Not sleeping well for one night is about as annoying as Kanye declaring he’s running for president. Not sleeping well constantly is akin to NBC cancelling Law and Order: SVU #ican’teven. Sleep is one of those glorious things that you don’t realise how precious it is, until you can’t do it. And it doesn’t matter how hard you try, sometimes it escapes you. According to the DSM-IV (the hand book Psychologists use to define mental disorders), chronic poor sleep or insomnia is ‘difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep for 1 month or more.’
For performers, getting good sleep is so important. Forget about the heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and hypertension – not sleeping will make you sluggish, ugly and depressed. That is a scientific fact, my friend. And if you are sluggish, ugly and depressed, no one will pay to see you mince across the stage in a lace leotard to ‘All That Jazz’. Let me explain. If you don’t sleep 7-9 hours every night, the hormones in your body which regulate appetite are disrupted, so you will crave high fat and sugary foods to keep you going. People with insomnia are 5x as likely to be depressed as those who sleep well. Likewise, when we don’t sleep well, our body produces more of the stress hormone Cortisol, which, in large amounts, breaks down skin collagen, leaving you with wrinkles, dark circles and puffy eyes.
Apart from that, you will be irritable, have trouble remembering things (like learning new choreography or lyrics) and be more likely to make mistakes. Once, during our Melbourne season of Wicked, during a patch of nasty insomnia, I was split-tracking two plots in one show, on zero sleep, standing in the wing like a Child of the Corn, oblivious to the fact I’d just missed an entire scene. Next stop, show report.
The problem is, the lifestyle, work habits and work requirements of performers aren’t exactly conducive to sleeping well. Shows at night time wind us up before bed, we tour and sleep in different beds constantly disrupting routine, we exercise right before bed for a living, we drink coffee and energy drinks during the show to get us through, then wine after the show to wind us down. Many of us are hyperactive and have overactive minds to begin with – making us excellent performers but often terrible sleepers.
According to James and Marika
Today I talk to two of the stars of Matilda the Musical: James Millar & Marika Aubrey.
James is an award-winning actor, writer and musical theatre performer, who is currently staring as Miss Trunchbull in Matilda The Musical in Sydney. Having both a degree in Communications (UTS) and Performing (WAAPA), for years he wrote shows with his collaborator Peter Rutherford including: The Hatpin, Lovebites and A Little Touch of Chaos. As a performer he has appeared in: Oklahoma, Floyd Collins, Company, Gutenberg, Jerry Springer the Opera and The UK Tour of Jesus Christ Superstar. Marika has an Acting Degree from Theatre Nepean and her credits span stage, film, TV and cabaret. Apart from winning the Sydney Cabaret Showcase, she has appeared in South Pacific, The Last Five Years, Miracle City, Man of La Mancha and Matilda, playing Mrs. Wormwood. Both stars have battled insomnia for many years and share their wisdom on getting good sleep on tour.
Make a routine and stick to it
James’ top tip: find a sleep routine and stick to it. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Sleeping any 8 hours is not as good as sleeping the same 8 hours each night. This can take immense discipline in our industry with constant cast drinks etc., but breaking this pattern can significantly disrupt your sleep quality.
Shut off all your technology an hour before bed
Marika’s top tip: Get off your smart phone, laptop and TV an hour before bed. Technology stimulates brain activity, causing your neurons to fire- the opposite of what you want at bedtime. Melatonin is the chemical released in your brain to help you fall asleep. The light emitted from electronics, passes via your retina into the Hypothalamus in your brain, which delays the release of melatonin, thereby disrupting your sleep.
We both started rigorous exercise regimes before starting rehearsals on Matilda, and independently noticed our sleep quality improve. Vigorous exercise not only helps you sleep better at night, but also makes you feel more alert during the day. Physically, it triggers the release of endorphins in your brain, which psychologically, relieves anxiety.
Determine the cause
The number one cause of sleep loss is anxiety. Us performers have trouble shutting off the mind and in bed will ruminate on the show, what someone said, what went wrong etc. A good solution is to write down what is making you anxious. When we write, our thought processes become less cyclical and more linear, making solutions more obvious. In ongoing cases, talking to a professional will help.
Take your pillow on tour
When touring, it’s good to trick your body into believing that you are at home in your own bed. Tour beds can be too hard, too soft, too small, etc.… Taking your favourite pillow with you on tour will remind your body how it best sleeps.
Consider a caffeine curfew
After 6 pm, Marika will only have herbal tea. Caffeine is a stimulant, which temporarily increases your mental alertness by blocking sleep-inducing chemicals. Recent studies show that consuming caffeine 6 hours before bedtime can reduce sleep time by an hour a night. Set a curfew, after which you don’t drink caffeinated tea, coffee or energy drinks. Whilst it is tempting to pick yourself up before a show, it will have a detrimental effect on your sleep later that night.
Make your room as dark as possible
Melatonin is produced in the brain’s pineal gland when it is dark, helping us to fall asleep by lowering your blood pressure; glucose levels and body temperature, which helps you to have restful sleep. Any light in your bedroom will stop this natural production and disrupt your sleep.
Don’t not seek regular relief through alcohol
Whilst having a drink or two can help wind you down at the end of the evening, and help you to switch of your mind, alcohol actually decreases the quality of sleep, so you wake feeling tired.
Consider natural sleep supplements
There are plenty of natural sleep aids on the market: Melatonin, Valerian, Restavit etc. Both of us have used these during times of prolonged insomnia. Any sleep aids should be taken according to their instructions. These are also useful when you are touring and need to sleep on planes. Speak to your medical professional about your particular needs.
Relax and stay cool
Sometimes the fear of not sleeping stops you sleeping. Remember that even if you lie awake all night, your body is still resting and repairing. Try not to check your clock, as you will further freak out about how late it is. Make sure you’re not too hot, if you nod off on the cooler side, you will sleep better. Breathing exercises are useful. Breathe in for 4, hold for 7, and out for 8, and sleep will ensue.