We Need to Talk More About Mental Health in Theatre

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  • Elizabet Rajchel

A few weeks ago we had #BellLetsTalk, a movement promoting de-stigmatizing mental illness. As a result, my Facebook and Instagram feeds were full of stories from friends and colleagues in the theatre relating their struggles.

I realized that though theatre promotes mental wellness, we are not immune to the stigmas. There were a few heartbreaking stories, and it made me think. We encourage the idea of community in theatre, more than any other profession, yet this community has so often let its members suffer in silence. The blame for this suffering and stigma does not fall on one particular group. It is the responsibility of all those in the room to create a safe space. We harp so much upon safe rehearsal spaces, yet somehow forget to check in once opening starts to loom.

We must also not forget that it isn’t just actors inside the rehearsal process. Though they are those who place themselves into vulnerable positions and should have a safe space, those on the other side of the table are not immune to poor mental health. I have seen stage managers, designers and directors suffer in silence. The conversations about mental health should not be happening in whispers in corners of green rooms or behind closed office doors. Of course that is not to say that specific conversations shouldn’t be private; however, the general discussion of a safe space should be public. The assumption that a warm up gets you out of your head and a few minutes post-rehearsal gets you out is just not OK. We can not, as much as we practice, sometimes separate our civilian brain from our theatre brain. What safeguards are there in place to allow for a time out if things get too tough?

I recently worked on a show where we had a signal if things got too much that showed everyone in the room we needed a minute. There was a silent signal for okay or not okay. It was repeated to everyone in the room that it was OK to take space. However, that is the first show and the first director ever to implement such a technique. In previous shows or classes not placing your mental baggage outside the door has been shamed. I don’t know what the grand solution is, but unless we start actively attempting to de-stigmatize mental illness and health in theatre, things will not get better, only worse.