Access · Theatre Life

Theatre and Mental Health

Photo by Monica Silvestre on Pexels.com  [image description: The words “theatre and mental health” written in italic gold glittery font on a backdrop of a red closed curtain of a stage taken from the audience perspective with the backs of a few peoples heads in the foreground.]
Yesterday was Time to Talk day an initiative by the mental health charity Time to Change to open up conversations about mental health and how we’re feeling. Whilst personally, I think that every day should be a ‘time to talk’ day or ‘mental health day’ because talking about our mental health or just being honest about our feelings is imperative I know that concepts like this are important steps in getting talking about mental health and mental illness more commonplace, as they should be. And that’s not just something I’m saying because I couldn’t get this post finished yesterday.

Statistics show that as many as 1 in 4 people may be experiencing a problem with their mental health or mental illness in the UK at any one time. However, given the huge amount of stigma and shame that sadly still surrounds mental health these statistics are only a very rough guideline. But given these numbers, it’s fair to say that at any given time there will be people working in Theatre and The Arts having difficulty with their mental health, whether openly or something they feel they need to hide.

Theatre in itself can be a hotbed for breading mental health problems. And I quickly want to move away from unhelpful stereotypes of “suffering for your art” and “being dramatic” or a “tortured soul.” Working in Theatre and The Arts can be inherently hard physically and mentally. Most people, actors particularly, go to drama school being told that they may never work professionally as an actor. And that’s if they are lucky enough to get into drama school in the first place. Having perhaps withstood many rejections, sometimes for years on end. They have to tenaciously keep putting themselves through the application and audition process. Building themselves back up or learning to shrug off critiques that can often be very personal. Knowing that this will only be the beginning. That should they get into drama school (not that this is the only way into performing) they’ll then be facing future castings, looking for representation and having to constantly audition to hopefully ensure they can work often enough to afford to live. It’s a constant cycle of being vulnerable, bearing your soul artistically and being critiqued on how you present or how you look, maybe receiving rejection, dealing with rejection and getting yourself psyched up to do it all over again.

It’s psychologically brutal. But please, if this applies to you, do not think you are weak if at times it all becomes too much. Because that is a very normal reaction. Just like feeling in pain after working your body physically too hard.

Another factor can be that you’re likely to be working in different places, whether because you’re touring or working in different venues from show to show. Very few roles are resident and tend to be more marketing, admin and some technical. Therefore you never know where you may be at any time. Making it difficult to make other plans, have a family life or to balance another job that helps make up your income. This is true for performers, directors, creatives, stage management and technical crew. And all adds to those feelings of uncertainty and unpredictability of a career in Theatre.

Coupled with this is the accommodation (digs) lottery. Where will be your home from home? And will it be remotely homely or not make you feel particularly safe? Having a place where you feel safe and comfortable is key to nurturing wellbeing and good mental health. At the same time, who you are sharing your digs with will change from job to job. If you’re lucky you might know them or become friends as well as colleagues. Whilst being an easy person to live with and able to separate any issues outside of work and vice versa. Again, it can all make for a stressful situation. One that might make you feel trapped or like you have no escape.

Then there’s the work itself. The long hours, the outpouring of emotions, the heavy lifting, the deadlines, the managing of people and different departments, working to tight budgets. Facing audiences that are checking Facebook on their phones or tough critics. This high-pressure bubble, where the show must go on.

Of course, it’s not all bad! That bubble can be the happiest place. Getting to do what you love. Creating something from nothing. Travel. Making new friends. Applause. Praise. Pride. People work in Theatre and The Arts because they love it. It’s a passion.

From an audience members perspective going to the theatre can also be an incredibly daunting prospect too. If you have anxiety or social anxiety going into a busy building and sitting in a dark auditorium in the middle of a row full of strangers can seem terrifying. You may also worry about being triggered by certain scenes or themes in a play. It might be something you enjoy but avoid because you’re worried or embarrassed about having a panic attack or not feeling in control of your emotions. I’ve been there, I know how it feels as have many others.

Personally, I’ve had quite a range of experience with mental health and theatre from being an audience member with anxiety to working backstage and all of a sudden not being able to work at all and not wanting to go to the theatre for getting upset. It’s something that I could possibly talk about in more depth in future. But having all that experience I feel able to make suggestions (listed below) that may help people going through a period of bad mental health or have a mental illness as an audience member. As well as ideas for anyone working in Theatre to help promote good mental health for themselves, their co-workers, visiting companies and their audiences?

Being an audience member

  • Select to see something light, entertaining or comedic.
  • Plan to go with someone you trust and who understands.
  • Book seats that are on the end of a row. Close to a door if necessary so that you feel less trapped or that you won’t disturb anyone if you need to leave.
  • Consider going to a relaxed performance, where the house lights will not be dimmed as much and audience members are free to come and go from the auditorium.
  • Try to focus on the story and if you feel your mind wandering just gently remind yourself.
  • Find a quiet spot to wait before the show and during the interval.
  • Allow yourself enough time so that you’re not in a rush to get to the theatre.

General tips for people working in theatre

  • Take the impetus of days like Time to Talk day to start conversations.
  • Give someone your time.
  • Let others know that they can talk to you- and mean it.
  • Listen.
  • Keep an eye out for one another.
  • Be aware of your own feelings and emotions.
  • Practice self-care.
  • Be mindful of working hours.
  • Regular breaks, where breaks mean break! Even for stage managers.
  • Have mental health first aiders who can assist both theatre staff and audience members.
  • Remember that although someone may have a mental illness they are still capable and valuable team members. Work with them to create a safe space for them to best utilise their talent.
  • Recently I saw the loveliest out of office message reminding people to take care of themselves, which really made me smile.
  • If you know someone working away in another theatre send them a letter or random act of kindness to the theatre as a surprise.

Marketing

  • Disclose any themes that may be triggering in marketing material as soon as possible so that audience members can make safe choices for them.
  • Advertise that relaxed performances may be helpful for people with anxiety and other mental illnesses.
  • As soon as possible, declare any sudden noises or gunshot sounds that may be triggering.

Front of house

  • Make people feel welcome.
  • Know how to recognise when someone might be having a panic attack or are in mental distress.
  • Know who the mental health first aider on duty is and how to contact them.
  • Be reassuring and not make them feel embarrassed or ashamed.
  • Know a quiet spot where people can wait before going into the auditorium, during the auditorium or if they are in distress.
  • Let them know about relaxed performances and explain why it may be of benefit.
  • Ensure someone stays with them until they can return to the auditorium or get home safely.

Welcoming new cast/ companies

  • As much as possible, check that any digs that you recommend you would actually recommend/ happily stay there yourself.
  • Create and have up to date welcome packages with information for anything they may need whilst working and living in the area.
  • Include information about local mental health services and helplines.
  • Help with directions.
  • Find out about drink and snack preferences and allergies ready for rehearsal breaks.
  • Get as many staff involved in a formal/ informal welcome and introduction.
  • Let them know who the mental health first aiders are.
  • Plan social events.
  • Get to know people as the people they are.
  • Allow people to disclose any mental illness or any issues that affect their mental health that arise discreetly.
  • Although leaving your problems at the door is often a policy when it comes to mental health knowing you have someone to talk to is important. Constantly bottling up feelings can have a negative impact.

I hope these suggestions can be of help. Mostly though just be kind, be compassionate, be human.

If you have any further suggestions please do share.

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5 thoughts on “Theatre and Mental Health

  1. I spend time in the theatre as an audience member. I love the overall theatre experience, which begins the moment I see the theatre. Musicals are my theatre world- some scenes are hard to watch- still pay attention to the story being told despite what I am feeling. Musical Theatre is an escape for me- that is why I can handle some of those scenes. As an audience member, I feel like I become a character in the show.

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      1. There has been one show where my experience was very negative. I was a student at Gardner Webb University and was required to see this straight play called #8. It dealt with the Holocaust. I could not really handle what I was watching- the ushers were dressed up as Nazis. They showed pictures from the camps at the beginning of each act- in act II- the pictures were worse. At the end of act I, I actually wanted to leave, but I had no choice but to stay. I was so uncomfortable- uncomfortable as in you want to leave the theatre.

        I do not want to repeat that experience- having a negative experience. I want to leave feeling satisfied that I want- not unsatisfied and so uncomfortable.

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