identity was very much tied into my career, my drive, and my passion as an actor.
“So when the opportunities dried up, or weren’t the ones I wanted, I felt like a failure and took it personally.”
Throughout The Show Must Go On, Steel does the interviews at the participants’ work or home. The lighting is subdued, the close up are close, and the mood is intimate.
The documentary is about sadness and fear but also as much about solutions and hope.
If there are genuine insights and passion in the work, it’s because Steel himself, as he admits on camera, came close to committing suicide.
“From my point of view, there was no real clear-cut moment as to when I thought of it,” Steel opens up.
“It’s a slow, slow, slow decline. Things happen, and you don’t process them or deal with them.
“Another issue crops up and makes it worse, It’s a constant spiral, you’re going down and down.
“By the time I became aware of it, it seemed it was impossible to get out of it. Other people think the sane thing.
“There are thoughts that you’re better off dead, or that would be the best thing.
“The moment I realised I was in a lot of trouble was when I seriously started planning how I would kill myself.
“When you get to that point, you definite need to talk to someone or get professional help.
“Because it’s very very clear you’re likely to follow through on that action.”
These days Steel no longer values himself solely on his career.
He’s learning to surf, and currently tossing up a couple more projects as a filmmaker. One will be another look at mental health.