The after effect

21 March 2016

by Kate Wyver

NSDF’s post-lunch discussions are one of the most communal parts of the festival, led daily by the ever fair, ever so slightly scary Chris Thorpe. The subject of the first discussion, "how to look after ourselves and others", feels timely as the production, management and technical teams are working flat out. 

Eyes are beginning to droop and yawns are starting to emerge, and it’s only day two of the festival! The discussion began with the gentleness needed to sooth the stress of working in theatre, moved to looking after artists and audiences and ended at how to deal with the devastating after-effect of a show that leaves you raw and vulnerable.

Last week my friend was sent home from lectures after she began hallucinating from doing an all-nighter for a deadline and working flat out on a show in the same week. Although student drama doesn’t have much money behind it, students are putting an enormous amount of energy into shows while battling deadlines, juggling other extracurricular activities and trying to squeeze in a social life. It can be easy to get into the mindset that you need to impress other people, need to fit into their expectation of you, and that can be crushing – that desire to not let anyone down.

All of this means it is easy to be vulnerable when working on shows. Both physical and mental health can suffer as a result. The tenderness with which the subject was approached in the discussion made it a safe space to share personal stories and advice. I’ve never experienced people talk about looking after ourselves with such warmth and seriousness.

The panel included writer/actor Luke Barnes and junior-doctor-turned-actor-director Prasanna Puwanarajah, director Laura Keefe and punk-poet Brigitte Aphrodite.

Laura is directing Brigitte's current show, My Beautiful Black Dog, which tells Brigitte’s own story of depression. A story will always spark more stories, so a show about mental health is guaranteed to have a raft of personal stories about mental health that people want to share. They spoke about how to make it safe for an artist when you’re helping to tell the artist's own story. “It’s about consent,” said Laura. We as artists have the responsibility to curate material sensitively. As we are sharing lives, we therefore have control over the way we share them.

Both women have started experimenting with implementing safe spaces after their show, as a place for the audience to rest before leaving the theatre. Another suggested option might be holding a Q&A session, letting the audience discuss their issues or questions raised from the show. After the performance they also signpost places the audience could go to find more information, such as the charity Mind or the NHS website. Laura added that this is also safer for you as the artist, not being held responsible as the person giving the advice.

Everyone agreed that no matter what the subject matter of your creative endeavours, supportive professional relationships are key and the people we trust can make such a difference. Laura suggested getting a mentor as someone to talk to when you're worried, and to have someone to make you realise that you’re not the only one feeling the way you are.

Writer Luke Barnes noted the importance of not comparing yourselves to others, suggesting to think about your own expectations of yourself instead. Find your own aims and ambitions and define success for yourself, he said.

The panel and students all agreed on the importance of making sure you’re getting space away from the show or project, and know that it is not all that you are. Looking after our mental health is as important as looking after our bodies. One person added the provocation "if your friend treated you the way you treat yourself, would you be okay with it?" Most importantly, Brigitte said, was to celebrate the small things in life away from theatre. “Enjoy the simple things like a chocolate brownie or dinner with someone you love.”

There was a unanimous feeling that we should be less harsh on ourselves and be generous with our own mistakes. Director of the Gate Christopher Haydon said that you should know that every single person who is making fucks up in their work. “Calamity is a shared experience,” he said. Prasanna suggested reading the book Do No Harm by Henry Marsh, a brain surgeon writing about his haunting ghosts. Prasanna talked about his transition from junior doctor to theatre maker and put things into perspective by saying that in theatre, "we’re offering things of beauty and you know, people won’t die".

When a show finishes it can feel a little like falling into a black hole. Keep moving, suggested Brigitte, make sure you don’t get to a standstill. Prasanna said he avoids being too attached to his shows as with theatre, you’re constantly “in this dance between hello and goodbye”.

Possibly the most important thing to take from this whole conversation is the value of continuing to listen and talk to each other, which is why the discussion is welcome to carry on all week.