Theatre as Therapy

Theatre as Therapy

Donna Poynton

OnStage United Kingdom Columnist

It’s the middle of winter. You can’t think of anything more satisfying than sitting at home in your pyjamas with the fire on and a steaming mug of chocolate in hand. But...you’ve got a rehearsal. You dread leaving the house and braving the storm, de-icing the car and attempting to carry all of your props and costumes without risking injury. Then you arrive at the venue, begin your craft and forget all about the world outside. 

For me, theatre is the best therapy. Whether you’re in the middle of a six month rehearsal period for a full scale production or visiting your local community hall to watch a cub scout talent show. But what is it about this wonderful genre that makes it such a successful form of escape? 

One of the most wonderful aspects of the theatre world is its people. Consistently finding yourself surrounded by friends who share your passion. Individuals with varying talents whom one can learn from, bounce off and generally just have a great time with not only during rehearsals and on stage but also outside, in the wings. Theatre provides a social circle like no other. A social circle who are, more often than not, fun loving, optimistic and most of all, open and honest. Perhaps this is a generalisation but I challenge you to arrange a night out with a bunch of theatre lovers and not have a good time!

Of course, the social aspect generally happens when performers aren’t ‘performing’ per-se. They are, as much as one can be at that moment in time, being themselves. It is losing oneself in a character which makes the theatre evermore appealing. Perhaps you had a terrible day at work; one of your colleagues kept jumping down your throat and you spilt coffee all over some important paperwork. Your character, Gill, on the other hand is a circus artiste who just fell in love with the new headliner act on her latest state tour and is about to be proposed to whilst riding an elephant around the big top. Your lives are poles apart and for now you are Gill and you can’t even remember the name of you work colleague! Pretending to be someone else, if only for a few hours at a time, is one of the most satisfying intentions of the actor.

How wonderful it is to get lost in an accent, a frame of mind, an attitude, a culture or a place that you’ve never lived before, or that perhaps doesn’t even exist in the first place. Whether you’re sitting in the auditorium, your mind wandering with the action taking place on stage or you’re the actor putting yourself inside the brain and body of someone else, it’s a fantastic form of escape from reality. 

Another way in which we escape reality is by transporting ourselves to another location. Not only in our minds, as when we read a book, but also in what we see before our eyes. In the movie theatre we can look up at the screen and see it in front of us but at the theatre we are surrounded by it. It’s in the smells, the sounds, the music, the costumes, the set, the props. If we were close enough we could touch it.

I attended a performance of the musical Once in London a couple of years ago where the audience were invited to walk onto the set before the performance started. The majority of the piece was set in an Irish bar. As onlookers we were able to walk up to the bar, buy a drink, walk around, touch the piano, talk to passers by. At one point the band even entered and we were allowed to stay ‘on set’ and listen to them play. We were in the heart of the action. We were made to feel a part of this story before it began because we’d experienced this place, this bar where two people were about to meet and their story unfold. As if it could have happened to us if we’d only been able to stay a little longer! Totally immersive theatre in that from that moment on I was no longer sitting in a theatre, I was the theatre. 

In this way, theatre brings people together for those few hours. People who have never met, people from all over the world of different races and religions and people who, after those few hours will go back to their own lives having, without even realising it, received the best form of therapy available not on the NHS!

Photo: Sharon Rietkerk as Meg, Arielle Fishman as Amy, Emily Koch as Jo, and Julia Belanoff as Beth, from left, act out a scene from one of Jo's plays in TheatreWorks' holiday musical, "Little Women." / Mark Kitaoka

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