If you tell an actor that his role is full of psychological action, tragic depths, he will immediately begin to contort himself, exaggerate his passion, “tear it to tatters”, dig around in his soul and do violence to his feelings. But if you give him some simple, physical problem to solve and wrap it up in interesting, affecting conditions, he will set about carrying it out without alarming himself or even thinking too deeply whether what he is doing will result in psychology, tragedy or drama. By approaching emotion in this way you avoid all violence and your result is natural, intuitive, and complete.
– Stanislavsky, An Actor Prepares
Ol’ Constantin clearly had his head screwed on right. This exactly reflects my experience of working with actors on pieces involving mental illness, and also of watching terrible (especially, but not exclusively) student fringe shows.
Apparently, all mad people constantly pull at their hair, rock back and forth, wear white put their hands to their foreheads, scream, shout, throw themselves about – such is the theatrical convention. (and indeed the ‘stock image’ convention, as @stfumisogynists’s blog post shows.)
I blame Ophelia for much of this – of which more soon.
In fact, as Stanislavsky makes clear here, even if this were the case (which it isn’t), this kind of melodrama is incredibly predictable for an audience. It also perpetuates a whole collection of other and more damaging stereotypes about mental illness (lack of control, tendency to lash out, physical threat etc.). So cut it out.