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Is mental illness still taboo in theatre?

Today on his blog for The Stage, Mark Shenton talked with refreshing openness about his depression, and how it can have a positive influence on his life when he tackles it right.

It got me thinking: is mental illness still a taboo in the theatre world? Other industries have different prejudices to tackle – the battle to wipe homophobia out of sport springing to mind – but theatre has always prided itself on being a broad church, a gang of misfits, a place for free expression.

But how often do we really talk about depression and other mental illnesses? Stephen Fry has done much to raise the profile of these issues, but it’s remarkable how often reviewers refer to his disappearance during the run of the play Cell Mates in 1995, with the implication of ‘that time he went a bit mental’.

I think there are a couple of stumbling blocks to having a more meaningful discussion about mental illness. The first is the longstanding impression that depression and creativity somehow go hand in hand, that the ‘black dog’ is the artist’s muse, that the tears of the clown are somehow necessary. From my own experiences of depression, it’s nothing of the sort, it’s a deadening, stifling weight that robs you of the confidence needed to create anything. Though it’s true that many creative people have suffered from depression, in my view they achieved what they did in spite not because of their illness. This, I think, is a far more interesting narrative – how people are able to overcome their problems to create things that bring great joy to others. This story is one that, if shared more openly, could be extremely helpful to sufferers both in the industry and in other walks of life.

Secondly, there’s the perceived importance of always showing your best and most beautiful face – you are an entertainer, of course, and the show must go on. This is equally nonsensical. Having a mental illness need not stop you from being good at your job as an actor or a theatre creative, any more than being gay stops you from being good at football. Indeed, in a profession that draws so heavily on the extremes of emotion, we should seek to learn from and represent all shades of human experience, and that includes the people we call upon to create our theatre.

Aside from the clear good that actors and high profile creatives could do in helping to remove the stigma and fear around these issues, there’s also a more selfish benefit that could come of a greater engagement with these issues. When you stop to think about it, how many of the great characters in drama would, if given a session on a psychiatrist’s couch, be diagnosed with some form of mental illness? A good number of Chekhov’s characters display all the symptoms of depression, ditto many of Miller’s to pluck just a couple of authors from the air. Causeless, unnamable malaise is a regular theme of a lot of the new writing I see.

One of my favourite descriptions of theatre is from the pen of Oscar Wilde.

I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.

If he’s right, and I hope he is, then we must try to share that experience in its entirety, not hide from truths because they’re painful or bite our tongues to avoid embarrassment.


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